RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Southern Baptist missionaries faced increasing criticism at home in 1999 — and risked mounting persecution abroad — for daring to tell the world that Jesus is the only way to peace with God.
But people are as hungry for truth at the end of the second millennium as they were at the beginning of the first, when Jesus Christ himself delivered the message. Southern Baptist missionaries and their overseas partners baptized 363,703 new Christian believers last year.
That’s almost 1,000 baptisms per day — or “one Pentecost every three days,” noted the Southern Baptist International Mission Board’s annual statistical report for 1999.
The baptism total topped 1998’s record mark by 4.3 percent. The other key categories of total churches, new churches, mission “preaching points” and church membership also reached record highs. Total Baptist churches affiliated with IMB work climbed to 52,186, a 10.5 percent increase. Total church membership jumped 9.5 percent to more than 4.9 million.
Missionaries and their partners started 4,748 churches, an 11.7 percent increase over 1998’s record. And total “preaching points” — potential future churches and a key indicator of strategic growth — soared 21.5 percent to 38,363.
Many of those new churches and mission congregations are being born in tough places — like a communist country where hundreds of Baptist lay missionaries have sparked a wildfire house church movement:
“Paul,” a young engineering student there, gave up his professional aspirations to study for ministry. On weekends, he began traveling from the nation’s capital to a remote town, where he slept on a park bench and shared the gospel with town residents.
Paul later got married. He and his bride used their honeymoon gift money to move to the town, where for two years they lived out of a borrowed suitcase in a small room. They’ve started three mission churches since, and they’re studying Arabic to share Christ with 600 Muslim students from abroad who attend a school in the area.
“That couple’s story can be multiplied hundreds of times over” in the country, said an IMB missionary.
Another lay couple there moved to one of the birthplaces of the country’s communist revolution. No known believers lived there when they arrived, but they have baptized 68 people and started two churches. Nearly all such churches meet in homes. Couches and kitchen chairs become pews; tiny bedrooms become Sunday schools.
“It’s a house, but it’s a church,” said the missionary. “They can’t buy, build or rent facilities, so they use their homes. We Americans tend to compartmentalize our lives. But for them the gospel is not a part of life; it is their life.”
— More than 4,000 soldiers were baptized in a single day at a military base in South Korea. They marched in columns into large swimming pools during a worship service led by new Baptist World Alliance President Billy Kim.
— In Uganda, seven Baptist young people and two adult leaders led 650 students to Christ in one week.
— Church groups sprouted in a North African country as tribesmen responded to the gospel despite years of civil war and wanton murder. A worker described the joy he felt when he baptized 10 new believers in a bathtub. “To have worked for years to get the gospel for this country and now to be baptizing people…,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “And the larger churches are having baptisms almost every week.”
— In Honduras, churches reported decisions for Christ, baptisms and new mission points in larger numbers than ever before as Baptists, missionaries and volunteers ministered in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. “In 32 years of missionary service, this is the most unprecedented thing I have ever seen,” said missionary Max Furr. “We have people coming not asking for food or a building but asking us to bring the Word of God to them.”
— In Kenya, more than 22,000 people received Christ as Savior during a month-long evangelistic campaign. The outreach drew 332 U.S. volunteers and saw 132 congregations started.
— In Brazil, more than 4,500 people made decisions for Christ on the streets of Salvador during the raucous Carnaval celebrations.
The worldwide growth continues “an upward trend that characterized much of this decade,” the IMB report for 1999 said. “Seven of the last 10 years have set records for growth across most of the IMB’s key result areas.”
The year also saw more than 1,000 new missionaries appointed, and the IMB world mission force increased to more than 4,800 missionaries, on track to surpass Southern Baptists’ 25-year Bold Mission Thrust goal of 5,000 sometime this year. Southern Baptist volunteers heading abroad soared 25 percent to more than 25,000 (the Bold Mission Thrust goal of 10,000 volunteers per year by 2000 was long ago surpassed).
“Who would have ever imagined that, including all International Service Corps (non-career) personnel, 1,062 new missionaries would be sent out in 1999?” asked IMB President Jerry Rankin. “What does it mean for the future that the number of college students participating in summer missions would escalate from 275 four years ago to more than 1,700 in 1999, or for more than 9,000 students at YouthLink 2000 to make commitments for missionary service?”
If the trend of the last decade holds, he added, the mission force will exceed 8,000 within five years. It could go far higher if the recent rapid expansion continues.
2000 is the target year for Bold Mission Thrust numerical goals set a quarter-century ago, and not all of them will be met. But Rankin believes God has set the stage for meeting Bold Mission Thrust’s great overarching objective: to give every person on earth a chance to hear and respond to the gospel of Christ.
“After settling into a history of witness and ministry only where missionaries were welcomed, we are seeing the potential emerge of reaching all peoples and nations,” Rankin said. “We are a long way from every person having an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel, but we can see a day when there will be no more (unreached peoples), in which everyone will have access to the good news of God’s love and salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
No political, religious or cultural barriers will keep the message from those who hunger for it, Rankin predicted. “God is on his throne; kings, presidents and parliaments are but puppets in his hand. The communist barrier has fallen, the Muslim world is beginning to crumble, and one day the nations will become his inheritance, the ends of the earth his possession.”
The only obstacles effectively preventing the completion of the task, Rankin added, loom in the minds and hearts of Christians: regressive thinking, timid spirits, lack of faith, neglect of prayer.
“We must be driven,” he said, “by nothing less than a passion for the lostness of a world without Christ.”