COLUMBUS, Md. (BP)–I have been an active Southern Baptist for more than 40 years. I have witnessed Southern Baptist missions as a pastor of a local church, as an appointed missionary on an associational staff, and from the perspective of a state convention worker. I have seen our high moments. I have experienced the underbelly. Yet, through it all I have remained convinced that our commitment to the Word of God and our cooperative efforts to accomplish the Great Commission still put us head and shoulders above so many other groups in our Acts 1:8 effectiveness.
I was in Nashville when the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force delivered their recent progress report to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. I invested time and resources to be there for I knew that what was presented there would have a significant impact on our work as Maryland/Delaware Baptists and as Southern Baptists. I went there knowing that major changes were coming. I needed to hear it and understand it for myself.
I have consistently embraced healthy change. Mark Twain was correct, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” I expected as a state convention leader to be called upon to lead our convention to sacrifice in order to free more resources to “reach the nations.” I had already begun to formulate talking points to encourage Maryland/Delaware Baptists to do our part. I surmised that all entities of Southern Baptist life would be called to join in that effort. My hope had been that we could agree on a strategy that would unite our hearts and our hands and our pocketbooks in taking the Great Commission commitment of Southern Baptists to a new level.
Unfortunately, none of that happened. Instead, I felt as if I had been transported back to Washington and was witnessing one political party positioning itself against another, making proposals that were not in the best interest of our mission or constituents, and hearing monologues laced with unfair accusations and innuendo. My heart broke.
For the sake of our mission I feel obligated to call attention to potential actions that in my opinion will have major detrimental effects on the work here and will do little to move us forward in reaching the nations. Let me begin by stating areas of agreement with the report. I agree that we need to do more to reach the nations. I agree with the mission outlined in the first initiative. This is not a new statement. For as long as I have been a Southern Baptist, it has been the mission of Southern Baptists to enable every person in the world to hear the gospel. The wording may have changed from decade to decade, but the mission itself has not really changed.
I agree that we need to become more missional. That is a good word. The Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware has championed a move to a more New Testament posture of taking the gospel to the people, rather than our predominantly “come and get it” approach modeled by many of our churches. I agree that we must target the high population centers of lostness in our cities. That is why we sought to Embrace Baltimore. Embrace Wilmington is in progress. Embrace Silver Spring is on the planning table. And as we proceed, our goal is to apply what we are learning in those efforts in Frederick, Hagerstown, Cumberland, Waldorf, Annapolis, and the other pockets of urban hurt and need. I agree expanding our church planting effort is a needed part of any strategy to reach the nations. BCMD has been out front in these efforts. We assisted in starting 35 new congregations in 2009 in this multi-state region.
I am not opposed to a larger percentage of resources being channeled through our International Mission Board. Since my early days as a pastor, I have sought to champion our missionaries — national and international. I led my churches to give at least 10 percent (often more) through the Cooperative Program with a desire to fund our missionaries as frontliners in reaching the nations with the gospel. I have long been a proponent of equal sacrifice to accomplish the Great Commission. We as Maryland/Delaware Baptists are more than willing to do our part.
I agree we need the North American Mission Board. I was with a group of state executive directors who met with the GCR Task Force and strongly encouraged them to not do away with NAMB as had been rumored. The North American Mission Board has been a good partner with Maryland/Delaware Baptists. NAMB has struggled with leadership and focus, but those who have related directly to us have been good partners.
I agree that all SBC entities including state conventions need to re-evaluate priorities and processes so as to enhance effectiveness, eliminate duplication, become better stewards, and strengthen our missions impact. None of us is without flaw. We should all be on a regular course of evaluation and improvement.
With that said, there are some major concerns for me in digesting the report as it stands today. I am in hope that the May update and the final report to the SBC in Orlando in June will reflect some of the changes that have been discussed with the leaders of the Task Force. But as for today, it is what it is! I am asking you to read the report for yourself. Hear my heart. Assess the concerns that I mention. Prayerfully arrive at your own conclusions. I hope your church will send messengers to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando in June. Ask your questions, make your decisions, and vote your convictions. That is what Baptists do!
Here are my concerns.
Unfortunately, the report to date does not live up to what had been communicated as the priority purpose of the Task Force. The main subject is not the International Mission Board and a strategy for getting more resources and missionaries to the nations. It is predominantly about the restructuring of the North American Mission Board, setting the new president (yet to be named) and his directly appointed missionaries in control of a national evangelism and church planting strategy. For the most part, state conventions such as ours are excluded from involvement in that strategy with the exception of raising funds. An organization that has fired its last two presidents and has minimal track record of success in doing direct missions is being told to shut down cooperative agreements and cooperative budgets with state conventions within four years. It has been the cooperative efforts between state conventions and the North American Mission Board that have produced much of the missions advance throughout the United States and Canada, especially in the large pockets of lostness such as ours. One friend of mine compares this new proposed strategy to taking a trip to the moon and then dismantling the ship that got you there before you build the new one to take you back home.
For Maryland/Delaware, the approval of this report will remove $1,000,000 a year from our operating budget. Much of that resource helps pay the salaries and benefits of 12 of our jointly appointed state missionaries and will reduce funding and benefits for all our Associational Directors of Missions in Maryland and Delaware. It also would dramatically reduce the financial resources for church planting and evangelism.
To be more specific, we would lose our entire church multiplication staff, all of our present evangelism staff, three of our key collegiate evangelism staff, our point person and lead missionary for Embrace Wilmington, and our resort missionary who through years of effort has opened doors to reach Eastern Europeans coming to work in Ocean City as well as mobilized volunteers for cutting-edge evangelism strategies for reaching one of the Northeast’s most popular vacation spots. Unless we can make up a substantial portion of that loss, we will be forced to release many of these key leaders. I deem that to be unacceptable. Neither is there any guarantee that the missionaries lost to us would be retained by NAMB. And if they are retained by NAMB as direct missionaries, they would most likely not be assigned in our area. The result would be a great deal of needless confusion and pain and loss of momentum. Doors that have taken years to open will close. Hard-won credibility and relationships in local mission efforts will be lost. Kingdom work in infant stages will be shut down. Meanwhile, a newly reconstructed entity will be charged to design immense plans for reaching the lost in every area of our vast nation. They must quickly become culturally aware in diverse urban centers coast to coast, select and equip a staff tasked to evangelize the entire country, develop indigenous leadership in areas where there are few or no local congregations, create a finely tuned infrastructure to support this effort, and reach full implementation in four years. Please hear my heart. It is not just about the money or even the staff. If this happens, it will dramatically reduce our ability to accomplish our cooperative mission as Maryland/Delaware Baptists and as Southern Baptists.
One of the key elements missing from this report is what has been the marquee of Southern Baptist success in doing missions — cooperation. Despite the call for unity, this new strategy will in essence pit the national SBC entities against state conventions and local associations, making us compete for resources. I know there are areas where poor accountability exists. The implication of the report is that this is widespread and exists primarily as the fault of the cooperative agreements with state conventions. That is not true. I know that working through institutions can sometimes be challenging. “Cumbersome” is the word cited in the report. Just ask those in the local church how challenging it can be to get things accomplished. But we have learned as Southern Baptists that we can accomplish so much more together than we can individually.
I also have a concern that the new approach of celebrating Great Commission giving is not going to enhance our financial support for reaching the nations. The Cooperative Program has been the lifeline of this convention’s mission strategy since 1925. It has been the envy of other religious missionary sending groups. Our missionaries do not have to spend their time raising money. They can remain on the field and stay focused on the mission. Every church gets to play a part in this worldwide disciple-making enterprise — large membership churches and smaller membership churches. Through the Cooperative Program and our special missions offerings we have been able to resource a comprehensive and effective Acts 1:8 strategy at the international, national, and local levels.
What this new proposal suggests is tantamount to the local church saying to members, “We would like for you to give to the general fund, but if you had rather designate your tithe for the pastor’s salary or the student ministry or to buy a new bus, that will be OK.” I fear that this new designation has more to do with making some of us feel better about how we already do things than it does about calling us to a higher level of stewardship and missions commitment.
I am disappointed. That is obvious. I do believe that some of what will happen if this is approved in Orlando will fit the category of “unintended consequences.” Task Force members may not have taken into account that in their efforts to address certain concerns that they would severely impact the work of reaching the pockets of lostness within our strategic mission field here in MD/DE. They surely did not realize that they would practically shut down the work of the Pennsylvania/South Jersey Convention, the New York Convention, or the New England Convention. These are our children. Each of these conventions was birthed in cooperation with the Baptist Convention of MD/DE because of the need for an infrastructure to support the work of missions in the Northeast. Virtually all of their staff are jointly appointed missionaries whose positions will most likely disappear in four years or less. Ironically, the scene for this dismantling is the very region cited in the report as one the largest pockets of lostness in our country.
I do agree Southern Baptists needed a jolt. We needed something to wake us up. I am awake. But I am concerned. I am praying that God will help us get clarity. I am praying that He will show us that our main issues are not structural or denominational. They are spiritual. I join Ronnie Floyd in calling for repentance and spiritual awakening.
There is still time to rethink what is being proposed. Again, I urge you to prayerfully read the report. Formulate your own perspective. Then as Baptists let your voices be heard. The GCR Task Force website is www.pray4gcr.com. Contact the Task Force.
May God lead Southern Baptists through the storm and stir our missionary hearts. Keep in mind, the final decisions about all of this will be made in the local church. And that is the way it should be.
David Lee is executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.