“Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being.
Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility.
They higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.”
I’m an international missions guy.
In my years of ministry, the international side of things has always occupied my heart and mind. Teaching methods and theological perspectives always run through a cross cultural filter. Traveling and speaking in the U.S. usually requires me to discuss what I’ve accomplished while overseas. My involvement in a specific stateside church remains at a permanently low ebb simply because I’m never there.
Predictably, my attention span sharpens when statistical trends in international support occupy center stage. In my time, funding has jerked and snapped all over the graph, from record highs in Lottie Moon programs to percentile lows in Cooperative Program support. Strategy alterations and program deaths accompany each shift in giving, especially when donations drop in frequency and size.
Concurrent with all of this and despite my own vocational dependence on the generosity of others, I’ve been disturbed by the frequency and volume of pleas for churches to increase giving for international missions, with the clear emphasis on the rest of the world over the United States bothering me just a bit. Don’t misunderstand me, please: I realize as much as anyone the levels of lostness in large chunks of the world and how those areas compare with the United States. I know the American church occupies a position of relative wealth and freedom in comparison to the rest of the world and justifiably it pushes its people out into the world so that others may know Christ. Even so, there was a pea in my mattress and I couldn’t find it.
Then, in the midst of a rather large conference last month in Florida, I met a group of NAMB guys. I’ve heard of them, of course, but like Sasquatch they have forever remained a rumor, or at best a blurry photo of questionable provenance; they smelled better, though. Their stories were fascinating. One guy had two jobs and his wife doubled as his ministry secretary. Another man provided for 7 children while essentially serving as a circuit-riding preacher. A third shared a story of a NAMB colleague whose three jobs were insufficient to cover both his ministry and personal costs; oh, and he had just been diagnosed with a life-changing incurable medical condition.
Their sacrifices humbled and impressed me, and I sat silently as they compared stories and scars.
These fellas were front-line workers, laboring in difficult conditions in places where no Baptist presence had ever registered an impact. They were underfed, underpaid, overworked, and loved every minute of it. They were self-sacrificing and theologically-driven. Their churches were to be the young, driven bodies of Christ in the next decade, and international missionaries need every last one of them to succeed.
If the international arm of the American church, and the SBC more specifically, needs funds, those monies will come from the domestic church. When the missionary force ages and requires new blood, North American churches will be the ones sending. When fresh ideas are needed to revive old strategies, pioneer state church plants will be the ones with new perspectives unbiased by denominational history. To summarize the matter in flat-out terms, the long-term success and health of the IMB largely depends on the here-and-now health of the NAMB. If we want a world-altering missionary structure, we must first recognize that the American church is our foundation.
While we’re in the neighborhood, even the larger body of Christ in the United States depends in part on the health of the NAMB and its partnering churches and conventions. Theologically, socially, culturally, we need growing churches and new churches with cookie-cutter leaders and weirdo non-standard leaders. We are going to rely on a mix of fresh ideas and old ideas. Legacy churches and store-front congregations are part of a larger denominational whole, and we’ve got to have them all.
So consider that as you make your money-donation decisions, moving money to and from the Cooperative Program, or designating funds for only this program or that denominational agency. Consider this as you support seminaries or not support them. Remember these things as you send people away on permanent mission callings, or on short-term jaunts to help the under-served. Ponder well whether you need to support a single entity, or strengthen that pet project by empowering the convention as a whole.