ST. LOUIS (BP)–Southern Baptist missionaries and their international Baptist partners baptized more than 475,000 new believers last year, started nearly 23,500 churches and began church planting among 104 people groups for the first time.
They also planted churches among 19 people groups where no Baptist churches previously existed -– including 13 peoples with no evangelical churches of any kind.
Gordon Fort, International Mission Board vice president for overseas operations, noted: “For these 13 people groups, for the first time in their history there is a church representing our Lord and Savior to an unreached people that have never heard the Gospel, don’t have a Bible in their language and have never known what church looks like.”
These numbers come from the board’s 2006 Annual Statistical Report, compiled from statistics reported by more than 2,000 separate entities -– including hundreds of mission teams assigned to reach ethnic people groups, cities and other population segments. The report, covering calendar year 2005, was received by IMB trustees during their Oct. 30-Nov. 1 meeting in St. Louis.
“In 1986 we received 108 [statistical] reports” from missionaries and overseas Baptist conventions, said Scott Holste, IMB associate vice president for research and strategic services. “By 1996, that had grown to 215, reflecting the new emphasis on people groups. By 2006, we were up to over 2,000 specific reports. While this has increased the complexity of doing this statistical report, it gives us a clearer picture of the world in which we’re working than ever before.”
The report focuses on three “key result areas”: engagement of unreached people groups and urban centers; advance toward church-planting movements around the world; and progress of overseas Baptist partners in engaging people groups and starting church-planting movements.
“Engaging” a people group means more than sending missionaries or even winning people to Christ. It means applying church-planting methods that enable local believers to begin finishing the task of evangelizing their own cultures.
Among the most significant results for 2005, Southern Baptist missionaries and their partners:
— engaged a total of 1,170 people groups worldwide, three-quarters of whom are classified by mission researchers as unreached (less than 2 percent of the population claiming evangelical Christian faith).
— engaged for the first time 104 people groups, 73 of whom are unreached, with a combined population of nearly 100 million.
The Jahanka of West Africa, for instance, number only about 60,000, with fewer than 20 known followers of Jesus. But they are one of the “pivotal peoples” of the area, according to IMB regional leader Randy Arnett, because they are the Muslim religious teachers who send imams to the villages of many other peoples. “They are the missionaries; they are the solid Islamic people of West Africa,” Arnett told IMB trustees.
But a Southern Baptist missionary couple living in a Jahanka village are winning friends. One Jahanka villager told a visitor, “They could have gone to any [people], but they came to the Jahanka. They could have gone to any village, but they chose our village. They have come with a message from God, and we’re waiting for them to be able to speak our language so we can hear this message that they have brought to us.”
— engaged 120 unreached urban centers, including 12 for the first time.
— started 23,486 churches, up from 18,070 in 2004, and more than 10,600 “outreach groups” (potential future churches). That brought total partner churches worldwide to 135,252, with a combined membership of 8.8 million, and outreach groups to 55,723.
In the rock-hard spiritual ground of North Africa and the Middle East, fewer than 100 Baptist churches were begun over the past six decades. “I’m here to tell you that last year we saw 101 new churches,” regional leader John Brady reported. “These 101 churches came in the hardest of fights anywhere on the face of the earth for Satan to release people from darkness and allow them to come to light.”
One area in northern Africa saw three churches multiply to nine, with 122 baptisms. All of those who were baptized experienced persecution, Brady said. “But did they stand back? No, they didn’t stand back. They were energized” even though some were driven out of their homes.
— baptized 475,072 new believers -– about 1,300 each day or one each minute. Baptisms in 2004 totaled 477,123; 2003, 475,541.
— involved nearly 510,000 new believers in discipleship training, in addition to more than 1.1 million existing church members in discipleship groups. Those are “solid indicators showing the excitement and hunger for the Word of God,” Holste said. “As people are introduced to the Bible and come to know Christ, they are baptized and nearly all are discipled in their first year of Christian growth. For the first time in our reporting history, the number of church members in discipleship training has risen above the 1 million mark.”
— trained more than 150,000 Christian leaders in nonresidential settings (extension and correspondence course, short-term courses, on-the-job training) and more than 20,000 in residential pastoral programs.
— worked with 1,772 international missionaries sent out by overseas Baptist partners to other people groups and 3,400 home missionaries reaching out to people groups within their own countries.
“We have a significant part to play [as Southern Baptists], but the real hope comes from partners around the world that catch a vision of being a part of the Great Commission, and there’s a lot of them out there,” said Dickie Nelson, IMB regional leader for South America.
Nelson described Brazilian Baptists’ “Radical Africa” initiative, which sends two-year missionaries to challenging parts of Muslim West Africa. He also highlighted the work of “Marie,” a South American medical mission worker serving in North Africa and the Middle East.
“Local government officials actually ask her to go into some mountain areas there to do medical work,” Nelson said. “A wonderful door has been opened in a place where there is no church and no witness to share the Good News of Jesus. The folks who know Marie say that if you show her a mountain, her next question is, ‘How do I climb it?’”
STATISTICS AND PEOPLE
“Someone has said that statistics are nothing more -– and nothing less -– than individual people with the dirt and sweat and tears removed,” Holste said. “Think of the one individual or one church that makes up that number. Think about the effort that went in to taking the Gospel to that one, the physical, religious and cultural barriers that had to be crossed.
“Think about the Hindu woman in South Asia, living in an environment where millions of gods are worshiped, exclaiming with joy, ‘Now I have only one God to serve.’ Think about the gang member in Middle America who has left a life of crime and is now a faithful witness to the One who befriended sinners. Think about the one.”
The sheer number of lost people with little or no access to the Gospel, however, continues to weigh on the minds of IMB missionaries and strategists. Despite progress in reaching the unreached by all Great Commission Christian groups, the gap between current reality and a self-sustaining church movement in every people group remains huge.
The world’s population is 6.5 billion and counting. Of the world’s 11,000-plus people groups, more than 6,000 –- encompassing more than 1.65 billion people -– remain unreached. Most of these peoples have seen no churches planted in their cultures within the last two years. At the end of 2005 more than 650 of those peoples, with a combined population exceeding 550 million, remained unengaged by any evangelical group.
That’s why church-planting movements –- the rapid, often explosive multiplication of local churches planting other churches within a people — are so important. They offer the best way to close the global “Gospel gap.” IMB researchers have formally confirmed 13 such movements but are tracking many others on a church-planting movement “watch list.” Every people group or location on the list has experienced significant increases in churches planted in the past two years, seen a dramatic increase in total churches and been affirmed as an emerging church-planting movement by mission leaders.
“They’re burning even hotter,” IMB research director Jim Haney said. “They have better growth indicators than the ones we’ve already assessed. That’s exciting. It gives us a lot to look forward to in the years to come.”
When a movement really gains momentum, even counting churches and members becomes a challenge. A missionary in the middle of one such movement in Asia wrote:
“I am reporting the smallest possible numbers in this [report], as things are growing so rapidly it is difficult to get research-quality data. To be honest, we believe there are more than 1,100 house churches now in our country [that exist] in direct correlation to our influence and church planting among the people. We are reporting a much smaller figure [more than 400 less], as we know these numbers to be irrefutable. The spillover reaches out to at least 11 other people groups, and we are establishing churches throughout the caste structure.”
Church-planting movements can “rock the world,” Haney said. “Show me something else that has the potential to transform a people group like a church-planting movement. I haven’t seen it anywhere else. God is doing it. What can we learn from Him and implement it in other places?”