This is the fifth in a series by this retired missionary.
When Barnabas saw he needed help in Antioch, he went off to find a missionary whom he had seen in action, had cross-cultural mission experience in several locations, and who had been fulfilling his missionary calling for about 8 years. That is, Paul. What Paul may have learned from Barnabas was that he should always be expanding the mission team. What has been described as Paul’s mission expansion is also the story of the expansion of Paul’s mission team. The later split between the two veteran missionaries is often interpreted as rancorous, but the story does not actually say that. The two veteran missionaries were interested in reaching out to different peoples and in mentoring different young missionaries; both succeeded because God blessed them. The role of the veteran missionary assisting younger ones has been common in missions ever since. Saint Patrick’s Day and San Francisco are named after famous men who led growing missionary teams to win the unreached, although typically we have largely forgotten that’s who they were.
There are multiple business models in America today. One is focused on the new start-up high tech companies that have to recreate their business and technology paradigm every few years and tend to go boom or bust quickly. Another model is focused on older established companies that have been very good at what they do for a long time and represent a wise financial investment over time. The IMB fits the latter better than the former and, even with the great loss of missionaries in the last decade, it is still home to rich treasures of mission expertise.
Jim Collins is one of the gurus of this latter school based on books such as Good to Great, Built to Last, and Great By Choice. Collins’ research has many implications for the IMB today, but I just want to point to a couple of concepts that seem critical in this moment in our history.
- Collins found that companies that thrive in chaos show great discipline, don’t panic, and make careful decisions based on empirical info.
- These companies excelled over time by staying focused on their traditional values and core business while innovating at the edges.
- Organizations that moved from good to great turned to leaders who were competent in strategic executive decision-making. Collins warns against bringing in a celebrity leader, but one who has proven himself from within and has a long-term personal investment in the organization’s success. Collins describes these highest level leaders as having an unusual mix of intense professional determination and profound personal humility.
That sounds like a number of IMB missionary leaders I know. Men that I would entrust my life and ministry to. In fact, I have already done that with several men who would make a good president. Godly, sacrificial, persevering, passionate, and fruitful men of deep integrity. Men who are not famous or media stars and when they went to the mission field they never expected to be. This is the norm for a life of missions. I know missionaries whose ministry influence extends to many thousands of non-Christians professing faith in baptism. More parties are thrown in heaven due in part to their work than from any mega-church within the US. However, by calling these missionaries labor in obscurity and only a few churches even know who they are. As Paul said, sent ones are the refuse of the world. Considering the influence of fame and the media, this is probably a great blessing. The person that I hope will be the next president of the IMB is someone you have likely never heard of. He may be well known by national leaders in his area, by several hundred missionaries that he has been leading effectively, and by a few Southern Baptist churches committed to partner with his colleagues. Most of us will not know him until after he has been serving as president. He may live overseas or has returned in recent years to the US after decades of service. No, I am not mentioning a name, although I know several who would do a great job. I assume that I do not know all the men that are qualified to lead the IMB. The trustees should have no difficulty finding them if they just ask the right people.
The men I am talking about married up; their wives are amazing missionaries as well. Not “wives of missionaries,” but missionary wives. Heroes, warriors, servants. Many Southern Baptists are not aware of how important the women missionaries are to our global outreach. In international missions there are more single ladies than single men. Every missionary couple is equally committed to the mission task. The majority of the unreached world is women and children; women are the best instruments God can send to reach them. Going all the way back to Lottie Moon, women have sometimes out-couraged the men to lead the way in engaging new areas of lostness and as they brought women to Christ, men came along too, and churches were begun. For every outstanding missionary husband, there is a wife who has quietly shouldered much of the adversity and challenge of going to the nations. We all agree that women should not serve as lead pastors, but “both men and women are gifted for service in the church.” Paul commended women in the early church for being servants of the church, helping many, risking their lives, helping plant new churches, working hard for the Lord, going to prison for their witness, and earning the reputation of outstanding missionary apostles (Rom 16). Such women serve around the world through the IMB today and our new president’s wife can perform a wonderful service of encouraging the majority of our mission force who are women.
In recent days I have prayed for a young couple saying goodbye to family and flying off with hopes of investing their lives being light in a very dark place, a couple who have excelled in their first new language and are beginning to learn another even as their ministry is now beginning to expand, and an effective veteran family who asked for prayer for the ongoing adjustments that their missionary kids are facing. Not long ago an ex-colleague sent me a detailed study of several church planting movements taking place in an unreached area of the world. In each of those movements a long-term, extremely well-trained, deeply experienced, language fluent, humbly passionate, Spirit-led, sacrificial IMB missionary family is a human catalyst that God is using to bring honor to Himself. These are the kind of people who make up the IMB, the end of the spear we have to pierce the darkness hovering over the nations.
Supporting such people was once a dream that inspired a group of fiercely autonomous Baptist churches to cooperate and form the SBC and FMB on the same day. Today, half of our churches have hardly heard about our missionaries and many of our pastors do not see them as a high priority for their pulpit or church budget. Two decades ago, the SBC affirmed that the IMB should refocus its efforts to take the gospel to all the nations, including those that had the least witness. Many missionaries instinctively knew this would likely result in greater demonic attacks on missionaries and possibly stronger governmental efforts to limit our access to areas of greatest need. Both of those have been true and missionaries have suffered, adapted, and sacrificed to cope with them. The greatest danger to our mission efforts, however, turned out not to be a frontal attack on the mission field, but devastating negligence back home. Busyness and distraction are two of the greatest enemies of discipleship in America and they are also the biggest enemy of supporting our most effective mission force overseas. Southern Baptists must fight to keep their missionaries if we want to avoid letting our cooperative mission efforts slip away. If we do not, we will lose our core business as Southern Baptists. That loss will be irreversible. That is why the IMB is too valuable to lose.
IMB Emeritus Missionary