SBC Life Articles

An Interview with Charles S. Kelley, Jr.

SBC LIFE Please tell us about your pilgrimage into Southern Baptist higher education and particularly to New Orleans.

Kelley Well, I have to say it is best described as a call from the Lord. I completed both master’s and doctoral degrees at New Orleans Baptist Seminary and the thought never crossed my mind that I would ever be involved in theological education after I finished. I had been in school for twenty-five consecutive years and was ready to be done and be about my full-time ministry.

But then God really began to work on my heart through two means. One was the work I did on my dissertation. It was on the changing role of the revival meeting in the Southern Baptist program of evangelism from 1946 through 1980. While researching that topic, I began to come to grips with the reality of the trouble Southern Baptists were having in reaching people for Christ. I had not really been aware until that time that in evangelism Southern Baptists were on a thirty-year plateau. I had not really been aware that 70 percent of our churches were plateaued or declining.

I became very burdened about it and wondered how Southern Baptists could recapture the fire. About that time, the dean of the school stopped me on the sidewalk one day and said, “Chuck Kelley, we want you to stay and teach evangelism after you finish your dissertation.”

I had never thought about that and didn’t have any real interest in doing it. I had planned on full-time evangelism, but as I began to pray about it, God began to really burden my heart. I could see the need I had discovered in my research was something that He intended for me to address through the theological classroom.

The second way God worked on me was through the classroom. On the first day of my evangelism class I gave the students a questionnaire that asked, “Do you witness sometimes, often, seldom, or never?” About 60 percent or 70 percent of the class said seldom or never. It also asked them to: “Please give me a plan of salvation with major points and Scripture reference for each point.” About 30 to 35 percent of the students were unable to give a coherent plan of salvation.

I was at my desk in my office going through those papers and I shall always remember the sense of responsibility that came over me. It was then that I understood why God wanted me in theological education. I got down on my knees by my desk and said, “Lord, if you will show me the way, I will do whatever is in my power to raise up a generation of God-called men and women who will know how to tell other people about Jesus and who will have a passion in their heart to do so.”

Since then, God has given me the wonderful privilege of being a professor of evangelism, of serving several years later as the director of our Landrum P. Leavell II Center for Evangelism and Church Growth, and the opportunity to be president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Throughout, I have remembered my overriding responsibility to raise up that generation.

As a result, the mission the Lord laid on my heart for our Seminary is to equip leaders to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandments through the local church and its ministries.

SBC LIFE What unique contribution do you see New Orleans Baptist Seminary making to the Southern Baptist Convention in the next five years?

Kelley We are committed to preparing God-called men and women to reawaken churches in the 21st century. And we have the perfect 21st century context in which to train them for that. We are planted in one of the great cities of the world. New Orleans is one of the busiest ports on the face of the earth. As a result, every nation of the world comes through here to walk through the French Quarter.

Ministry in this urban environment reflects the trend of the 21st century. Around the world, the population is shifting to the cities. Therefore, to fulfill the Great Commission, we’re going to have to do it in the great cities of the world.

Our campus setting allows students to experience the challenge of ministry in the city, while living and studying in the security of this campus. When students come to this city, and when they learn they can live and make friends in this kind of environment, and when they see the gospel changing people’s lives, they gain the confidence to follow God’s call anywhere.

So, our Seminary offers a perfect opportunity for students to get ready for ministry in the 21st century.

We also have five core values that we want to characterize everything we do. The first is doctrinal integrity. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, so we want to teach it, proclaim it, and submit our lives to it and live according to its teachings.

The second core value is spiritual vitality. It’s just as wrong to be spiritually dead as it is to be doctrinally wrong, and so we encourage the spiritual life of our entire seminary family.

Core value three is a mission focus. I remind our folks all the time that we are not here simply to get an education or to give an education. We are here to change the world. We view seminary like a hardware store. You don’t go to a hardware store to live, you go there to get the tools you need to go back and work on the home you have.

Seminary is a place to come and get the tools to learn how to grow a church, how to reach people for Christ, and how to disciple the people you reach.

The fourth core value is characteristic excellence. Everything we do, we do to the utmost of our ability. Whether it is studying for an exam, preparing a sermon, telling someone about Christ, or mowing a yard, we want to do everything for the glory of God — not to make us look good, but to make Jesus look good.

Our fifth core value is servant leadership. We believe the model of leadership that Jesus gave us in the New Testament was that of the servant leader, that we are called to lead our churches by nurturing the people around us.

SBC LIFE What trends do you see in theological education in the next ten years, especially among Southern Baptists?

Kelley Application is a big trend, not simply pouring knowledge into students’ heads, but helping them apply that knowledge to ministry in the church. We have always had a very practical orientation and we are seeing this more and more in theological education. Theological education is realizing the first priority is not raising scholars; it’s equipping preachers. You don’t just have students in the classroom; you get them involved in doing ministry. Students get a lot more out of classes when the bullets are flying at them from the real work of ministry. It’s one thing to tell a student, “This is what might happen to you one day in a deacons meeting.” It’s another thing when a student comes to class and says, “Hey Prof, I nearly got killed last Monday night at deacon’s meeting when this came up. What should I do?”

There’s also a great emphasis growing on distance education. About half of our student body now is in one of the extension centers all over the Southeast. We make a real priority of trying to make theological education as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

Of course, the very obvious trend is the resurgence of conservative biblical theology in seminary education. Southern Baptists are showing that you can have conservative biblical theology and grow a seminary, too. You can emphasize Hebrew and Greek, evangelism and missions, and students are coming for it. Southern Baptist seminaries are the wonder of the theological education world. Many seminaries are struggling for survival right now, but we are still seeing a wonderful response at our seminaries. We think God is honoring an emphasis on the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.

SBC LIFE Suppose someone said to you, “Our ministers don’t need theological training, they just need to get out into the fields and start evangelizing.” How would you respond to them?

Kelley Wrong assumption. The assumption of that question is that you have to choose one or the other. Either you get theological training first, and then you go out into the field, or you go out into the field and you don’t get theological education. Our heritage has always been that the very best way to do theological education is to do it in the context of involvement in ministry. That’s why we put such a big emphasis on practical ministry. We do several mission trips every year all over the nation and the world with our students. Our goal is to get every student on a mission experience before he or she graduates.

But also, a pastor needs to learn Greek and Hebrew so he can learn how to interpret the Bible correctly. When you learn Greek and Hebrew you can pick up any commentary and separate the wheat from the chaff. You do much better expository preaching and teaching when you have the tools of Greek and Hebrew and when you learn basic principles of hermeneutics.

A pastor also needs theological grounding. Suppose someone asks, “What’s the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? Why do Southern Baptists do the Lord’s Supper the way they do and not the way Presbyterians or Roman Catholics do it?” How do pastors explain it? Do they just say, “Well, we grew up that way,” or do they open up the Bible and show people what it says?

It’s also necessary to develop the skills. There are some who have the natural skills and abilities to stand up and preach a sermon, and to do very well in front of people. But most need some help in the basic skill of pastoral ministry. You can be a sharper tool in the hand of God with solid theological training.

It’s a false choice to suggest one must choose either theological education or ministry. We do everything we can to deliver theological education in a manner that makes involvement in ministry possible alongside the theological studies.

SBC LIFE As we approach the dawn of the new century, the new millennium, what excites you most about New Orleans Seminary?

Kelley The future. We’ve just gone through the process of deciding whether or not we ought to relocate our campus away from the city of New Orleans and into a quieter, calmer location. But after a very intensive study, we determined there was no better place in the world to have a seminary than right here in New Orleans, because we have that urban environment. We have this beautiful oasis of a campus. We have a city filled with people who don’t know Christ and need to be saved. We offer the opportunity to learn how to do that, not by sitting and listening to a professor describe how to do it, but by actually getting out there and going toe-to-toe with a lost person. We believe we are on the edge of the greatest days we’ve ever had in the history of our school. And we believe that this is a wonderful laboratory in which to discover the extent of what God has in mind for your life.

SBC LIFE And finally, how can we as Southern Baptists most effectively pray for you and for the seminary?

Kelley You can pray for the fire of revival to fall continually on our campus. When revival comes to a seminary campus, it affects churches by the hundreds. When I stand up in front of a class, I look out at forty or fifty students. If each student served just three churches over the years of his or her life, that’s 150 churches represented in that classroom.

Secondly, pray for us as we seek to rebuild the infrastructure of our campus. We have a huge project here in rebuilding and retooling for the 21st century. It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of wisdom. Southern Baptists can pray that God will provide the funds we need to have this campus ready for the 21st century, and that God will provide what we need to take good care of these students while they are here.

The third thing I would ask Southern Baptists to pray for is city the of New Orleans. Our seminary truly is in a missionary location. We want our students to make an impact on the lives of the people of New Orleans while they are here. Pray for the Holy Spirit to anoint and bless and use our faculty, students, administration, and staff as we reach the city of New Orleans. Pray that we can lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, see men and women come to know Him as their Savior and Lord, and see churches grow and prosper.

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