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‘The Mission of Today’s Church’ explored in NOBTS conference

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Tapping Southern Baptists’ passion for the local church, pastors, professors and convention leaders gathered at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to discuss issues ranging from cooperation and congregational polity to bivocational ministry and the Lord’s Supper.

Twenty-two Baptist leaders addressed “The Mission of Today’s Church” cosponsored by the seminary’s Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry and Broadman & Holman Publishers of LifeWay Christian Resources.

“The conference reflects that no matter where you are in Baptist life everyone is passionate about the mission of the church,” BCTM director Stan Norman said. “Baptists have a large, holistic understanding of the church — missions, evangelism, cultural engagement.”

Norman, associate professor of theology at NOBTS, founded the center as a vehicle to bring the theology taught in Baptist seminaries and colleges to the local church, with a special focus on recovering and communicating Baptist distinctives that are on the decline in various churches today.

The wide range of presenters included Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention; David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.; Ed Stetzer, manager of strategic networks at the North American Mission Board; and Jerry Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.

Three Southern Baptist seminary presidents, Chuck Kelley from NOBTS, Phil Roberts from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Danny Akin from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, also presented papers during the Feb. 10-12 meeting.

Kelley, the first presenter at the conference, set the tone for the conference by identifying some of the key distinctives in the way Baptists seek to accomplish their mission. He cited four past Southern Baptist controversies to illustrate why he made a commitment to Baptist principles years ago.

The first controversy Kelly cited centered around the creation of the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) in 1891. Kelley said some Baptists feared that a church’s loyalty might come to be measured by whether it used convention literature. Others believed that creating a publishing house would result in the perception that the convention’s needs outweighed the needs of the local church.

Kelley said Southern Baptists voted to create the Sunday School Board with the understanding that each church would be free to choose its own literature.

“I am a Southern Baptist because Southern Baptists have always focused on accomplishing a mission as opposed to building a denomination or perpetuating a set methodology,” Kelley said. “Cooperation is at the heart of our identity, because working together helps us evangelize the world more effectively.”

Plans to create an evangelism department at the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) in 1905 led to another Baptist battle. Kelley said opponents of the plan feared the role of evangelism would be taken from the local church.

Ultimately the convention voted to establish the evangelism department with the reminder that it was to assist, and not replace, the ministry of local churches. Kelley noted that the controversy further illustrated how passionate Southern Baptists are about the centrality of the local church.

Kelley said the third controversy began in 1928 with a criminal act. C.S. Carnes, the Home Mission Board’s treasurer, embezzled nearly $100,000 of the board’s money and fled the country. One man’s sin greatly hindered Southern Baptist mission efforts for years, Kelley said, noting that Southern Baptist have never again given one person complete control over an entity’s finances.

“I am a Southern Baptist because Southern Baptists take the sinfulness of human nature seriously,” Kelley said. “The biggest decisions Southern Baptists make, at every level, are always made by a group and never by an individual.”

The last controversy Kelley mentioned was the SBC’s conservative resurgence. In 1979, a yearly majority of messengers to the convention determined to begin changing the direction of the SBC and its entities.

The change was not immediate, with Kelley noting that the messengers made the course correction the “Baptist way.” Messengers elected theologically conservative SBC presidents, he recounted, and the conservative presidents appointed people who wanted to see change to the nominating committee. Eventually, conservative trustees were appointed to each of the SBC entity boards where changes could be implemented.

“The entities had to change, because Southern Baptist polity requires the entities to follow the direction of the churches,” Kelley said. “I am a Southern Baptist because our polity enables the grassroots to bring the fresh air of renewal and reformation to our entities and convention. We believe the churches, not denominational leaders or entities, control the direction, mission and values of the convention.”

Kelley said the past controversies reminded him of the legend of Scylla and Charybdis from Greek mythology. The monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis guarded both sides of a narrow channel. In avoiding one peril, ships would inevitably drift too far to the other side and be engulfed by the other beast. The key to safe passage was to keep focused on sailing between them and accomplishing the mission at hand.

“Southern Baptists have been at their best when we have kept our attention focused on the mission to be accomplished and not the dangers on both sides of the boat. Move forward and not sideways, for the further you push away from one danger, the more likely you are pushing yourself into another danger,” Kelley said. “Feeling tensions is not a sign of death. It is a sign of life.

“For all our problems, I believe Southern Baptists have done that exceptionally well,” he said. “I am a Christian first and foremost, but I am also proud to be a Southern Baptist.”

The Mission of Today’s Church was the second conference hosted by the seminary’s Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry. In February 2004 the center hosted a conference on Baptist polity issues, also cosponsored by Broadman & Holman.

BCTM publishes a cyber-journal, the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, and Norman hopes the center will be able to produce additional resources and materials to assist and equip Baptist churches in their ministries.

Planning is underway for next year’s BCTM conference. The date and topic will be announced on the Baptist Center’s website (www.baptistcenter.com) later this year.

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