In the interest of full disclosure—I am a retired IMB missionary. My wife and I served 24 years with the IMB in Southeast Asia. I have taught missions at Southern Baptist Seminary and now at Mid-America Baptist Seminary. This post reflects my personal opinions, and they do not represent the position of any institution. What follows has been informed by conversations with active and retired missionaries, staff members of the IMB, trustees of the IMB, and missions professors at Southern Baptist seminaries.
The IMB announced on Monday, February 12th, that David Platt had asked the IMB trustees to seek his replacement, as he intended to return to the pastorate. This announcement had been rumored for several weeks, and it really came as no surprise. When the IMB trustees granted Dr. Platt permission to preach regularly at McClean Bible Church, the handwriting seemed to be on the wall.
When the IMB trustees elected David Platt to serve as President, many expressed surprise. They voiced two concerns—his relative youth and his lack of missionary experience. No one questioned his passion for missions or his ability to preach effectively on missions. Why then was he chosen? When he was elected four years ago the IMB was struggling with a severe financial crisis. The economic recession that began in 2008 had hurt the IMB’s finances. For some years the IMB had run deficits, and it kept operating by spending reserve funds and selling properties overseas. By the time the trustees elected David Platt the reserves were gone, and most of the properties had been sold. So, the trustees chose a president they hoped would energize and mobilize Southern Baptists to give more and go more to missions. The trustees especially hoped the Dr. Platt could engage the younger pastors in mission support. Thus, the election of David Platt had more to do with the Southern Baptist Convention’s financial support of the IMB than it did with the administering the missionary force overseas. The trustees understood that Platt had no experience in missions administration.
How shall we evaluate David Platt’s administration? To his credit, David Platt quickly confronted the financial crisis. Because 80% of the IMB’s budget is spent on missionary support (salary, travel, medical, retirement, etc.) the IMB had to reduce the number of missionaries in order to balance its budget. For this reason, the IMB offered the missionaries and home office staff the Voluntary Retirement Incentive (VRI). The total number of folks who took the offer was 1,132. The field missionaries numbered about 5,000 five years ago, but now the number is about 3,500. (The IMB staff says that the current giving levels are adequate for no more than 4,000.) Sadly, David Platt did not inspire Southern Baptists to give more to missions. The year of the VRI Southern Baptists gave 10 million more to the Lottie Moon offering, but the annual totals since then have reverted to the previous average.
David Platt and his associates worked to tighten up the theology of training materials used by the missionaries. Dr. Platt also persuaded the trustees to revoke the policies on divorce and spiritual gifts. This pleased many Southern Baptists, but it dismayed others. Platt’s staff at the IMB also began to re-emphasize the importance of seminary training for missionary candidates, and they began to encourage and facilitate theological education overseas. This had been de-emphasized during the administration of Jerry Rankin. So, it is fair to say that David Platt did many good things during his tenure at the IMB.
On the other hand, David Platt struggled to overcome several things that hindered him. First, his lack of missionary experience made it hard for him to understand how his decisions would affect missionaries and how those decisions would be perceived by missionaries. This deficiency was compounded when he hired three vice presidents who had no missionary experience. (To be fair, two vice presidents did have missionary experience.) Now, these vice presidents were all professionally competent and dedicated Christians, also. Still, their lack of missionary experience led to problems and misunderstandings. Another hindrance was Dr. Platt’s inability to travel on behalf of the IMB. Of course, he did travel often; but when the trustees approached him about becoming president, he told them that he could not travel because he had young children. He insisted that he must be at home 60% of the weekends in a year in order to spend time with his children. This is understandable, even commendable, but what was good for his family was not good for the IMB. Former presidents of the IMB spoke in SBC churches almost every Sunday, promoting the work of the IMB. That David Platt could not do this worked against him. Of course, when he did speak, he preached brilliantly.
How can we evaluate David Platt’s strategy? When he assumed office, he insisted that the IMB would continue to focus on unreached people groups, and he did that. To his credit, he instructed field leaders to be sure that missionaries remained in legacy countries, like Brazil and Kenya, to mobilize and train national believers for foreign missions. The two key strategies Platt advanced were the Global Cities Initiative and the Limitless programs. More than 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas now, so it is right that the IMB seek to develop effective urban strategies. The IMB staff chose four cities, and they concentrated missionaries and money on those cities. This strategic decision was sound, but some reports indicate that the implementation of the strategy has been uneven.
Platt also promoted a program called Limitless. This strategy advocated enlisting thousands of Southern Baptist professionals to go overseas and serve as tentmaker missionaries. Just as the Apostle Paul worked as a tentmaker at times, these modern tentmakers would work in their professions overseas, paid by corporations and businesses. In their time off from work they would engage in missions. Now, every strategy has advantages and disadvantages. David Platt correctly noted that Southern Baptists could not or would not give the money necessary to field a large missionary force. So, he envisioned sending thousands of tentmakers who would cost the IMB nothing. No one questioned the value of an active tentmaker program. The issue was whether this should be the main strategy of the IMB. For their part, the missions professors at our seminaries raised some questions about the Limitless strategy: How would these tentmakers be trained? How would they be supervised? How could they find jobs in remote places, where most unreached people groups are found? The IMB staff answered that they hoped to train the Limitless folks at the IMB’s International Learning Center near Richmond or by means of web-based training. The staff also insisted that the tentmakers would all be supervised by experienced career missionaries. They conceded that remote UPGs would have to be reached by career missionaries because there are no jobs for American professionals in those places. In the end, the staff said that the Limitless missionaries would primarily serve in large cities overseas, where there are available jobs and where some people speak English. The missions professors have been somewhat reassured by these assurances, but they still have concerns. For example, it is hard enough to serve effectively as a missionary if you have a seminary degree, speak the language, know the culture, and have years of life experience in a place. If tentmakers have none of those advantages, how effective will they be? Beyond that, Baptist professionals who have worked overseas tell us that work and commuting consume sixty hours per week. Time available for mission work may be quite limited. So, the outcome of the Limitless strategy remains to be seen.
So, like all presidents of the IMB, David Platt leaves behind a record of achievements and struggles. How would you rate his performance?