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NOBTS report highlights God’s grace during tragedy

NASHVILLE (BP) — With the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina fresh on his mind, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley offered a testimony of God’s grace and mercy during his report to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.

“We serve an awesome God who delights in expressing His character through amazing works He does on behalf of His churches, His people and the lost of the world,” Kelley said Sept. 21 in Nashville.

God’s sufficient grace, Kelley said, sustained the seminary through the Katrina recovery effort and provides hope for current challenges at NOBTS. God’s grace also provides a framework of hope for denominational challenges such as the funding crisis at the International Mission Board, he noted.

“Ten years ago at this meeting I stood before you homeless,” Kelley said. “The clothes I was wearing were purchased for me by Dr. John Sullivan of the Florida Baptist Convention. This little storm called Katrina had come ashore near New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Early in the storm recovery, prospects for New Orleans Seminary looked bleak. The entire main campus family — faculty, staff and student body — was homeless. The faculty was scattered over nine states and the student body had evacuated to 29 different states, Kelley said. The campus was unusable for nearly a year.

But Southern Baptists took on the challenge of rebuilding the campus and restoring the seminary to its mission of training Gospel ministers. The special $6 million gift from the Cooperative Program surplus that year played a key role in the school’s recovery.

“It was an overwhelming, incredible task,” Kelley said. “I am here tonight to say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you,’ to the Executive Committee and to Southern Baptists and to Southern Baptist churches for an overwhelming response of grace to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and to the people of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Southern Baptist volunteers made a profound impression on the people of the Gulf Coast region, Kelley said.

“I simply want to express on behalf of all of those whom you helped, to whom you extended grace and say 10 years after the storm thank you, for you did indeed stand in the gap as the grace of God expressed to our seminary, to our city and to the people of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” he said. “Thank you so very, very much.”

Kelley shifted to the news that greeted the campus late this summer — a record enrollment and several large donations to establish new scholarships and to assist with the seminary’s annual giving program.

Things were going so well that Kelley telephoned the trustee chairman days before the start of school. The two men spoke for an hour about the different gifts — a $1 million gift to the Providence Fund; a gift to strengthen the seminary’s African American student scholarship program; a gift designated for scholarships at the school’s North Georgia Hub; and a scholarship program offering a limited number of full-tuition scholarships for pastors in Wyoming to study online.

Shortly after Kelley hung up the telephone, he was flooded with bad news. Multiple calls came informing Kelley that an NOBTS faculty member’s name had been listed in connection with the Ashley Madison adultery website.

The faculty member, John Gibson, “made some sad and very unfortunate choices,” Kelley said. “More and more information came in through the weekend and on that Monday morning we sat down with Dr. John Gibson and talked with him about where he was and what he had done — a great, great tragedy.

“My last words to John before he left my office were, ‘John, right now you are feeling absolutely, completely, entirely alone, but you are not,” Kelley said. “You are surrounded by people who love you dearly, who want to walk with you and help you through this. You just have to let us in so we can help you get on the other side of this.'”

When Gibson’s wife returned home from work that day, Aug. 24, she found him unresponsive in the garage. A Sept. 9 Baptist Press story reported Gibson’s family had spoken openly about his death, calling it a suicide.

“What we have been doing for the last two or three weeks on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is not celebrating the wonderful, amazing things that God had done,” Kelley said. “We have been talking about the reality of spiritual warfare, that we are all capable of becoming someone we never intended to be, and that we have been designed by God to need one another.”

Kelley stressed the importance of accountability in the Christian life. Believers must find someone or a group of close friends with whom they can be open and honest about their walk with Christ and any area of failure in their lives, he said.

Kelley quoted from 1 Peter 5:8-11 in which the apostle compared Satan to a roaring lion intent on devouring believers. Peter encouraged his readers to be alert and to resist the adversary. The temporal sufferings brought on by these attacks will bring a response from God, whom the Scripture says will “perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish” the believer.

To close his report, Kelley commended David Platt for making the tough decision to reduce the number of IMB missionaries and staff to balance the budget. The solution to the current funding crisis for overseas missions, Kelley said, is for Southern Baptist churches to get serious about evangelism and discipleship.

Kelley highlighted concerns about SBC decline back in 2008 in a presentation called “The New Methodists.” In the presentation, Kelley connected the decline among Methodists to decreased emphasis on evangelism and discipleship and warned that Southern Baptists seemed moving toward a similar path to decline.

The baptism rate among Southern Baptists is the same as it was in the 1940s despite the growing U.S. population, Kelley said. Southern Baptist churches have fewer people in attendance at worship and Bible study. Per capita giving, the primary source of mission funding, has decreased dramatically among Southern Baptists over the years, Kelley said.

“Our world mission enterprise is based upon the premise that our churches are going to continually reach their communities and disciple the people that they reach. Out of those disciples will come the financial resources to do the work of the Kingdom of God,” Kelley said. “What happens in your church really does matter.”

The good news, Kelley said, is God’s grace is sufficient for the challenge.

“Lest you think that our God is nervous or worried about this, please remember, 10 years ago I stood in front of you homeless in clothes purchased by a friend … and I stand before you now and say, ‘Wow! Our God is a redeemer who allowed me to get in a circumstance that was far worse than anything I could ever conceive and along the way back showed me the sufficiency of His grace and His mercy.'”