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Elliff’s report: Chasing the darkness

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Elliff, IMB’s president, presented this report to trustees May 14.)

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (BP) — Revivalist Richard Baxter noted that he “preached as a dying man to dying men.” His intent was clear. We are all operating on borrowed time and “no man knows his hour.” We must also live with the constant awareness that those to whom we preach are dying a horrible death which mere words are incapable of describing. Wrapped in chains of sin and separated from God, they sit in great darkness, devoid of the faintest glimmer of the true Light that brings light to all mankind.

Those of us in this room, and all those whose lives and ministries we steward (and for whom we will one day give account), must rise to the hour. We must daily renew our strength, take on the full armor of God, bind on our Gospel shoes, and set out on the race again … chasing the darkness. It is to that end, for the sake of the lost, that I bring you this report today.

But today it is not the billions who are without Christ — helplessly, hellishly lost — to which I would direct your attention. I presume they are always on your mind and that, on occasion, your days have been spent weeping and your nights tortured as you contemplated that vast assembly and the task that is ours.

Nor is it the current status of the Southern Baptist Convention to which I would turn your thoughts. Every thinking person here is solemnly aware that the Southern Baptist Convention is at a crossroads. Who are we, these 46,000 churches? What is our message? Are we passionate about the things that are on God’s heart, and will we sacrificially unite our hearts and resources around our Lord and His Great Commission? Will we ever again be willing to see that Great Commission as the stack pole around which we lay down our hearts and our ambitions?

I want to turn your thoughts instead to IMB, that entity over which you have been placed in trust, that entity whose operations and personnel I have been charged to oversee during these days of my stewardship as your president. I want to speak out of respect for our history, with an understanding of the present, and out of regard for our future. I want to speak “descriptively” and not “prescriptively,” leaving the latter for our next president, the Global Leadership Team, and you, our Board of Trustees.

IMB is now in its 169th year of existence. I have been privileged to serve as your 11th president. IMB, as the Foreign Mission Board, was born with our Southern Baptist Convention. The second meeting of the SBC convened in Richmond, where our headquarters were established, and the waters of the James River have carried more than a few missionaries first down to the Chesapeake, and then out to the ocean over which many of them never returned.

By the grace of God, and because of sacrificial giving and going, IMB had already been at work for 73 years before 1918, when the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering was born in the hearts of the Woman’s Missionary Union. And we already had been sending missionaries for 80 years when the Cooperative Program was conceived in 1925. Both of these giving channels soon became healthy arteries through which Southern Baptists provided lifeblood for what would become the largest evangelical mission agency of its kind in the world.

We have labored through a Civil War, two World Wars and countless other engagements that sent our nation’s best around the world. And in spite of it all — wars, recessions, depressions and our own internal skirmishes — through IMB, Southern Baptists sent their best to the ends of the earth as well.

Our history is also one of constant change and adaptation. Every era brought its opportunities and its challenges. Many of our challenges have been precipitated by changes in the support Southern Baptists provided for IMB. Though it may come as a surprise to you, until the Second World War, IMB (FMB) operated on funds borrowed from local Richmond banks, a practice that is unthinkable to us today. IMB has always been a work in progress.

The stage is set

It is noteworthy that, while no one enjoys financial challenges, those very challenges seem to always bring out the best in IMB, its personnel and strategies. Dark nights of financial strain have seen the sun rise on new and more effective ways of doing missions; better stewardship has been coupled with greater global impact. I believe that, by God’s grace, the stage is once again set for IMB’s best and most effective moment in history.

It should not go unnoticed that each innovation in mission support, such as LMCO or CP, was welcomed, embraced and immediately implemented to the glory of God and the expansion of His kingdom. What should also strike our attention is that while we are now at the moment of the world’s greatest lostness, coupled with the moment of easiest access to the lost, we have not substantively addressed the issue of missionary support for over 89 years. For all practical purposes, our only answer has been to encourage Southern Baptists to increase their giving.

But IMB must soon come to grips with the demands placed on us by years of declining Cooperative Program receipts and Lottie Moon giving that has hovered around $150 million. Sadly, the existence of thousands of new Southern Baptist churches has not generated a commensurate increase in CP or LMCO. Nor is our growth in the number of our churches in the U.S. positively impacting baptisms in our own nation. Last year, 46,000 Southern Baptist churches in the USA, with membership nearing 17 million, baptized 130,769 fewer people than we did in 1948 when we numbered less than 27,000 congregations with a membership of only 6.5 million.

Even if Cooperative Program giving remains stationary or increases modestly, and LMCO giving remains between $150-160 million, we will be hard-pressed to continue supporting a mission force of our current number, much less see a greatly needed increase in the number of fully supported career missionaries on the field. In spite of what we might think, the world is not waiting for Southern Baptists to “catch on and catch up!” The ranks of the lost are rapidly swelling with men and women, boys and girls destined for hell. Their only hope is that their lives might be intercepted by those chasing the darkness, running to them with the Light of the Gospel.

So how will Southern Baptists respond? And what issues must IMB consider as it stewards the resources and personnel sent by Southern Baptist churches?

Thanking God!

Before answering those questions, I believe it is important for us to thank God for the incredible strength of this family called Southern Baptists and their International Mission Board. It would be difficult to find churches and mission personnel more committed to the vision of a multitude from every language, people, tribe and nation knowing and worshipping our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though IMB is the largest evangelical mission organization of its kind, with our missionaries fully funded by a single denomination, we have the lowest attrition rate, by far, than any of those other agencies. While the average attrition rate for most evangelical mission agencies is many times higher than ours, IMB’s attrition rate (normally hovering around 5 percent) is down this year to a remarkable 3.8 percent.

When others ask how we can account for such committed personnel and such a low attrition rate, I have responded by noting five characteristics of our IMB culture:

1. We recruit determinedly, that is, to the highest standards.

2. We train diligently from the recruiting phase and throughout life.

3. We deploy strategically with each missionary an answer to a field request.

4. We work purposefully according to a known and specific vision.

5. We care passionately for those whom we serve and for one another.

Yes, you and I, and Southern Baptists have much to celebrate. And when you hear our IMB report at the SBC in Baltimore next month, the stories of Gospel advance from our personnel all over the world will be nothing short of breathtaking! That report should leave us on our faces before God, praising Him for His power and blessings.

Describing the challenges ahead

Now, as our Search Team is seeking for my successor, I believe a good stewardship of the days remaining demands that I alert you to the challenges that face us. I want to describe the nature of these challenges so that our next president will find in you an informed and supportive board of trustees as he leads us ever forward to meet them.

The writer of Proverbs urges us: “Deliver those who are being taken away to death, and those who are staggering to slaughter, Oh! Hold them back! If you say, “See, we did not know this,” Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to every man according to his work?”(Proverbs 24:11-12).

It is in this spirit that I share with you today. We must have a clear description of the issues at stake for we will be held accountable.

Looking ahead, IMB must come to grips with at least three practical issues that demand urgent attention. As trustees, you will be those who can give your voice, your strength, your support and encouragement as IMB seeks to address each of these imperatives in an appropriate manner.

I. First, it is imperative that IMB develop, then clearly define, NEW means by which personnel are encouraged, empowered and fully expected to connect intentionally with Southern Baptist churches.

From a candidate’s very first contact with us, and throughout his or her tenure, IMB personnel must fully appreciate that their ability to go to the field and remain on the field is directly tied to the willingness of Southern Baptists to support them. The best avenue for that message to reach Southern Baptists is for our personnel to tell them.

For too many years Southern Baptists and their missionaries have applauded the fact that “we don’t have to raise support!” This has created among us, and throughout the SBC, a false sense of entitlement and ingratitude. Some churches urge their members to apply with IMB, yet have no sense of responsibility for their maintenance on the field as evidenced by no increase in LMCO or the amount of CP giving arriving at IMB. Conversely, some of our applicants and personnel feel content to labor on the field without sensing any burden for connecting widely with Southern Baptists.

It is a simple fact that, though there has never been a day of greater lostness or easier access, IMB cannot swell the ranks of our missionaries, nor can we continue to support our current force, with giving at its current level.

Meeting the demands of lostness will require new components in our selection process. Qualified applicants, for instance, might find that moving through the process with IMB will require some evidence that they are effectively connecting with churches. Those churches must then assure that their future giving through LMCO and CP will be increased beyond their current giving at a level sufficient to provide for the support and ministry costs of additional personnel.

There is simply no way Southern Baptists can continue adding to the ranks of their missionary personnel without such assurances. The beauty of LMCO and CP is that we can do more together than we can alone. But it is a gross misunderstanding of both CP and LMCO to imagine that the Lord is honored when churches take advantage of others’ generosity by failing to be generous themselves.

II. Second (and in addition to fervently connecting), it will be imperative for all our personnel to deliberately utilize means for communicating with those churches frequently and faithfully.

Many of our personnel are already communicating with supporting churches and their members on a monthly basis. They realize the importance of telling their story, expressing their gratitude, inviting prayer and urging participation. Their work in this arena is exemplary.

But we must move from “many” to “all.” And we must ensure that every communication from our personnel includes the importance of giving and encourages Southern Baptists to give so that the amount reaching IMB from their church’s weekly contributions reflects their concern for the great lostness of the world. After all, we are not giving because IMB needs money but because the lost need the Gospel.

We live in a communication age. Southern Baptists are literally smothered by requests from a multitude of other organizations. However, it is imperative that we constantly and effectively communicate the incredible value of doing missions through IMB, an organization that is doctrinally sound, draws from many of our own institutions, works strategically, and is accountable to the SBC. Each of us desires to give to worthwhile causes, and our failure to constantly tell the IMB story only provides a vacuum into which others are quite willing to speak. What greater cause can there be than fulfilling the Great Commission?

As noted earlier, I have heard individuals say that the beauty of working with IMB is that our missionaries do not have to raise their financial support. After all, every other organization does require a significant level of attention given to “raising support.” It is a verifiable fact that this characteristic of our organization does allow our missionaries to fully focus on the tasks of evangelism, discipleship and the planting of healthy, reproducing churches. But our strength will become our weakness if at any time support is simply taken for granted, or when it breeds an air of ingratitude, coupled with our failure to constantly lay the plight of the lost at the doorsteps of Southern Baptist hearts.

III. Finally, IMB must eagerly welcome the establishment of new avenues through which we can encourage Southern Baptist churches to travel to the ends of the earth.

Together, you and I have witnessed the development of several of these avenues in the last few years. But I am of the belief that we have only scratched the surface. We are a Southern Baptist entity. We are a wholly owned subsidiary of our 46,000 Southern Baptist churches and must never set aside that distinction. Nor must we ever entertain the surrender of our doctrinal parameters as clearly described in our Baptist Faith & Message, 2000. We are at home in the SBC. It is not insignificant that it is our convention, the Southern Baptist Convention that has given birth to this incredible mission organization.

Now, it is imperative for us to remember that Southern Baptist churches have within them some of the most passionate, creative and concerned pastors and lay men and women on the planet. We must hear them! Speaking personally, and out of 52 years of ministry experience, I believe we must be willing to loosen our grip and invite them to help us create the most effective and far-reaching IMB ever. And in that process I believe we will discover that people do support what they help create.

It will be wise for us to look to new categories of mission personnel, employing both the partially funded or fully funded models already utilized for the SBC-approved Mission Service Corps. We should look at further ways to utilize the models we already employ such as SBC-Direct or GlobalConnect. This is a tactile, hands-on generation, with churches eager to play a personal, up-close and on-site role in missions.

Working together, IMB will readily find new, creative and daring ways to partner with our churches in carrying the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In doing so we will recover the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention. We will acknowledge the fact that SOME are called to be sent out, and our role is to partner with churches in encouraging, training and mobilizing them. And we will acknowledge the reality that ALL of us are called in some way to chase the darkness … and we must encourage, train and mobilize them as well.

Southern Baptists’ own ‘finest hour’

In the moment of his nation’s great testing, Winston Churchill noted that “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

With your permission, by God’s grace, and because ours is kingdom interest rather than national interest, I’d like to paraphrase and give spiritual life to Churchill’s statement. In it I believe there is a message for IMB, a message for us, a message for this board, a message for our personnel and our convention.

“To each SBC entity and its trustees, there comes in their lifetime special moments when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the opportunity to do a very special thing, unique to them, fitted to their charge, and filled with kingdom significance. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared, unqualified, or unwilling for that which could have been their finest hour.”

We have the charge. We are qualified and prepared. Southern Baptists and the witnesses in heaven are on tiptoe, simply waiting to see if we are willing.

Trustees, fellow workers in the IMB and Southern Baptist family: I pray the testimony of these days is that we were, indeed, of willing heart for what may well become our finest hour.

Listen again to the Word of the Lord. “Deliver those who are being taken away to death! And those who are staggering to slaughter, oh, hold them back!”

The Lord desires it … the lost deserve it … and our love demands it. We must rise to the occasion, join heart and soul with the saints of all the ages, bathe all our efforts with prayer, strap on the armor of faith, bind on our Gospel boots … and chase the darkness.

For the vision! 2 Timothy 1:12: “Our vision is a multitude from every language, people, tribe and nation knowing and worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Tom Elliff is IMB’s president. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Tom Elliff