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Speakers say change & courageous witness among key challenges facing Baptists

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–“At a time when 70 percent of Southern Baptist churches are plateaued or declining, Southern Baptists’ greatest challenge is our ability to change and to lead our churches through change,” said NOBTS President Chuck Kelley at Louisiana Baptist Convention’s Evangelism Conference 2000, Jan. 24-25 at NOBTS.

“We must be different than we are right now,” said Kelley, confirming the theme of the various noted speakers addressing the “Changing Lives in Changing Times” conference, attended by nearly 1,500 ministers, evangelists and students.

Conference speakers, including Al Meredith, pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, Joseph Stowell, president of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and Bill Fay, author of the “How to Share Your Faith without Fear” evangelistic resources, highlighted the need for Christians, particularly, Christian leaders, to be more evangelistic and more giving of themselves to their faith. This year’s conference featured live video streaming through NOBTS’ website as well as equipping seminars led by the various speakers.

Using passages from the Old Testament Book of Nehemiah as a biblical role model for change, Kelley challenged conference participants to examine the call on their lives.

Unlike many modern-day Christians, Nehemiah was called out of desperation, not out of concern for his own potential, Kelley pointed out.

It was heartbreak and heartache that drew him to his ministry of rebuilding Jerusalem’s broken walls, not an opportunity for advancement, Kelley said, indicating that the ladder of success in ministry goes down, not up. Ministry is “based on need, not glory; brokenness, not wholeness; challenge, not opportunity,” he said.

“Are our hearts broken?” he asked. “Are we willing to give everything we have so that others may come to know Jesus?

“God is an awesome power,” said Kelley. “He has all the resources. He can create anything with a word. He can carve out a mountain with his hand, and scoop out the ocean with his footprint.”

If God is so powerful, then why was Jerusalem in such shambles? he asked. “It must have been the people of God,” Kelley surmised.

Challenging conference participants to apply the same logic to today’s situation, Kelley enumerated how other nations of the world are turning in huge numbers to the gospel from animism, spiritism and atheism. “Why is that not happening here in the United States?” he asked.

“There’s only one place to look,” he quietly paused before answering, “in the mirror. It’s not that we don’t think evangelism is important,” he said. “We just treat it as irrelevant.”

Fay echoed the concern, noting that Americans have found a new way to deny Christ. “It’s by keeping silent about him.”

Fay asked, “Do we really believe it when Jesus said that unless a person is saved, he’s damned?” And if we do, he asked, “How do we allow our people to stay in the sin of silence?”

What excuse will Christians give at the judgment? he questioned. “I’m in terror for us that we will be humbled to the dirt because of our pitiful witness,” he said. Furthermore, he warned, “[I]f you and your people, individually and collectively do not evangelize, you will fossilize.”

“Most Southern Baptists do not understand New Testament evangelism,” said Don Wilton, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., and former associate professor of evangelistic preaching at NOBTS. Using the term “disciple-making evangelism,” Wilton said evangelism is “incomplete until the evangelized becomes the evangelist.”

Wilton also said that the “clarion call to step out and join Jesus in his suffering for the gospel,” as noted in 2 Timothy 1:6, is missing in Southern Baptist churches.

Recounting his invitation to thousands of Africans in Mozambique to stand up for Christ after a sermon he once preached, Wilton was surprised to see no one stand. After moments of silence, one pastor who himself had been jailed and tortured for the sake of the gospel pointed out to Wilton the hundreds of communist leaders who painstakingly watched everyone with notebooks in their hands. They were waiting, explained the pastor, for listeners to stand so that they could take down their names to pursue them later for imprisonment, torture and possibly even death.

Said the kind pastor to Wilton, “In Africa, we do not stand for Christ. Instead, we step out and join him in his sufferings.”

After being encouraged to ask his listeners to step out for Christ, Wilton was stricken with the realization of exactly what he was to propose. With tears streaming down his face, he shifted from comfortable, risk-free evangelism typically offered in America to the life-threatening invitation for these Africans to join Christ in his sufferings. In spite of the overwhelming risk to their lives, thousands responded, Wilton said.

Even Nehemiah was exposed to risk in his ministry to the Israelites, Kelley told the conference, referring to Nehemiah’s decision to have a sad countenance before the king, something that could have meant loss of his life.

“You simply cannot have a risk-free ministry,” Kelley said. “You must press further and further, and you either win or lose. There comes those moments in the life of your ministry when you get to the point of no retreat, and then you will either live or die.

“The Bible doesn’t promise us that we will all live,” Kelley said. “What God requires of us is our faithfulness. Not everybody has to win for the kingdom to prosper, but everyone has to be faithful,” he said.

Al Meredith, from Wedgwood Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas, where a gunman killed seven people last Sept. 15, shared how this truth had been made evident. Hundreds of people have come to Christ as a result of the publicity stemming from the tragic event.

He shared how youth in his church were encouraged to write on the church’s concrete floors where bloodstained carpet had to be stripped away. Over and over, teens wrote out Acts 4:20, “We cannot stop telling about the wonderful things we have seen and heard,” referring to how God had manifested himself as El Shaddai, “thunderer, all powerful”, said Meredith, thereby turning tragedy into triumph.

As a result of the tragedy, Meredith said he’s often asked where people could go for safety. In reply, he said, “the only safe place is in the center of God’s will.”

In that center of God’s will, Nehemiah willingly risked his life and faced constant threats to change the situation for the Israelites, Kelley had said.

“Are you willing to do whatever it takes [to change your church]?” he challenged. “Are you willing to die on the hill that God picks?”

    About the Author

  • Shannon Baker

    Shannon Baker is director of communications for the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey and editor of the Network’s weekly newsletter, BRN United.

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