RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Many Southern Baptist churches that pride themselves in being “missions minded” might have a hard time convincing an impartial observer, an International Mission Board leader told trustees Sept. 12 at LifeWay Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center.
The meeting was part of a three-day gathering that included a national reunion for about 1,000 emeritus missionaries at Ridgecrest and the appointment of 48 new overseas workers at Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden near Asheville.
“As I travel, I hear a lot about how ‘missions-minded’ Southern Baptists are,” said Gordon Fort, IMB vice president of overseas operations. “I often ask, ‘How much does your church pay for utilities each year?’ Then I ask, ‘If you are paying more for your utility bill than you are giving to reach a lost world for Christ, how does that make you a missions-minded church?'”
Southern Baptist churches ought to re-examine just how high a priority missions really is when they claim a total of 16 million members yet have only 5,234 international personnel currently under appointment, Fort said.
“Southern Baptists are great to talk about tithing,” he told the trustees. “I want to ask whether a church shouldn’t tithe its membership to reach a lost world?” Even if just 1 percent of 10 million active Southern Baptists were to enter the mission force, “we would have 100,000 missionaries. Instead, we have 5,000.”
Fort noted that IMB leaders have a vision “for 3,000 more active missionaries on the field…. Adding 3,000 new missionaries might be a difficult task if we were starting out with no resources, but the truth is that those 3,000 new missionaries are already sitting in our churches, and the finances to support them are already in our pockets. It’s not a hard task.”
During their May 2007 meeting, IMB trustees allocated $5.2 million beyond what was already budgeted to fund new missionaries using 2006 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering receipts to enable sending an additional 200 new missionaries to the field in 2007-08.
A key strategy for recruiting 3,000 additional missionaries is a new emphasis on mobilizing students for “hands on” missions, Fort said.
The pilot project -– “Hands On: Africa” -– will give 18- to 29-year-olds an opportunity to immerse themselves in the “nuts and bolts” of overseas missions for four or five months while working alongside seasoned workers in a wide range of missions challenges. Applications for spring 2008 projects are due Oct. 20. The program is expected to expand to other parts of the world by 2009.
“I find a tremendous responsiveness to missions in the hearts of young people today. They want to make a difference,” Fort said. “I believe that if we can connect our young people to the reality of overseas service, God will speak to many of them, and we will see them come back as journeyman and career missionaries.”
The new generation of Southern Baptist overseas missionaries is learning that the responsiveness of groups is directly related to their access to the Gospel, IMB President Jerry Rankin said.
People have long talked about the work of missionaries in terms of “sowing fields” -– places where the Gospel is shared but people have not yet responded -– and “harvest fields” –- places where people are responding in great numbers to Gospel proclamation, Rankin said. The truth, however, is there are only “current harvest fields” and “neglected harvest fields.”
“Harvest, or responsiveness, is always linked to access,” Rankin said. “There is no harvest where there is no proclamation.”
Countries like Brazil are often cited as “harvest fields” where people are responsive, but the large number of baptisms in such a country reflects the fact that the Gospel has been proclaimed there for many years and the country has many evangelical churches and believers, Rankin said. By contrast, large sections of the globe register little response to the Gospel because comparatively few missionaries are working there.
“One of our workers in northern Africa -– reflecting on the responsiveness they were finding in the Muslim world –- told me, ‘We have discovered that where we sow abundantly, we reap abundantly; where we sow sparingly, we reap sparingly. The only reason we haven’t had a more abundant harvest in the Muslim world is that we haven’t found the ways to sow more abundantly,'” Rankin said. “The Gospel is the power of God to draw people to Jesus Christ. When creative ways are found to penetrate even the most resistant people with the Gospel, it will produce a harvest.”
Rankin challenged the trustees to remember that the board’s mission -– and the church’s Great Commission -– is to make disciples of all the world’s people, not just “populating heaven with the greatest number of converts of a missionary witness.” Fulfilling that mandate requires making difficult decisions about where to deploy limited resources. While almost half of the board’s missionary force is assigned to historic, traditional mission fields, a sharp focus must be maintained on getting workers into the “neglected harvest fields,” Rankin said.
“One of the emeritus missionaries here this week shared with me the illustration that compelled him to respond to God’s call and leave the United States, where the workers are plentiful, to go where the workers are few,” Rankin said. “He told of a speaker in seminary chapel who asked this question: If you came upon a group of loggers trying to lift a log, and there were nine men at one end of the log and only one at the other end of the log, which would you go to help?”
International missions leaders must answer the same question in regard to allocating resources between countries where many are proclaiming the Gospel and those where no one is working, Rankin said.
“These are critical times. Global events are providing unprecedented opportunities to penetrate the lostness of the last frontiers of Great Commission fulfillment,” he said. “We must adopt the ‘whatever it takes’ attitude of the apostle Paul, who was willing to risk imprisonment, beating, stoning and a deprived lifestyle that ‘they who had no news of Him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand.'”
The trustee board unanimously elected a new regional leader for the board’s East Asia region. The new leader, whose name was withheld from publication for security reasons, was the unanimous choice of trustee and administration committees at every stage of the selection process, Fort recounted. This new regional leader has served overseas since 1994 and succeeds Bill Fudge, who retired this past summer after a 34-year missionary career.
With his wife at his side, the new regional leader said: “We are in awe of the Lord and deeply humbled that we would be considered for such a role. We clearly have sensed God’s overwhelming leadership, numerous promises that confirm this is the direction He has for our lives. We are quite excited -– ready, willing and able to meet this new challenge in East Asia.”
In other matters, trustees:
-– were informed by IMB treasurer David Steverson that despite turmoil in the stock market, the board’s investments fared well in July and August, breaking even in two portfolios while many investors lost money.
-– heard a report that during the previous two months $940,847.58 from the Southern Baptist World Hunger and Relief Fund had been allocated to 27 community development projects and 23 disaster relief efforts worldwide.
— allocated the remainder of the 2006 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. A total of $3.7 million was divided as follows: $1.5 million for initiatives to reach unengaged unreached people groups, $600,000 for strategic evangelism initiatives, $900,000 for field training in church planting movement methodology, $400,000 for field expenses for student missionaries and $300,000 for Bible funds.
-– learned about two new resources for Southern Baptist churches -– a CD titled “Impact Your World,” designed “for pastors who want to get their churches involved in missions but don’t know what to do,” and a multimedia guide for church missions leaders “filled with practical helps for promoting the 2007 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.”
The emeritus missionary reunion celebrated the Year of the Emeriti, an event held every five years. This year’s gathering drew about 1,000 retired missionaries representing a collective 26,000 years of service. Sixty new retiring workers joined the emeritus ranks during a recognition service Sept. 11 in Ridgecrest’s Spilman Auditorium.
The festivities were marred by the tragic death of one former missionary attending the event. Dorothy Pettit, who served 18 years in the board’s Middle America and Caribbean region before resigning in 1968, was killed Sept. 10 in Black Mountain, N.C., when a train struck the car she was driving.
The next trustee board meeting will be held Nov. 5-7 in Springfield, Ill., with a missionary appointment service Nov. 7 in conjunction with the Illinois Baptist State Association annual meeting.
Mark Kelly is a freelance writer based in Gallatin, Tenn. For more information on Hands On: Africa, the International Mission Board initiative to expand the involvement of 18- to 29-year-olds in overseas missions, visit hands-on-africa.com. To learn more about available resources for promoting the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, go to ime.imb.org, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on Resources.