Editor: This is the third installment from this anonymous retired missionary (again, I am aware of the missionary’s identity and felt the reasons for anonymity were valid). Part One can be found here. Part two here.
David Platt is a godly and unusually gifted man who speaks passionately on behalf of God’s glory among the nations. I thank God for him and we should all be disappointed if he does not continue that ministry. When David realized that he could not pastor a church and be president of the IMB at the same time, he chose the local church over the IMB. David chose to lead one church to do missions instead of thousands of churches to do missions. His passion and priority of missions through the local church is not only evident in this decision, but in his writing, speaking, and leadership of the IMB.
Right now Southern Baptists need an IMB leader who reminds them that the IMB is the best option for the majority of Southern Baptists who are called to international missions. Southern Baptists need to hear repeatedly some truths about our mission program.
1) Those who are called by God to go to the nations can get there through multiple channels. They can be supported directly by their church, find a job overseas, study, retire, or go through an established mission team. What is more important than how they get there is what they do once they arrive. If they do not reach the level of effectiveness for cross-cultural church planting that I described in my first post, then they will likely contribute less to accomplishing the Great Commission. Counting everyone who goes on mission overseas as being equal (whether for 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years, 2 decades, or 2 hours per week) is unhelpful.
The simple fact is that going through the IMB, our own mission team, is the best way for most Southern Baptists to pursue long-term missions. Historically, the IMB has an incredibly low attrition rate resulting in a high percentage of sent ones who stay long enough to become fluent in the language and develop a ministry pattern that brings the gospel to the nations. My wife and I were nurtured in county seat Baptist churches that supported the cooperative mission program of Southern Baptists. We can never say thank you enough for the cooperative mission system that made possible our years of international service. That is why the IMB is too valuable to lose – it facilitates the mission sending from all our churches of God-called, long-term missionaries to the ends of the earth.
2) Bi-vocational missions is an admirable way to get to the nations and there are some exceptional examples. We should encourage bi-vocational missions, but somebody needs to state clearly what the cost will be before people jump in. Yes, Paul and Carey were bi-vocational, but the record shows that both worked night and day. Paul had no family and Carey lived communally so others helped a lot with his kids. How tragic it will be for young people to move 6000 miles and then realize they are not in a position to labor hands-on to build a tower. The average American expatriate works 50+ hours per week and invests much time and money into maintaining a comfortable American lifestyle overseas. There are tens of thousands of Southern Baptist lay people working overseas, but what percentage of them are positioned to start a church? Very small. What percentage are able to start reproducible churches in the local language? Very, very small. They can do it, but it will require great personal and family sacrifice and it is essential that they know that beforehand.
3) I will guess that there are 500-1000 SBC churches that have the financial resources to send their own missionaries. Some fine missionaries come out of such direct sending and a few churches excel at it, but overall a smaller percentage of these Southern Baptists reach effectiveness than IMB missionaries. Many of those churches struggle to coach their missionaries through language learning and developing local churches that are not dependent on funding from back home. As the number of mission sending agencies mushroomed around the millennium, studies were done to see how effective they were. Smaller sending bodies were significantly less effective in choosing, training, sustaining, and directing their missionaries resulting in high attrition. They were also less efficient, spending a higher percentage of their mission money to do these tasks. Larger established mission teams that had over 50 missionaries were simply more efficient and effective than smaller sending agencies like most churches.
Some of our missionary colleagues came from mega-churches, but the vast majority did not. The two large churches who get credit for sending the most IMB missionaries are near seminaries where students come already called to missions. These churches are counted as the sending church because they are the last stop on the way and they do play a role in encouraging and preparing their mission volunteers. However, their “sending capacity” exceeds their winning, discipling, calling out, and financially supporting most of “their” missionaries. They simply could not do that without the cooperative ministry of Southern Baptists.
4) Today many espouse a philosophy of missions around an interpretation of Acts that so emphasizes the role of the local church that it ignores the critical role of the missionary team in the New Testament and mission history. In the New Testament there are examples of missionaries sent by their church, but in most cases, it was to accomplish a short-term project. Barnabas and Paul’s long-term mission was not produced by the church in Antioch; the church in Antioch was produced by the long-term mission of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:25-26; 13:1-4, though you may need a better translation or commentary).
By the way, if your Bible has a heading in Acts 13 that this was the “First Missionary Journey,” that is just plain false. Based on the earlier chapters in Acts and his epistles, this was at least journey #7 for Paul (Damascus, Arabia, Damascus, Jerusalem/Judea, Cilicia, Antioch, Cyprus) and it was not even the first journey for the two partners. Paul and Barnabas were not called to missions in Antioch, they were released to fulfill the same mission calling to pioneer places that had earlier brought them to Antioch. The church in Antioch did not initiate, authorize, or supervise the mission of Paul and Barnabas – the church entrusted the missionary team into the care and leadership of God who called and sent them (Acts 14:26). Certainly, the church in Antioch prayed for them and joyfully heard their report when they returned, but it is misleading to state that Antioch was their “sending” church. Antioch was a “receiving” church.
In the New Testament and mission history, mission advance has been a partnership between local church and missionary team. The church should lead the way in its own locale and wherever it can reach out, but most pioneer cross-cultural mission has historically occurred through focused missionary teams. Those mission teams lay the foundation for churches in pioneer locations which continue the ministry of reaching their people. However, overemphasizing the local church to the exclusion of missionary team will undermine Southern Baptist efforts to join God in His great purpose for all nations.
That is why our focused missionary team, the IMB, working in partnership with our churches is too valuable to lose.
IMB Emeritus Missionary