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Conference spotlights medical missions

ROCKVILLE, Va. (BP)–By lunchtime her first day at the Global Medical Alliance, Brandi Bhimji already felt excited -– and a bit overwhelmed.

“I want to do it all,” said the nurse manager from Winchester, Va., after spending the morning listening to Southern Baptist medical missionaries talk about their ministries.

“Every story is so compelling, you want to go there.”

Bhimji and her husband, a pharmacist, attended part of the July 16-22 gathering of health-care missionaries and church-based medical volunteers. They joined some 200 Southern Baptist doctors, dentists, nurses and other medical professionals from churches across the nation attending the Global Medical Alliance mobilization conference at the International Mission Board’s International Learning Center in Rockville, Va.

The health professionals –- some already partnering with mission teams overseas, others considering medical projects for the first time –- mingled with more than 90 medical missionaries from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Through presentations, interaction, workshops and a “partnership fair,” they learned of the remarkable variety of ways missionaries and their partners are using health-care ministries to heal the hurting, share the love of Jesus Christ and plant churches.

One missionary strategist in a highly restricted area of East Asia described using medical volunteers, health screenings, eye clinics and other health services to gain government permission to go beyond the regional capital city of her area and into rural villages –- the homes of most of the members of the unreached people group she’s trying to access.

“What would get us into the countryside, behind closed doors and in the homes of the people?” she said. “Eight years ago no one was outside the capital. Now we have people not only going to the villages, but staying there.”

Three-fourths of the more than 17 million people in the group have never heard of Jesus, the missionary said. They are animistic, fear evil spirits and adopt bits and pieces of traditional religions in the region. The health outreach, coupled with training of local believers and other approaches, has helped launch some 500 churches in the last three years. More than 1,300 people have become followers of Jesus just in the past year.

Another missionary described combining Bible storying with simple methods designed to help alcoholics stop drinking in order to touch indigenous tribes in South America devastated by alcoholism.

“Even those of us who’ve been around for a long time weren’t aware of all that’s being done in health-care ministries,” said missionary physician Rebekah Naylor, a 35-year veteran of medical ministry in India. “We’ve been amazed and inspired by all that’s happening and the proof we’re seeing of its role in church planting. I’ve heard new ideas I can incorporate into my strategy.”

That’s the kind of interchange IMB President Jerry Rankin envisioned for the conference, which will become an annual event.

“We are still very involved in and committed to medical work, and we have increasing numbers of medical assignments we’re seeking to mobilize for” — especially in restricted and unreached areas, Rankin said. “I think we’ll see a wave of growth in requests for new medical missionary personnel, but the real impact is going to be in mobilization of U.S. partners. I would anticipate twice as many stateside church partners here next year.”

One medical missionary at the conference estimated there are as many as 37,000 physicians, more than 9,500 dentists and 128,000 nurses attending Southern Baptist churches across the United States. Many, perhaps most, have never participated in a mission project overseas.

“That is a tremendous resource,” Rankin said. “A mission trip is not an end in itself. It’s part of an ongoing strategy and gives you a sense of ownership. We want to give Southern Baptist health-care workers a vision of being partners with us in an ongoing strategy that results in glory for the kingdom of God.”

Before the church-based volunteers arrived, the medical missionaries spent the first several days of the conference networking and comparing notes on the best practices. The International Mission Board turned most of the mission hospitals and clinics it once operated over to national Baptist leaders years ago, so missionaries have sought new ways to use health-care ministries in outreach without relying on traditional, expensive medical institutions.

“We had to begin to reinvent medical missions,” said Brad Cochran,* a missionary physician and health strategist who advises IMB workers in Northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia. “That’s when we developed the ‘ABCs’ of health strategy as we began to experiment. We’ve had some disappointments and made some mistakes, but we’ve had a lot more successes than we expected in some difficult places. This (conference) is kind of a tipping-point event that puts us in the spotlight.”

What are the “ABCs” of health strategy? He described them this way:

A — Access to unreached areas. “That especially applies to medical workers, because we can go places where no one else can go and where no one is going to hear the Gospel unless we get there,” he said.

B — Behind closed doors. “Good strategies go inside multiple homes multiple times. I can’t lead Muslims to Christ in a public setting. Most unreached people groups can’t be led to Christ in a public setting. ‘Behind closed doors’ means wherever in a culture you can have intimate conversations.”

C — Care for the needy. “We care for the needy because it’s right, but in God’s strategy it works out that this helps lead you into ‘D,’ which is make disciples.”

D — Disciples. “Disciples are people who will readily risk their life for the Gospel. We are disciples and we make disciples, because disciples multiply.”

E — Empower the church. “We take these disciples and gather them into groups (churches). We strengthen them and teach them the same kind of strategies so they can access other unreached communities, care for the needy, get behind closed doors and empower more churches. That’s how it keeps rolling.”

The Global Medical Alliance will meet again July 17-20, 2008, at the International Learning Center. To get more information or to sign up for next year’s conference, contact Delia Brown of the International Mission Board at [email protected].
* Name changed for security reasons.

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  • Erich Bridges