This is the fourth in a series of posts by this retired missionary.
I write anonymously as an emeritus missionary to draw attention to several important issues for Southern Baptists to consider about our mission future. I only speak for myself, but I believe that many missionaries agree with much of what I am saying. The IMB must continue to affirm and strengthen its core business of sending long-term, God-called missionaries in focused teams to plant reproducing indigenous churches among all the nations. This requires ongoing evaluation of trendy new directions that can actually undermine this core business.
A popular mantra since 2000 has been that everybody is a missionary. The truth is that everyone is supposed to be a personal witness and a mission partner, but that being sent by God to the nations is not for every Christian. As Paul said, “Not all are ‘sent ones’, are they?” and “He gave some to be ‘sent ones’. . .” Pastors who say that everyone is a missionary should apply the same principle to their own ministry and sign up every member to be the pastor for 2 weeks. Of course, that is ridiculous, because we know that pastoring involves a calling, gifting, and years of preparation. We assume ‘everybody should do it’ only applies to intercultural church planting because that is so much easier than pastoring in your home culture.
As I stated earlier, new full-time missionaries will take at least 5 years to begin reaching their potential for fruitful service. As Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers, it takes about 10,000 hours of concentrated focused practice to maximize personal potential in fields of endeavor such as music and sports. 10,000 hours translates into about 7-10 years of the right kind of focused practice on the mission field. Not surprisingly, this matches a common pattern that many productive missionaries begin to see a jump in fruit from their labors around year 7. Short term mission involvement can be a great benefit, but have we dumbed down missions to the extent that less than our best long-term focused effort should become the norm?
IMB core documents now state that the organization sends “limitless teams” to the nations. The idea that “bigger is better” is an American cultural assumption that sounds so right. Remember the time that Paul wrote the Jerusalem church and asked them to send 100 believes to Corinth? No, you do not. Paul never sent a general call for all believers to go outside their normal sphere of influence on mission. Rather, he appears to have hand-picked the members of his mission team who increasingly came from the new churches he planted.
The IMB experimented with building large teams around 20 years ago and the results were disappointing. Strategy coordinators were encouraged for several years to go out and mobilize as many Great Commission resources as they could and several were very successful at such mobilization. Within a few years, however, it became evident that the largest teams were not producing the greatest results. Small focused teams of 6-10, or even smaller, were most likely to start multiplying churches among their target people group. Research shows that every person over a dozen that you add to a missionary team diminishes the likelihood of reproducing indigenous churches. If you consider the profile of the most effective missionaries I referred to in my first post, it appears that a large expatriate team often pulls the long-term missionary away from doing evangelism, discipleship, and church planting with local people. So, although the IMB has recently been advocating for larger teams from many smaller agencies (churches), larger agencies (such as IMB) supporting focused teams is more effective. Limitless teams are at the center of God’s plan for the nations – that is, a small focused missionary team working to raise up a limitless movement of local people sharing their faith, discipling new believers, and leading new churches. It is no coincidence that this is the pattern we see in the New Testament in addition to being the most effective mission approach around the world today.
A major emphasis right now is called Pathways, which are non-traditional ways to get to the mission field. Mobilizing Southern Baptists to serve in missions in multiple ways is a good thing, and not exactly new. The IMB has encouraged and helped send perhaps over a million volunteers, tens of thousands of students, hundreds of retirees, and numerous self-supporting missionaries over several decades. Right now, however, this emphasis seems to be top priority and one wonders if this is because we assume Southern Baptists will not support fully funded long-term missionaries. IMB leaders recently slowed down the appointment of apprentice missionaries in order to increase Pathway options and this year there are apprentice slots that will likely not get filled?! How tragic! I know young mission candidates who went away from interviews with IMB staff confused and disappointed because it sounded as if it were preferable to raise money from their home church or to find a job overseas.
At the same time, IMB leadership has been trying for four years to define what mission is about and even field personnel cannot tell if the organization has “landed” or “taken off.” Mind you, most missionaries are doing their focused ministry, but the corporate message has been slow and confusing at times. The IMB needs a clear, consistent, and missiologically sound message that includes a clear call for Southern Baptists to go to the nations through our cooperative mission team and for churches to join more deeply in partnership with them.
For several years now the IMB has highlighted 5 key overseas cities to raise up a large urban team of Southern Baptists to reach the city. Although English is fairly common in each of these cities, it is not the heart language of most of the inhabitants. If the non-traditional missionaries do not learn the local language, their ministry will be limited to the globalized portion of the city, which is often over-estimated by outsiders. I am not suggesting that we should not mobilize to reach these cities, but that we should do so carefully. These teams should be formed based on field needs and not just interest back home. The missionaries working in these cities need space to identify the key roles they want. Among other things, students can obviously reach other students, retirees can do member care and discipleship in English, expatriates can live intentionally closer to the local people in order to share their faith.
The most likely result of sending 100-300 English-only expatriates to serve in the same city is not reproducing indigenous churches, but an international church. Some are advocating this as a new exciting model of missions, but do they know the FMB pursued this goal for about 50 years? International churches are a wonderful ministry, primarily to the international expatriate community in each country. They can pray for, and contribute financially to partner with the planting of local indigenous churches, but an international church is more likely to spawn another international church in a different city than to start a movement of reproducing local churches in its own.
A young couple who are friends of mine found each other as they were separately following Christ to the nations. They are now preparing to join an IMB team as non-traditional missionaries. He is highly qualified in a lucrative profession and she has significant cross-cultural experience. They explored a secular job opportunity in one of the IMB key cities, but the employer expected them to live in the expatriate enclave and would not allow him to learn language. Although a significant amount of money was offered, they realized they would not be in a position to significantly impact that city. So, they are now connected with an IMB team in a remote unreached place and have creatively put together a support system that includes home church support, maintaining a business back home part of the year, and learning language so they can relate to the unreached people God is leading them to. Their heart’s desire is to build a tower, they have counted the cost, and now have a realistic plan that is sacrificial, creative, and practical. May their tribe increase!
Although this couple is uniquely positioned to not need full support from the IMB, the local IMB team is pivotal to their mission success. That is why the IMB is too valuable to lose.
IMB Emeritus Missionary