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IMB trustees affirm ‘New Directions;’ policy focuses on world’s people groups

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (BP)–In their mid-July meeting at the Billy Graham Training Center near Asheville, N.C., International Mission Board trustees enthusiastically affirmed the agency’s current overseas policies, known as “New Directions,” as the best way to reach the whole world with the gospel of Christ.

New Directions began in 1997 as a massive overhaul and restructuring of the board’s overseas operations. It marked the first overarching plan in which the IMB has set its sights on all peoples everywhere.

In the past, large portions of the world, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia, were off-limits to traditional missionary activity. Attempts to reach some of these areas began in the late 1980s, but in 1997 New Directions removed all limitations.

Key ingredients in New Directions include its focus on the world’s people groups instead of geopolitical countries and on igniting church-planting movements instead of starting one church at a time.

Today, New Directions asks the question, “What’s it going to take to reach the whole world for Christ?” This has spawned creative approaches that are moving beyond traditional missionary efforts. For instance, finding a branch of a people group living in a more open country than the rest of that people group provides opportunities to evangelize and train those in the more open country to reach those in the more closed country.

Trustee-approved recommendations regarding New Directions included an affirmation that “our mission is to start New Testament churches consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message. Where government policy allows and where security concerns are not prohibitive there, churches will be publicly identified as Baptist churches.”

Other points in the New Directions review affirmed:

— “IMB Leadership [will] continue to emphasize church planting while exploring ways to promote discipleship and leadership training for churches that is contextually appropriate and adequate to facilitate Church Planting Movements.”

— “Our primary commitment [is] to people group focus without neglecting megacities and mega-population segments.

— “The senior vice president [is to] continue to evaluate the world’s needs and personnel growth and recommend changes to the organization’s structure to meet those needs.”

Trustees also requested that a committee be named to study the matter of missionary support. In an unrelated but parallel action, trustees also approved a restructuring of the staff salary policies for IMB workers in Richmond.

The trustee meeting was held in conjunction with International Missions Week at the nearby Ridgecrest Baptist conference center. The week, which drew more than 1,400 participants, ended July 13 with an appointment service for 57 new career and associate missionaries.

During the trustee meeting, seven of the 14 regional leaders reported on what God is doing in their regions. Each said he sees signs of growth in the spread of the gospel in his area.

Avery Willis, the board’s senior vice president for overseas operations, said he has heard concerns about whether some churches started by the IMB can correctly be called “Baptist.”

Don Dent, regional leader of Southeast Asia and Oceania, explained, “In most of my region we use the name Baptist and work with Baptist partners, but we have some places where this is not possible.”

He described three situations that are exceptions to the rule.

— In one country where being identified as a Baptist would bring swift governmental reprisal.

— In another country where Baptist work is overly identified with one ethnic group, and using the name Baptist would cause other groups to react negatively.

— In yet another country where national Baptists are considered quite liberal in their theology and do not believe faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation.

The board was expected to act on a report on cooperative partnerships overseas that was requested by the SBC Executive Committee, but the trustees’ overseas operations committee asked for more time to study the proposed staff report on the subject.

In his report to the board, IMB President Jerry Rankin noted he has agreed to sign “The Chicago Declaration on Religious Freedom,” which was drafted by a group of Christian scholars, theologians and church leaders at the invitation of Robert E. Reccord, president of the SBC North American Mission Board, and Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

The document affirms, “Only a society that permits free discourse within the robust marketplace of ideas envisioned by America’s founders can safeguard the true liberty, freedom and human dignity we all pursue.”

Rankin also reported on participating in the June 1-3 Consultation on Mission Language and Metaphors hosted by the School of World Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., but sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies and the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association.

That consultation produced a statement that says, “We regret that certain words and images long employed to call the church to mission have increasingly caused offense to the very people with whom we are seeking to share the Good News. Some of these words and images are biblical; some are motivational tools from the secular arena that we use to inspire involvement and action. Many are military in nature: target, conquer, army, crusade, mobilize, beachhead, advance, enemy and battle.”

In other action, trustees received as information a committee report on a pilot project known as the Great Commission Resource Network. The network has been criticized in some SBC circles because of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, the report said.

In the report, Al Gilbert, special assistant to the president, said: “The IMB is conducting a pilot project with 13 churches from around the United States. A few other churches are considering participation in this project, but we expect no more than 20 to participate. The purpose of this pilot project is to learn what churches are doing to lead their congregations in missions and to find ways to assist them in this process.

“These pilot churches [calling themselves a Great Commission Network] have agreed to learn and share information that relates to mobilization and the personalization of the mission task. As we learn from them in this process, we will be looking for ways to share this information with you. It should take at least a year for us to capture significant principles from this project, but we will seek to keep you informed.”

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  • Louis Moore