PHOENIX (BP)–Hundreds of pastors, church leaders, laymen — young and old — made their way down the aisles. Some carried small children. One limped forward with a cane.
On the final evening of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, they filed to the front of the Phoenix Convention Center hall, following the International Mission Board’s presentation June 15.
They shared a public commitment for their churches to “embrace” one of the approximately 3,800 people groups currently not engaged by anyone with an intentional church-planting strategy and where less than 2 percent are evangelical Christians. The crowd gathered in front of the stage shortly after IMB President Tom Elliff extended the invitation for Southern Baptists to signify their willingness to embrace these unengaged, unreached people groups.
“To the best of our knowledge … nobody has them on the radar screen,” Elliff said.
“It’s like having people standing out in the cold around your house while you’re enjoying a wonderful warm meal. You know they’re out there but you have no plan to go out there and offer them anything.
“Well, I believe Southern Baptists do.”
To reach them, Elliff added, “It’s going to take nothing short of being willing to lay down your life.”
Forty new IMB missionaries who were commissioned earlier that evening were standing at the front to receive commitment cards from those who responded.
“We need to be bearers of the light, whatever the cost,” Elliff said. “Do we just want to be Southern Baptists, or do we want to be New Testament people [like Peter and John] who cannot stop speaking?”
Elliff continued, “[These] people groups … as best we can tell, we have absolutely no one saying, ‘I want to reach them. We’re going to ask God for a strategy, we’re going to figure out a way to get boots on the ground.'”
IMB is using the word “embrace” to identify this effort.
“It’s not a matter of yanking names off [a map] and saying we’ll sign up,” Elliff said. “No, no … we want this to be a lifetime marriage between the two of us.
“We don’t just want you on our parking lot or in our store. We want you in the cash register, behind the counter and in the warehouse. Everything we have is yours because it’s always been yours.”
The evening program was the culmination of a series of challenges issued by pastors and convention leaders throughout the convention and the Pastors’ Conference that preceded it.
Earlier in the day, messengers heard that “anything can be accomplished if God’s people join together” from David Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala.
“What drives passion for unreached peoples is not guilt. It’s glory,” Platt said.
“Glory for a King, for a King who deserves the praise of every people group on the planet.”
‘DON’T DROP THE CROSS’
The challenge also was extended through the presentation of a wooden cross during the IMB’s report to the SBC. Handcrafted by a missionary who was killed in 2002, the cross — bearing the words “Don’t drop the cross” and the verse Rev. 7:9 — served as a visual reminder of the cost for Southern Baptists to take the Gospel to the far corners of the earth.
SBC President Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., presented the cross to Southern Baptists during the program.
The cross was made by William Koehn, who lost his life Dec. 30, 2002, when a gunman shot and killed him and two others — Kathleen Gariety and Martha Myers — at Jibla Baptist Hospital in Yemen where they served.
Nearly a decade after their deaths, a Christian worker in the Middle East gave the cross to Wright about two weeks earlier in Cairo, Egypt. They stood in a cemetery near the grave of Oswald Chambers, who wrote the devotional “My Utmost for His Highest.”
“We’re reminded of the cost that it is to reach the hardest places still on earth,” the worker told Bryant.
“I want to give this cross to you as a challenge to you and Southern Baptists to not drop the cross,” the worker said. “Remember the peoples that are yet unreached and unengaged.”
The worker broke into tears as he shared what his three fallen colleagues meant to him and so many others.
“They gave it all and that challenges me,” the worker said. “They didn’t stop until He was done, and then He took them home and that’s what I want to be — my utmost for His highest.
“It’s worth it all,” he said. “It’s worth it all.”
“If you make a commitment today,” Wright told the crowd, “it may cost you your life, not just a lifetime of service, not just temporary service, but it may cost any of us our life.”
Giving up a comfortable life here in the States hasn’t been easy for Christy and Ryan Campbell and their five children, who will be serving in sub-Saharan Africa. Members of Faith Baptist Church in Youngsville, N.C., the couple were among the 40 newly commissioned missionaries.
“Though I had surrendered to missions as a fourth-grade girl, I found my role as a mom and wife living the American dream quite comfortable,” Christy Campbell told the crowd.
“Hesitantly I agreed to pray, and God clearly revealed to me that the time had come to go.”
The couple will be joining nearly 5,000 missionaries on the field. In Elliff’s report, he shared that IMB workers reported 360,876 baptisms in their work with Baptists overseas, 29,237 churches planted, 920 people groups currently engaged and 114 new people groups engaged. Southern Baptists gave $7,985,000 that went toward hunger and relief, and $145,662,925 to the 2010 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
“Although it did not reach our goal, it still is the fourth-highest Lottie Moon offering in the history of that offering,” Elliff said. “That, with the economy and everything that went on in this world and in our country [this past year], we’re so grateful….
“Now, you know that I’m going to ask us all to step up to the plate,” he added. “We can do better than that. The truth about giving is … that we cast ourselves totally on the providence of God. That’s what turns giving into a faith exercise.”
As Wright told the crowd earlier in the program, “let us not drop the cross. The challenge has now been passed.”
To see the “Don’t drop the cross” video, go to imb.org/main/downloads/flashvideos.asp?filename=/files/127/12794/12794-72509.flv.
To learn more about how a church can embrace an unengaged, unreached people group, go to imb.org/main/lead/embracedefault.asp?StoryID=9651&LanguageID=1709.
For more information about this year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering theme, go to iamsbmissions.com.
Alan James is a senior writer for the International Mission Board.