NEW ORLEANS (BP) — What will it cost to be Jesus’ heart, hands and voice to a lost and dying world? Absolutely everything. That was the challenge from International Mission Board President Tom Elliff June 20 to messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans.
It was some 30 years ago in New Orleans, Elliff told SBC messengers, when Southern Baptists began the Conservative Resurgence, a fight for the inerrant, infallible nature of Scripture. Southern Baptists again are at a similar crossroads, he said.
“If the Word of God was worth that much to us to save it in its purity, is it not worth that much to share it with people around the world?” Elliff asked. “I’ll just be honest with you — I think it’s time we as Southern Baptists became as excited about sharing the Word of God as we used to be about saving the Word of God.
“The bigger question is, are you willing to pay the price? Because Jesus said it’s going to cost you everything. Everything you are and everything you hope to be,” Elliff said.
Elliff reported on the progress of IMB’s Embrace challenge, issued at the 2011 SBC in Phoenix, where he called on Southern Baptist churches to claim responsibility for evangelizing all of the world’s then 3,800 unreached, unengaged people groups (UUPGs).
“You stepped up to the plate,” Elliff told messengers, reporting that 1,281 Southern Baptist churches and entities have indicated an interest in embracing a UUPG. Of that number, 474 churches and entities have also taken steps to go deeper in that commitment.
“It means some of you are taking this really seriously, and you’re saying we want to count the cost, we want to see what’s involved,” Elliff said. “I want to tell you on behalf of the International Mission Board, we’re absolutely thrilled. We welcome you to the field, we rejoice that you’ve taken up this mantle and we praise God that the Kingdom is being expanded because of your involvement.”
Messengers heard from Chris Jenkins, pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Prince George, Va., whose congregation has embraced a nomadic UUPG in the Sahara Desert. Jenkins described Unity as a “small country church” that averages 175 in Sunday School.
“Typically Annie and Lottie has been where we did our missions,” Jenkins said of Southern Baptists’ annual missions offerings. “We liked to talk like we were a church on mission, but we really knew it was just a show. We were more concerned with what was going on inside the four walls [of the church] instead of out.”
But four years ago, Jenkins said, that began to change. Through God’s influence and “a lot of prayer,” he called IMB’s prayer office in 2009 and asked about adopting a people group.
“We wanted somebody that nobody else wanted. Of course, we just wanted to pray for them and didn’t have a clue what we were getting into,” Jenkins said. The nomadic group that Unity was given turned out to be a UUPG of more than 300,000 with only a single known Christian.
Unity volunteers set foot in the Sahara in September 2010 and were blessed with “divine appointments” that allowed the church to quickly build relationships among their UUPG. The church has since sent three more short-term missions teams and is already seeing change in the desert as well as back home in Virginia.
“We’re seeing God break down the barriers to the Gospel in Western Africa because some country folk in Prince George, Va., were willing to be obedient and just show up. Our people [group is] getting a hunger for hearing stories from God’s Word, imams are opening up to us, village leaders are allowing God’s stories to be told, and some [people] are even choosing to be secret believers,” Jenkins said.
“In our local church it’s unleashed a heart to be on mission wherever we are. We’ve seen people that are selling cars and taking second jobs, some are even planning for early retirement just so they can answer the Acts 1:8 call. By engaging the lost, God has changed our hearts to be broken for theirs. … We’ve learned that He just wants us to love Him, to love each other, and to bottle all that stuff up and take it out to a dying world.”
Jay Wolf, pastor of First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., spoke about the dramatic success his congregation has already witnessed through their embrace experience. FBC Montgomery is committed to sharing Jesus with the Ejamat people of Senegal, West Africa, a UUPG of about 3,000 with no known believers.
The church sent its first team in mid-March looking for a “person of peace” who would help them gain entry into the Ejamat community. But God gave them more than they bargained for.
“We shared the Gospel and 27 people from this animistic group embraced Christ as their Savior,” Wolf recounted. Then, during FBC Montgomery’s second trip to Senegal in April, Wolf said they witnessed the birth of a new church — a first among the Ejamat.
“It was a dynamic experience, as if we had stepped into the pages of Acts chapter 16,” Wolf said. Eight more Ejamat followed Jesus, and by the trip’s end, 19 had been baptized.
“To be baptized in that culture is drawing a line in the sand, it’s turning you back on many of your family members,” Wolf said. “Our hearts flooded with joy and I know heaven erupted in fireworks. … We saw God’s light and love shatter the devil’s darkness and deception.”
Today there are at least 35 believers among the Ejamat, and Wolf said God has raised a pastor from among them — and all in less than a year’s time.
“If an old downtown church like First Baptist Montgomery can rise up and embrace an unreached people group, and if we can see 35 new believers, and if we can see a new church started, you can do it too. That’s the simple truth,” Wolf challenged SBC messengers.
“If 3,400 of our churches would step up and embrace one of these people groups, what would happen? We could see the Great Commission fulfilled in our generation.”
Elliff lauded Southern Baptists’ recent Gospel advances, noting that in the most recent annual report IMB missionaries and their national partners baptized more than 333,800 new believers and started some 28,800 new churches. But that wouldn’t be possible, he said, without the faithful support of Southern Baptists.
Elliff expressed his gratefulness for the $146.8 million given to international missions in 2011 through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, a $1.1 million increase over 2010. That’s in addition to the $94.3 million Southern Baptists gave to IMB through the Cooperative Program. Together, Lottie Moon and CP dollars support the more than 4,900 Southern Baptist missionaries serving around the world, including their 4,000 children.
“They’re there because of you and because of your concern for the Great Commission,” he said. “The Cooperative Program is one of the most wonderful, incredibly effective ways of supporting missions any place on this globe.”
Southern Baptist messengers heard testimony from four of those missionaries, including Tak and Lana Oue who serve in Japan, where only one person in 200 knows Jesus as Savoir.
“Our hearts break as we think of the 3,000 who die daily, lost, most without ever hearing about Jesus Christ, bound by tradition and ancestor worship, preoccupied with success and endless search for happiness,” Lana Oue said.
She spoke of God’s leading in 2002 to a woman named Mrs. Key* who had a passion to share Jesus with her own people.
“As we discipled her, God worked in a miraculous way,” Lana said. “In one year, 38 people were saved and a church began that multiplied to the fifth generation. The church continues to grow today and small groups meet for worship across the city.”
Another of Lana’s friends, Mrs. Sei*, believed the Gospel the first time she heard and “immediately began to boldly share” Jesus with family and friends. Her family thought she had joined a cult and worked for three days to persuade her to change her mind. Mrs. Se refused, saying she would leave the family if necessary but would not surrender her faith in Christ.
Tak Oue spoke of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, “a triple disaster that literally shook Japan from its foundation,” killing more than 20,000 people and causing the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. Some 250 Southern Baptist volunteers have come to help rebuild since the disaster, leaving a lasting impression on the Japanese they meet.
“Many survivors ask, ‘Why did you come?’ This opens doors for us to share the message of God’s love,” Tak said. “Most of these survivors are hearing about Jesus for the very first time. Now one year has passed, and some survivors are saying, ‘Other volunteers have stopped coming, but you Christians are still with us. Being forgotten is our greatest fear. Please don’t forget us.'”
When counting the cost of Great Commission obedience, Elliff challenged messengers to rethink their understanding of the word “sacrifice.”
“Sometimes the word sacrifice is used a bit more naively,” Elliff said. “Because the truth of the matter is, if you can drive what you were going to drive anyway, and eat where you were going to eat anyway, and live where you were going to live anyway … where’s the sacrifice in that? You see, with a sacrifice, something changes.”
Elliff told the story of William Borden, an American missionary who walked away from his family’s fortune to follow a call to spread the Gospel among Muslims in China. But during language school in Cairo, Borden contracted meningitis and died in 1913 at the age of 25 before ever reaching his mission field.
Borden’s Bible was found and returned to his parents. Inside the book, he had written the words “No reserve” and “No retreat,” referring to his decision to eschew his family’s multi-million-dollar fortune. The words “No regrets” were also inscribed in the Bible, dated shortly before his death in Egypt.
“Your life is a blip on the radar screen of eternity. How do you plan to spend the balance of your life?” Elliff asked. “I am haunted by that story.”
Elliff asked messengers to fill out a commitment card indicating their desire to seriously and prayerfully pursue God’s calling to greater missions involvement. Hundreds stood and held their cards aloft as Elliff prayed over them.
“1.7 billion [of the world’s people] could very likely die without ever having heard the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Elliff said.
“What’s it going to cost? It’s going to cost everything. No reserves. No retreats. … No regrets.”
*Name changed. Don Graham is the International Mission Board’s senior writer. Learn more about embracing an unreached, unengaged people group at call2embrace.org or imb.org.