News Articles

IMB PRESIDENT’S REPORT: 5 myths about the International Mission Board

EDITORS’ NOTE: In a report to trustees of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board during their Oct. 31-Nov. 3 meeting in Dallas, President Jerry Rankin listed five myths making the rounds about the International Mission Board in some Baptist circles. The text of Rankin’s report follows.

DALLAS (BP)–It is a challenge to communicate the realities of IMB mission strategies and what God is doing among such a large dispersed constituency as the Southern Baptist Convention. We live in an environment in which information is suspect. There seems to be a perception that media shapes the news with self-serving spins, and messages from large institutional organizations amount to little more than promotional hype. Attempting to communicate the truth of what God is doing through the IMB and the integrity of our motives and decisions is not always welcomed and applauded by the conventional thinking of our post-modern society, nor is it necessarily respected by those among Southern Baptists who are not supportive of the conservative direction of the denomination.

Whether information is deliberately distorted or not, we live in an environment in which myths often take on a life of their own. A myth is defined as “a collective opinion or belief that is based on false premises or is the product of fallacious reasoning.” Myths have become commonplace throughout Southern Baptist life for years, and that is not likely to change. It is often said that the conservative resurgence is all about power and control rather than theology. Theological positions and practices being advocated by factions that readily depart from the clear teaching of God’s authoritative and infallible word indicate otherwise. But the reality is that the massive majority of Southern Baptists really do adhere to the inerrant word of God and the commitment to the fundamentals of our faith as reflected in the conservative resurgence. The very nature of our denominational polity defies power and control accruing to any individual or group. Another myth would have us believe that the defining doctrinal characteristics of being a Baptist are the priesthood of the believer and autonomy of the local church while ignoring the reality that these two tenets of our faith do not stand in isolation but are contingent on what is truly our historic foundational beliefs, the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the absolute authority of God’s inerrant word.

It is not my intent today to expound on these and other prominent myths related to the Southern Baptist Convention, but to seek to dispel some of the prominent myths that continue to be propagated about the International Mission Board. I am reminded of a quote from philosopher William James in regard to these just mentioned and others. He said, “Nothing is so absurd that if repeated often enough will be believed by the masses.” Some of these myths have been and continue to be repeated to the point that they are believed, often very innocently by those who are gullible to believe whatever they hear, but by others who seem to have little interest in the truth. It is regrettable that some prefer to hold to distorted perceptions when it seems to serve their presuppositions, even when evidence to the contrary is presented. What are some of these myths?

#1. It is often said that the International Mission Board is no longer interested in seminaries, hospitals and other institutions and is mandating that all missionaries leave these assignments to be church planters regardless of their calling and training.

Before refuting this misinformation, it should be pointed out that the purpose of our mission task is to bring a lost world to saving faith in Jesus Christ. The greatest potential for doing that is in accord with the basic purpose that my predecessor introduced to the IMB of “evangelism that results in churches.” Whatever the assignment of missionaries, the ultimate purpose is to be a witness to the lost and bring into existence indigenous, multiplying churches. Social ministries, medical work, publications, theological education are all assets, if not essential, to effectively evangelizing a lost world. They not only have an inherent value in their ministry, but are platforms for accessing lost populations and discipling and strengthening the churches.

When these institutions were begun many years ago, it was envisioned and planned that they would one day be nationalized and fully supported by the local convention of churches. Those efforts have been successful on our historic mission fields. Recent inquiries have revealed that only four missionaries out of more than 5,000 were asked to move out of institutional assignments because they had long ago been designated for national leadership. We are appointing more seminary teachers, medical personnel, teachers and social workers than ever before. But they are not continuing in roles that would propagate patronizing dependence of historic mission institutions, as some would advocate, but are using their calling and skills to push back the last frontier of an unevangelized world.

#2. Another myth says that since “New Directions” in 1997 all decisions are handed down by administrators in Richmond and field missionaries have less involvement in decision-making.

People obviously have short memories. It wasn’t too long ago when a Global Strategy Group of high-level administrators in Richmond formulated strategies and annual goals for the whole world. Implementation and accountability flowed through area directors who were IMB staff administrators. Yes, there was strong leadership given to reconfiguring our overseas organization in 1997 to provide for growth, more balanced administrative services and allow for geographic, cultural and strategic affinity. Staff administrators were replaced by on-the-field, regional leadership teams who are missionary peers. The large bureaucratic mission organizations were replaced by localized people group teams in which frontline missionaries shared ownership of strategies and were accountable to each other rather than to a hierarchy of leadership. Administrators in Richmond cast the vision, but never has decision-making been so decentralized and missionaries had more freedom to fulfill their calling.

This myth seems to be based on the perception that the IMB should support missionaries to go and do whatever they want to do without any coordination or accountability. We may have operated under the Biblical pattern in the past of “everyone doing what is right in their own eyes,” but if we are going to be faithful in reaching a lost world, the rebellious children of Israel cannot be our mode. There must be servant leadership that will give direction, maintain focus, and create an organizational environment of synergy and passion for the main thing.

#3. There is a myth circulating that the IMB has changed its way of counting missionaries to inflate statistics. Related to this is the myth that we are emphasizing short-term missions and no longer interested in career missionaries who plant their lives in an incarnational witness.

The reality is that we are counting missionaries the way they have always been counted. Those serving for two years or longer as journeymen or in International Mission Corps assignments have always been fully supported by the IMB and included in the missionary count, consistent with other mission agencies. While the percentage of career missionaries has declined, this does not represent a decline in the number of long-term missionaries. In fact we have had record numbers of career missionaries appointed three of the last four years, and this year almost 50% more long-term missionaries will be sent out than last year. We have had such an increase in career candidates we recently had to increase our number of personnel consultants from eight to ten; they are currently working with more than 3,000 candidates active in the appointment process.

Apparently those propagating this myth would advocate restricting the multitude of Southern Baptists who are being led of God to serve two or three years, enabling us to vastly multiply our witness and also to free up career missionaries for cutting edge assignments while they coordinate the masses of volunteers, provide support services as well as filling primary strategic assignments. Should we ignore the evident trend in society toward mobile, flexible short-term service and deny the call of God in the lives of thousands to be involved in impacting a lost world in order to maintain an arbitrary proportion between short-term and long-term personnel in our missionary force? How long does one have to live among people to be an incarnational witness? In the last two years 43% of those appointed to career missionary service had already served for two years as a journeymen or with ISC; restricting these assignments would clearly diminish the potential of filling long-term personnel needs.

#4. There is a myth that says the Southern Baptist Convention is more interested in doctrinal conformity than missions as its unifying and driving priority; that the IMB is simply looking for churches to support its bureaucratic programs rather than serving the churches.

It is hard to understand how such a distortion would be believable by anyone willing to recognize and acknowledge the facts. Not only have we had record numbers of missionary appointments eight out of the last nine years, this will be the second consecutive year more than a thousand new missionaries have been appointed. In the last two years short-term volunteers have increased more than 50% from 21,000 in 1999 to 34,000 in 2001. Support for missions through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering has reflected unparalleled growth in record levels for the past eight years. Simultaneously the IMB has more than tripled the unreached people groups being penetrated with the gospel in just the last five years, is seeing exponential growth in new churches being started and reporting more than a thousand new believers a day being baptized. That is not exactly a picture of missions no longer being the focus and priority of Southern Baptists. The fact is, Southern Baptists have realized that this kind of missions and evangelistic impact can only be made, not by embracing diversity and theological relativism, but by adhering to the doctrinal foundations of our faith.

For nine years I have been saying, “It is not the responsibility of the International Mission Board to do missions on behalf of Southern Baptists; the Great Commission was given to every church, every believer and every denominational entity. Our role is that of a servant and an enabler to facilitate churches being involved in our missions task.” The SBC was restructured in 1997 for the explicit purpose of “facilitating churches to fulfill the Great Commission.” Some are advocating that the idea of a denominational entity serving churches is new and unique, but we have been saying to churches for years, “Tell us what God is leading you to do, and we will help facilitate that to have a more effective result through providing personalized ownership of the mission task and working in partnership.” Over a thousand local churches have now joined our Global Priority network, partnering with their missionaries, adopting unreached people groups, involving their church in prayer strategies and volunteer projects.

#5. I could go on and on, but a final myth I would like to dispel says, the IMB has unlimited reserve funds that it refuses to spend while appealing for massive gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

This myth has become so widespread that it is even believed by many who are friends and supporters of the IMB. This is apparently a result of deliberate or uninformed reading of our audit and balance sheet. Reserves are not identical with investments nor are they endowments such as those accumulated by our educational institutions. The IMB invests every dollar that flows through our books in a stewardship of resources provided by Southern Baptists. What does that large figure of more than $300 million dollars, identified as reserves or investments on our audit report, really represent?

It represents $38 million obligated to mission budgets that are on their way to the field, $42 million in global capital through which we provide housing and cars for more than 5,000 missionaries without impacting limited operating budget resources or missionary support, and $18 million in self-funded medical coverage. It represents $26 million in life insurance provisions and $109 million as the actuarial value of post-retirement benefits required. It represents $50 million in contingency funds, less than 20% of our annual budget for crises and emergencies, and $34 million in endowment restricted by donors to specific designated purposes. Is there anything remaining that represents a pool of available reserve resources? No! Contrary to the awareness of many, we have spent more than $60 million over the last four years from reserves to expand our Missionary Learning Center, provide for technological needs into the 21st century, and to continue sending out more new missionaries than the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and our allocation from the Cooperative Program would cover. With these expenditures, and the current decline in the stock market, the International Mission Board has no margin of reserves that are available for any purpose beyond a $10 million operating reserve maintained by board policy.

I will not presume to attribute motives to publications and individuals that propagate these and other myths. I would like to think it is simply due to ignorance rather than to any self-serving purpose of disseminating misinformation. I do know that it is unlikely my report will dispel the myths and opinions based on false premises and fallacious reasoning. Perhaps William James was right when he said, “Nothing is so absurd that if repeated often enough will be believed by the masses,” but God has given us a passion for bringing all the peoples of the world to saving faith in Christ, and we will continue to be driven by that vision and share with truth and integrity what God is doing through the IMB.

    About the Author

  • Jerry Rankin