Slowly, the low whisper intensifies, gradually enveloping the cool stately chapel. In the middle of the aisle stand seven men huddled in prayer, seemingly unmoved by the reverent stir of those around them.
From the balcony to the choir loft, streams of people quietly make their way down to the carpeted altar in front of the wide pulpit.
Sounds of crying and sobbing echo spontaneously across the crowded sanctuary.
In the rear of the chapel, clusters of women kneel, encircled in prayer. Couples bow their heads, embracing one another while sitting on the hard wooden pews.
At the front of the sanctuary, men and women line the altar crouched on their knees, burying their faces in their hands.
Behind the pulpit, seminary faculty lean on their knees face down in the same choir loft chairs where they proudly sat a week earlier in their colorful robes and hats signifying their achievements of academic excellence.
"Back to the cross — back to the cross — Jesus, You're calling me — back to the cross," begins resonating louder and louder in melodic rhythm as people rise from their seats and lift their hands heavenward.
These are the sights and sounds of people getting right with God.
"Oh, Lord God, I pray this morning that You would bring us to live the crucified life," intoned SBC President Tom Elliff August 29 on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"Lord, we have tried it our way. Lord our nation is a shambles. Homes — shambles, hearts — shambles."
Elliff, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, Okla., was on the Wake Forest, N.C., campus to lead the first of seven convocations held in late August and early September on the SBC's six seminary campuses as well as Mid America Seminary.
"In the very brief history of our nation, there have been moments when we have been on the very edge of a moral and social and political and spiritual abyss," Elliff said. "Were it not for the fact that God stepped in, it would have been curtains for our nation. We would have gone the way of dozens, in fact, hundreds of other nations in the history of this world. But God in His mercy, God in His grace and in His sovereign providence has chosen on a very few occasions to set foot up on the stage of America and to display before us an awesome sense of His presence and power. …We're at such a place again in our nation, and if God doesn't step in it will be curtains for us. I am praying for another great awakening in this nation."
The four-hour service began about 9:30 a.m. with a half-hour of praise and worship in song. Hands lifted high in the air, participants sang in one accord hymns like His Name is Wonderful, All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and Alleluia.
Sitting on the Binkley Chapel platform alongside Elliff were SBC notables Henry Blackaby, author of the highly-distributed Experiencing God discipleship study; Avery Willis, author of the popular discipleship program, Master Life; and Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Seminary.
But SBC personalities were quickly put aside to seek God's face.
"I would normally give you quite an introduction, Dr. Elliff, but due to the importance and the critical nature of the day, I'm not going to do that today," Patterson said somberly. "Everybody knows you anyway."
More than 1,200 people attended the Day of Prayer convocation at Southeastern, including mostly students and pastors across North Carolina and other neighboring states. Addresses by Elliff, Blackaby and Willis were followed by 10-minute interludes of prayer. Many prayed individually. Some joined hands and prayed together.
"I pray that you would see this not as an end, but as a beginning," Elliff charged. "A small rivulet, beginning today which would join with another, and another, and then another stream and then form a river by which God's grace begins to move across this nation, calling us back to Him."
Elliff said he chose the theme, "Back To The Cross," to challenge Christians who are "treading water spiritually" or "marching in place." "To go forward, I've got to come to the cross," said Elliff. "It's imperative for spiritual progress."
"It is the cross," Elliff continued, "where you die to your agenda, to your ambitions, to your affections, to your plans for your life, where you give all of that up."
"I know that's not a feel-good theme, because it's surgery," explained Elliff. "It's rough to really look in your life and say 'where did all this stuff come from and why is it still here?'"
Elliff, in painstaking detail, graphically and descriptively recounted Jesus' dehumanizing scourging and bloody death on the cross as payment for mankind's sin.
Blackaby said Christians must not lose sight of the cross. "I found myself looking at the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world and I found myself saying 'if I ever understood this moment I would have an incredible hatred for sin, for He was there in that hour because of my sin.' The greatest deterrent to sin in a Christian's life is to look and to look again at the Lamb of God Who takes away sin."
Mike Whitson, president of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention Pastors' Conference, said he appreciated the directive by the SBC leadership in calling Southern Baptist individually to return to the cross in repentance.
"It wasn't 'God forgive us,'" said Whitson, pastor of First Baptist Indian Trail, N.C. "It was 'God forgive me.' God help me. It's not my brother. It's not my sister, but it's me, oh Lord. And that personal brokenness was obvious there."
"It brought us back to the very grassroots and that is personal repentance and a personal walk with God," Whitson continued. "If all of us will get personally tight with God, then corporately we're going to get right with God."
Greg Lawson, associate professor of Christian education at Southeastern, said the convocation promises to carry the seminary's on-going prayer ministry to another level of fervency and commitment.
"I was thankful for what God did in my life with the call to holiness and I believe it's a call that's overlooked by the church so many times – but one that is essential for God to move in a powerful way," said Lawson. "God commanded us to be holy. So I was touched by the messages. I believe it will serve as a foundation for what is going to happen."
Alvin Reid, associate professor of evangelism and church growth at Southeastern, said the prayer convocations are laying the foundation for a mighty work of God.
"Usually revival comes not out of a vacuum, but out of a process," said Reid, who holds the seminary's Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism. Reid said that throughout history a season of prayer always preceded revival or a spiritual awakening. "I just think it's one more step in the larger process that God's doing in our country," said Reid.
Elliff said the reverent and somewhat somber mood of Southeastern's prayer convocation should not be misinterpreted as lacking the movement of God.
"I think we have a very twisted sense of what an awakening is and we think an awakening is a long service with microphone confession," suggested Elliff. "A part of what happens is confession but a big part of what happens is my life is changed. … It's not just putting my laundry out there before I've had a chance to see it cleansed. The great evidences have been deep, deep personal work in lives where people who wrestled with what God was saying to them and came to the altar and said, 'Look, this is where God is leading me.'"
Elliff said the prayer convocations at each of the seven seminaries should be viewed collectively not just as isolated events.
"My prayer is that from one campus to the next there would be a gathering momentum and ground swell of prayer going up before the Father, beseeching Him on behalf of our nation and that out of that would come redirected lives and out of that would come individuals whose ministries are totally refocused."
Elliff said he thought it "providential" that the first convocation calling for spiritual awakening occur at Southeastern. "Don't you thank God for what He's done in this place?" Elliff asked as the audience erupted in applause.
"I add my applause with yours, because there are so many of us who have rejoiced at the light that emanates from this place."
Elliff said he was encouraged that nearly the entire student body participated through the entire service including many that remained at the altar praying after the service had concluded.
"It is indicative to me of the real heart-hunger on the part of the students for an awakening in our nation," he said.
Bill Tomlinson, pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, N.C., said the convocation held in the seminary's Binkley Chapel was in stark contrast to the days he attended chapel there as seminary student in the late 1960s.
"It was a new depth of spirituality," said Tomlinson, Southeastern's 1976 National Alumni president. "It was just a moving of the Spirit that was present. It wasn't all academic coldness. It was something that touched you personally."