By Diana Chandler, Regional Reporter
NEW ORLEANS – Emily McIlwain won’t share many details of her baptism.
Instead, the eight-year-old smiles and shyly seeks cover behind her mother as she relates how Calvary Baptist Senior Pastor Michael Carney placed her in the water two years ago.
What made Emily’s experience so different from other Southern Baptist baptisms is that her parents Tammy and Allen McIlwain were in the pool with Emily. In fact, they baptized her themselves.
[img_assist|nid=6492|title=Calvary Baptist Senior Pastor Michael Carney involves baptized family members in baptisms of new converts|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=100] “I was probably the first mom to be in there,” McIlwain said. “It just gave me comfort to be able to be in the water with her and make her feel comfortable.
“As we baptized her it was awesome. We might have been the first ones in the church to do that, just since Pastor Michael has come on.”
Involving baptized family members in the baptisms of new converts is one of the ways Carney develops a family atmosphere at the growing church.
“We want it to be a church family process,” Carney said of baptisms. “I am there in the pool as pastor. I counsel with the parents in advance and spend time with them.
“We let fathers and mothers baptize their children. Baptism for us … is a celebration.”
Calvary has had many such celebrations of late. All who profess faith in Jesus at Calvary are counseled individually to make sure they understand their commitment to Christ, Carney said. The church explains its doctrines and practices and schedules new converts to be baptized during one of the monthly baptism services.
Under that process, 14 of the 70 who’ve confessed Christ this year at Calvary have been baptized, and six additional baptisms were scheduled as of early June. Eventually, Carney hopes for all 70 to have that experience, as well as new believers Calvary continues to attract.
“We make baptism a very important part of our church service. It is a celebration and we’ll devote a great deal of time to that,” Carney said. “We see a lot of people get saved and we see a lot baptized.”
Sunday attendance was around 225 when Carney answered God’s call to the church in August, 2008, and runs around 350 now. On Easter, the sanctuary overflowed with 500 members and visitors, Carney said.
“We are very fortunate to be a part of a movement of the Lord right now,” Carney said.
His passion for new believers is that they engage with the Lord daily in a personal relationship, or become “everyday followers of Jesus Christ,” as he puts it.
“It is very important to us for people to develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” Carney said. “We put a one-year Bible in the hands of every person who joins the church.”
Carney came to Calvary from First Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he served six years as student pastor under Charles Stanley.
Calvary had been without a pastor for two years and was hungry for leadership and an opportunity to meet the needs of a community recovering from Hurricane Katrina. While the Algiers church is outside the area devastated by levee failures, the church’s education complex was heavily damaged by wind and rain.
The church’s educational outreaches – Sunday School, Bible Study and Calvary Baptist School, a full-time, pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade institution – all had to be tweaked because of damage to the educational building. Children and senior adults still met at the church Sunday mornings for Bible study, but adults went to home Bible study groups.
Carney expanded education and discipleship opportunities, trained leaders, hired a staff of associate pastors and support personnel, restructured the staff of Calvary’s full-time school and initiated a five-year renovation and construction plan.
Last fall Carney initiated small-group Bible studies called life groups. That life group strategy has become a major facilitator of Calvary’s family atmosphere, Carney said.
Today, more than 60 percent of the church’s membership attend life groups on and off campus to reach such groups as married and single adults, military families, youth and young adults, all with childcare provided.
“It has helped close our back door,” Carney said of the life groups. “Calvary has a great group of people here. When our guests come they see that. As our people carry the family environment into the life groups, our guests and new members see that we are genuine followers of Christ.”
Life groups shift schedules during the summer months to give leaders and host families a break. Calvary’s associate pastors and Carney lead church-wide Bible studies at the church during the season.
Recently, a three-phase building project began with renovation of the education complex.
It will continue with an expansion, refurbishing and redesign of the sanctuary. The final phase targets the construction of a life center with a gym, education space, entertainment areas and rooms for recreation and exercise activities.
Carney said he hopes to do all the work for no more than $2.5 million, by utilizing the talents and skills of members of the church.
Already, he engages Calvary members in church ministry by using their available talents. For example, members with artistic skills have designed backdrops for Vacation Bible School that will be loaned to other churches after Calvary’s VBS ends.
Calvary members engage in community outreach by supporting area ministries already operating, such as the Baptist Friendship House, Global Maritime Ministries, Camp Living Waters and New Orleans Baptist Association outreaches.
“We actually are giving our people a passion for local missions,” Carney said, adding that he is studying international opportunities.
Carney is quick to point out his leadership is not about himself, but about the people.
“I’m not even so much committed to myself,” he said. “I’m committed to the ministry here.”
He describes Calvary as a consummate picture of family, multi-ethnic and cross-cultural, with members of all ages.
Carney and his wife Melissa have three children: Ethan, 6, Ella, 2, and nine-month-old Eli.