*originally posted here.
As I think about what it might look like to be part of a convention of churches which is radically, aggressively, sacrificially giving itself to the cause of Gospel advance I cannot help but be excited! However, thinking through the implications of Christ’s call to come and die as He expects us to “take up our cross and follow” Him, I cannot help but think that we are failing in our effort to advance the Kingdom of God. How else do we explain having the Gospel, in its present form, for almost 2,000 years now and still seeing a third of the globe’s population unable to recognize the name of Jesus Christ? How else do we contend with the fact that a significant number of our churches across the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are rapidly plateaued and declining? How else do I personally come to grips with the fact that in my own city approximately 85% of our population is no where near an Evangelical church on any given Sunday? It really is heartbreaking when you think through the implications. The horror grows even stronger when we recognize that a secular corporation like Google has been in existence for less than 15 years and yet is already one of the 10 most recognizable brands on the planet. It is for these reasons, and many more, I am extremely excited about the upcoming vote on the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report. While I recognize that many find these recommendations challenging, and a not a few find them controversial, I am grateful for the forward thinking men and women who have worked within our polity to lead us toward a bold and exciting future.
In particular, and as the impetus for today’s post, I am excited about the new future being charted for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). I am incredibly grateful for the work of our two mission boards. There was a time, not too many years ago, when Tracy and I were employed by theInternational Mission Board in West Africa, and even today my own parents are church planters with NAMB in southwest Wisconsin. I am regularly encouraged by the leadership and staff at these two institutions and am grateful for the ministry that they fulfill as they seek to push back lostness around the globe. At the same time, however, I find myself increasingly frustrated, and even saddened, at what I believe to be significant strategic problems at NAMB which impede her ability to effectively accomplish the task of assisting “Southern Baptists in their task of fulfilling the Great Commission in the United States, Canada and their territories”.
Over the past week I have been engaging in a bit of research. I have been curious to determine what areas of the US are most unaffected by a Gospel witness. What areas are most in need of missionaries who might be deployed by NAMB? In contrast to that data, how are our missionaries deployed across the country? In essence I was curious to see how strategic we as a convention of churches are being as we allow NAMB to be a catalytic enterprise for helping to advance the Gospel in North America. As I think about how NAMB can be most effective, it seems to me that there are few fundamental struggles that can serve to impede that work.
As I understand our convention’s operation, in respect to NAMB, I recognize that each state convention has a working agreement with NAMB, called a Cooperative Agreement, which is a contractual obligation on the part of NAMB whereby NAMB is required to send a specific portion of funding on to the state convention. What makes these Cooperative Agreements so unusual is that each state has a different agreement with NAMB. There appears to be little rhyme or reason employed as to how these agreements have been determined in the first place. Furthermore, it is a strange cycle that allows the local church to give to the state, the state to forward funds to the Executive Committee of the SBC which in turn disperses those funds to NAMB who then is contractually obligated to send a portion back to each state convention from where it originally came. What is strange about this process, in my mind, is that NAMB does not appear to be free to develop any specific strategy by which it determines how to deploy funding or missionaries. Finally, NAMB is not free to supervise most of the staff which are supported via NAMB funding. Instead the state conventions which initially forward the funds and who receive back a portion of the same funds back in return are now responsible for direct supervision of these NAMB missionaries.
This has led us to a place where our distribution of NAMB missionaries is intriguing, to say the least. Last week, as I looked over a map which is produced by NAMB and which highlights their missionary totals in each state, I was extremely concerned as I thought through our strategy of affecting lostness. To make sure that my concerns were justified I began doing a bit of research concerning Gospel saturation on the whole. Using the Association of Religious Data Archives I compiled a list of all 50 states and then calculated three specific factors to assess lostness. First I considered the ratio of Southern Baptist churches to the total population. Secondly I considered the total number of Southern Baptists against the total population, and finally, and probably most important, I calculated the total number of Evangelicals in respect to the total population. You can access that researchhere.
Working through that research I found some fascinating pieces of information. For instance, while I have always assumed the Northeastern US was one of the more unreached areas in the country, I was shocked to find that of the 9 most unreached states in the US, only Utah was located outside of the Northeast. What’s more, I was surprised with how significant the lostness was there in comparison to the rest of the other highly unreached areas across the country. For instance, in most of the more unreached Western states, excluding Utah, it was normal to have a ratio of somewhere around 1 Evangelical for every 10-15 people. In the Northeast, however, I was shocked to see that the ratio was typically closer to 1 Evangelical for every 35-45 people. That means that the lostness quotient in the Northeastern US stands in stark contrast, some 300% greater, than the Western US which is considered to be heavily unreached!
The intended conclusion of my research, however, was to see how well we were deploying missionaries to reach these most heavily unreached population segments. I was incredibly disappointed to learn that approximately 6% NAMB missionaries are deployed in the 9 most heavily unreached states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont). I was even more shocked when I found out that 19% of NAMB missionaries are deployed in Texas, Georgia and Alabama, states which have an Evangelical ratio of 1 to 5, 1 to 4 and 1 to 3.*
As an entity of the SBC we have not given NAMB the freedom to aggressively attack these areas of greatest lostness. Through the existence of Cooperative Agreements, as well as the “hands off” expectation that NAMB has to operate under in terms of deploying and supervising their missionary force, we have tied their hands and failed to give them the freedom necessary to reach these areas. Accordingly, it makes sense that we would not move outside of these states. The states with the greatest concentration of Southern Baptists are working to reach their own states, and trying hard to do so. They are responsible for their budgets as well as a significant portion of NAMB’s budget. No, it is not necessarily a case of misplaced priorities as much as it may be a case of misplaced strategy. The state conventions responsible for the biggest SBC populations and budgets are responsible to reach their states. If I were leading those state conventions, I would do nothing less myself, and I would make use of every resource at my disposal to do so. While it may be easy to criticize them, and I have unfortunately been guilty of doing so at times, I do not think that we need to assign blame to them. Instead we need to evaluate our structure. We have one entity responsible for advancing the Kingdom across the US, regardless of state lines, and we have tied their hands and failed to give them the freedom to deploy and supervise a missionary force. Beyond that, through our existing financial framework we have not given them the necessary funding to do so. If we are going to reach states with little SBC presence, and more importantly, little Evangelical presence, we are going to have to find a way to place more resources in NAMB’s hands, which unfortunately will mean that some states will have less. My own state will most likely be one of those states. To be honest, however, in each of our states with significant SBC presence we almost assuredly have the necessary foundation of local churches needed to reach that state. In my own state we have almost 2,000 SBC churches and a ratio of 1 Southern Baptist for every 7.5 people. Surely we have a significant enough presence, large enough financial support and the God-honoring, Gospel centered people and churches necessary to reach our own state without taking funding away from states which have little Gospel presence?
The only way that we can rectify this misalignment of strategy and funding is to radically alter how NAMB operates and to give them the freedom that they need to accomplish the task of assisting our churches to advance the Gospel across North America. For that reason I am encouraged by our GCRTF report, plan to vote for it next month in Orlando, and am bringing a number of messengers from our church to the convention. Will you join in this movement to advance across the world, to a people that desperately need to know and believe this great and mighty Gospel?
* NAMB Missionary totals are below:
New Hampshire 12
New Jersey 20
New Mexico 92
New York 117
North Carolina 63
North Dakota 20
Rhode Island 9
South Carolina 113
South Dakota 25
West Virginia 77