Bart Barber has posted two installments of his excellent series, “For the Propagation of the Gospel,” about the work of the Southern Baptist Convention. Part 1. Part 2. He graciously asked if I might like to participate, and I offer this as a third installment in the series.
They say that confession is good for the soul, so here is mine. There was a time when I was flirting with leaving Southern Baptists and finding another denominational home. My years at Dallas Seminary had made me aware that though I was a lifelong Southern Baptist there was a great big evangelical world out there for me to consider. A friend of mine, a youth evangelist, extolled the virtues of the Evangelical Free denomination. The independent Bible churches had some appeal as well. I’d known a few Conservative Baptists. There were options.
It was the mid 1980s and the SBC was pretty messed up. It was the era of the shooting war in the Conservative Resurgence and things were tense. I’m sick to death of the Calvinism squabbles of today, but they pale in comparison to the intensity of the early 80s conflicts. Those were not good times. And I just wasn’t sure that I wanted to serve the rest of my life among Southern Baptists. Actually, my dad, a Southern Baptist pastor and missionary, counseled me to get out while I was young.
But as I pondered this, there was one thought that overwhelmed all the others.
As a Southern Baptist, I am part of perhaps the most extensive world missions program in the history of the church.
In spite of all the negatives, this positive shined brightest to me. Even when I was not thrilled with the leadership of the SBC, I was happy to support the Foreign Mission Board, now the International Mission Board. Through the years, with the ups and the downs, the frustrations and the conflicts, I have never wavered in my belief that being a Southern Baptist is worth it because of our international missions program. There have been few earthly organizations that have been as effective “for the propagation of the gospel” than the missionary arm of the SBC.
According to the IMB website, there are currently 4867 IMB missions personnel, 4206 of those being career missionaries. That is down considerably from the days before the recession and the recent financial issues, but it is still a stunning fact. The old phrase, “we can do more together than we can do separately” is not a cliche. It is a fact.
By pooling our resources as a convention, we are able to support nearly 5000 missionaries around the world.
Can you match that on your own?
My church gives somewhere around $45,000 through the Cooperative Program on an annual basis (12% of a 425k budget, with a tendency to fall slightly short of budget). It is possible that if we did it ourselves, we could support one full time missionary on our own, or give significant support to a dozen or so missionaries. Those megachurches with megabudgets can obviously do much more than we can. But no church can do on its own anything that rivals what the SBC can do cooperatively.
As Southern Baptists, we can have a part in the ministries of missionaries in Europe, Asia, Africa, North, Central, and South America, Australia, and in the Middle East. We are in Catholic areas, Muslim areas, Buddhist areas, Hindu areas, even serving in atheist regimes and secularist countries. Wherever there are lost people or unreached people groups, we are making an effort to penetrate the darkness with the light. When the tsunami struck the Indian Ocean, IMB missionaries were there to help and to minister in the name of Christ. We have effective (if limited) hunger ministries and disaster ministries in nations around the world. When terrorists killed my friend Bill Hyde in Davao City, Philippines in 2003, missionaries were undeterred. Even his own wife went back to serve in the country after his death. When Haiti was devastated, Southern Baptists were there to shine the light. Through our career missionaries’ hospitality, we have the ability to send mission teams around the world, giving a guy like me a chance to participate in worldwide missions personally. In places where missionary work is viewed with hostility, we have people serving silently, anonymously, but effectively.
If we only supported these missionaries, it would be worth investing in the SBC just to be a part of this work around the world. And of course, through our Cooperative Program, we support 5000+ NAMB personnel, and they are doing some good work – a fact even NAMB critics would likely have to admit. We have six seminaries that are educating 13,000 students. We have an ERLC and great leadership with Dr. Frank Page. But discounting all of that, if all we had was the IMB, our CP gifts would be eternally significant. I consider it a privilege to be able to be a small part of a great work.
Let me be a little more specific about what I appreciate about our IMB.
1) The IMB has been strategically responsive in recent years.
There have been some changes in missiological philosophy since my childhood as a missionary’s kid in Taiwan. Mission work today is different than it was in the 70s. Our missionaries have adjusted well, though the process has been, at times, difficult on them.
I have heard Baptists who ought to know better talk about how many Southern Baptist churches there are in other countries. In general, the answer is none. The SBC has sent missionaries to help establish churches and conventions in countries around the world. But they were not Southern Baptist churches. They were Honduran Baptist churches, Chinese Baptist churches, Ukrainian Baptist churches. Those conventions may partner with the SBC in some ways, but they are autonomous conventions.
While SBC missionaries were instrumental in establishing these conventions, they intentionally turned over authority and control to local pastors and Christian leaders. The missionaries did not try to maintain any kind of bishopric over the local work. IMB missionaries do not control conventions in other nations.
Instead, the IMB has been focusing its mission more and more on unreached people groups. As the national conventions and churches matured, they could handle ministry in those more established areas. Our missionaries went to work to try to find and reach those who have not heard the gospel.
The IMB has worked diligently to react to changes in global missions opportunities. When the doors in formerly closed countries opened a crack, we sent people through. The IMB is not hidebound to the missions philosophies and strategies of my father’s times. The world has changed and our missionaries have adapted with those changes.
2) The IMB is theologically grounded.
No Southern Baptist need worry about whether our missionaries believe the Bible or proclaim the biblical gospel. In this day of theological compromise and spiritual decline, it is comforting and encouraging to know that our missionaries are theologically grounded and solid. Of course, most of them are not theologians, and would likely be disinterested in some of the theological squabbles in which we engage. But they are BF&M supporters who proclaim Christ around the world. Rest assured of that.
3) The IMB supports its missionaries.
No one is going to get rich from serving as an IMB missionary, but neither are they going to starve. Because of the genius of the Cooperative Program, our missionaries do not have to go from church to church raising funding. If they pass the rigorous application process and get commissioned as IMB missionaries, they will have housing, food, transportation and some level of financial security.
I wish we could double our missionaries’ salaries, but I am glad that we as Baptists do not have to be ashamed of how we pay our missionaries.
4) IMB missions personnel are impressive!
I’ve spent time in Tanzania, working with a missionary (David Whitson) who had planted churches and made disciples throughout the Bukoba region there. I worked with missionaries like Tom Canady, Steve Ballio, and Martina Menzies in Honduras and was amazed at their effectiveness, faithfulness and insight there. In 2010 and 2012 I went to Taiwan and worked with Dan Robinson at Morrison Academy. We were friends in high school at Morrison. After all the trouble we got into there, it is hard for me to imagine that they made him principle there, but they did. His heart for the Lord, for ministry and for the kingdom was evident in all he did.
We have a missions banquet every year here and feature an IMB missionary. We had a missionary from the Banda Aceh area the year after the tsunami’s devastation. We’ve had missionaries from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America. All over the world. Some were boisterous, others were quiet. One guy had real difficulty speaking publicly, he was so shy. But every one of them was an effective servant of God doing amazing work in challenging conditions.
There’s probably a stinker or two among the 4867 missionaries we support, but the ones I’ve met leave me with the impression that when we are supporting their work, we are doing something good.
5) IMB missionaries serve Christ in dangerous places.
When Bill Hyde was killed in the Philippines by a terrorist’s bomb, I was privileged to participate in his funeral with Dr. Jerry Rankin. We talked by phone in advance of that funeral and he told me something that I’ve never forgotten. When I was an MK in Taiwan, it was way safer than living in the USA. Taiwan is still one of the safer places that our missionaries serve. But I asked Dr. Rankin just how much danger our mission force was in around the world.
He told me that most of our missionaries are in some physical danger ever day, mostly as a result of Islamic extremism. The greater surprise is not that a few have been martyred like Bill was, but that it has happened to so few. We send out 5000 people, plus missions volunteers, to places where Christianity is despised and the gospel is illegal. And still they go.
I knew this about Bill Hyde. He knew the possibilities and the dangers. He was not in the Philippines as a tourist or on vacation. Had he known it would cost him his life, he likely would have gone anyway. He was about the Kingdom of God, not about his own life.
Around the world today there are many people serving in dangerous areas, making Christ and the way of salvation known to people living in darkness. They have not chosen the safe road or the easy road. I live in Sioux City. It’s pretty safe here. Anything can happen anywhere, but it usually doesn’t happen in this sleepy Iowa city. But I am a part of the lives of men and women who serve Christ at great personal risk and sacrifice, all over the world.
This is one reason – perhaps the main one – why I consider it to be a great privilege to be Southern Baptist!
The IMB is not a perfect institution. It is not perfectly administrated. Its missionaries are uniformly imperfect. In fact, in the early days of Baptist blogging, the IMB was the swirling vortex of controversy at the time. Some of those issues still need resolution in my opinion. But the SBC was formed “for the propagation of the gospel” and if one looks at the work of the FMB and subsequently the IMB through the decades, the conclusion has to be that we have been well served. The gospel has certainly gone forward through the work of missionaries laboring for Christ and supported by Southern Baptists.