By Gary D. Myers
NEW ORLEANS –New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley used the first chapel of the new semester to issue an urgent call to personal evangelism and intentional discipleship. Consistent witness and disciplemaking in North America, he said, is essential to Southern Baptist mission efforts in local communities and throughout the world.
Speaking in Leavell Chapel Jan. 19, Kelley read Jesus’ Great Commission recorded in Matt. 28:18-20, calling it one of the most important passages of scripture for Southern Baptists and for New Orleans Seminary.
Missions and evangelistic zeal, flowing from the Great Commission, have been defining characteristics of the Southern Baptist Convention since its inception in 1845. When the SBC established the Baptist Bible Institute (now NOBTS) in 1917, the Great Commission was selected as the guiding verses for the new ministry training school. To this day, “Matt. 28:18-20” is prominently featured on New Orleans Seminary’s official seal, Kelley said.
In the passage, Jesus shares that He alone has been given authority over the church, Kelley said. Jesus then gives the church its assignment – to go make disciples of all nations. The task includes reaching people with the Gospel, baptizing them and teaching them to observe His commandments, Kelley said.
According to Kelley, Jesus embeds a way to measure progress within the verses of the Great Commission. The standard, he said, is making disciples, not simply making the Gospel known.
“We have to make the Gospel known in order to fulfill the Great Commission, but keeping up with how well the Gospel is known is not the way Jesus gives us to measure progress in fulfilling the Great Commission,” Kelley said. “How do we measure our progress? By making disciples.”
Assessing the Great Commission Resurgence
In 2010, the Southern Baptists Convention voted to launch the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) with the goal of renewing the commitment to Great Commission principles. Kelley then presented research pointing to troubling decline in SBC churches.
Kelley could not hide his discouragement with trends the research has uncovered. While the number of churches added each year has increased at a steady pace throughout the convention’s history, the number of baptisms has been in steady decline since 1999. Kelley also noted that SBC churches are seeing the fewest baptisms per church since the 1920s.
“More churches, more pastors and staff members, more money and more resources and steadily fewer baptisms per church,” Kelley said.
Another disturbing trend is SBC baptism to United States population ratio, Kelley said. For much of Southern Baptist history, baptisms outpaced U.S. population growth. Not so today. In fact, Kelley said the U.S. population growth has been outpacing SBC baptisms since the 1960s. The past five years have done little to reverse the downward trend.
Kelley drew four conclusions from the downward trend in baptisms:
- “Lostness in North America is having a bigger impact on Southern Baptists than Southern Baptists are having on lostness.”
- “Southern Baptists are becoming a shrinking presence with a diminishing voice in our nation.”
- “Southern Baptists are closer to losing the South than we are to reaching North America.”
- “Using the Matt. 28:18-20 standard, making disciples who are baptized, obedient and going, the Great Commission Resurgence can only be called a Great Commission Regression.”
Before offering solutions, Kelley acknowledged his own deep desire to see the unreached people groups of the world come to faith in Christ. Making disciples of all nations is the clear teaching of the Great Commission, he said. But neglecting the work of the Great Commission in North American can only diminish Southern Baptist efforts to go to the unreached.
“To have enough dollars to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, SBC churches have to make disciples of the lost in their communities,” Kelley said. “As we penetrate our neighborhoods, we earn the opportunity to get the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”
The Way Forward
Kelley said the way forward begins with individual Southern Baptists, especially those who serve SBC churches. The solution is a deep commitment to personal evangelism and a dedication to intentional discipleship, Kelley said.
The Gospel traveled all the way from the land of the Bible through much of the world by word of mouth, Kelley said. It was shared “life to life” long before the advent of mass communication and, Kelley said, this “life to life” sharing is still the best way to reach people for Christ.
“How do we go forward? We have to engage in Gospel conversations outside the walls of the church as we are living our lives … as we are going about this city,” Kelley said. “If you cannot plant the seeds of the Gospel in the lives of people, there will be no harvest.”
Kelley not only encouraged the faculty, students and staff to engage the lost on a weekly basis, he urged them to raise up Great Commission Christians in the churches they serve. Failure to do so will have a continuing negative effect on SBC mission efforts, he said.
While traveling in England some years back, Kelley and his wife visited the church William Carey served before going to the mission field. Because it was a Saturday the Kelleys doubted they would have a chance to tour the old church. They were surprised to find an older couple scurrying about the building readying it for a celebration.
After touring the church, Kelley asked the couple what they were preparing to celebrate. “Baptism,” they couple replied. One new believer was scheduled for baptism the next day.
Surprised by such preparations before the baptism, Kelley asked when the last baptism at the church had occurred. It had been 30 years.
“William Carey was the father of the modern missionary movement … and his church so changed over time that when I was there, they were having 30 years between baptisms,” Kelley said. “You cannot insure the people who have never heard the name of Jesus to the ends of the earth will ever hear the name of Jesus if we are not reaching the people in our communities.”
Kelley said that the NOBTS courses in personal evangelism, spiritual formation and church revitalization are designed help pass on a passion for intentional evangelism and disciplemaking.
“Here’s the life and death question for Southern Baptists: Can Southern Baptist churches make disciples in their communities?” Kelley said. “Our whole future is dependent on that question.”