ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–If there is any question about where the focus of the North American Mission Board lies as it enters the New Year, those questions quickly dissipate after talking with key leadership.
“We want to be about evangelism and church planting and sending missionaries who do evangelism and church planting,” says Interim Vice President for Missions Harry Lewis. That simple statement sums up the board’s direction as it stands on the threshold of 2007 and looks toward its 10th anniversary this June.
“We spent several months in listening sessions with our state partners and we heard those three primary objectives as being the areas they would like us to focus on,” Lewis said. “We are not reducing the other objectives we have had since our founding, we are just narrowing our focus.”
Shortly after its launch in June 1997 the board announced six Major Ministry Objectives. It’s those objectives that have been distilled down to three -– sharing Christ, starting churches and mobilizing missionaries and volunteers -– that set NAMB apart from all other Southern Baptist entities. The refined objectives were approved by trustees during their Oct. 4 board meeting.
The objectives that have been removed from the top-tier focus –- volunteering in missions, impacting the culture and equipping leaders -– have simply been folded into other strategies that, in turn, support the remaining three primary objectives.
“We are still committed to those objectives but we believe we can do those more effectively through existing programs,” Lewis explained. “This change simply sharpens our focus and helps us to stay on our primary mission.”
And it’s that focus that bolsters the work of 258 employees in the board’s Atlanta-area headquarters. With a simpler mission statement, they say, they are more energized to work with churches, associations and state partners to complete the task of evangelizing North America with the Gospel.
The new NAMB is being structured from the ground up in response to those listening sessions with key leaders at all levels of SBC life. In addition to providing a unified, national strategy in evangelism and church planting, feedback from partners also included requests for better research and development and for help in reaching people groups.
NAMB plans to beef up those areas with an enhanced research and development strategy that will undergird all of its initiatives, with the board eventually moving toward a people group model and focusing on one group each year.
“We are increasingly looking at North America as a mission field of people groups, much like the International Mission Board has approached its work around the world,” Lewis said. “We want to focus on the world that God has brought to us.
“We are realizing that we have a North American assignment with an international impact. As we do a better job of reaching North America we will be building stronger churches. As those churches grow, God will provide the people and resources to strengthen the IMB’s ventures around the world,” Lewis explained.
Reducing the lostness in North America, in short, will provide the personnel and financial resources to reduce the lostness of the world. It’s a big task, but one which NAMB is positioning itself to undertake with a renewed vision and vigor.
“Our team is not just in this building,” says John Avant, NAMB’s vice president for evangelism.
“We are part of a national team of state evangelism directors, executive directors, pastors, members of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists, seminary professors and others who play a valuable role in helping us reach North America. We do not want to do anything in a vacuum; we want to chart our future together, as a team.”
The feedback Avant has heard most clearly in the listening sessions is the call for “authentic relationships; real, trusting relationships” and the need for “a cohesive national evangelism strategy for evangelizing North America; not a top-down effort but a grassroots effort.”
NAMB is hoping to launch that renewed evangelistic vision at this year’s SBC annual meeting in San Antonio, Avant said.
“We are charged by the Southern Baptist Convention to lead in a national strategy for evangelism and church planting. But we cannot possibly do that without the help of our partners,” Avant said. “In San Antonio we hope to see a platform full of our leaders from all levels of the SBC, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as a unified team.”
The board does not currently know what the long-term strategy will look like or where it will end, Avant said, “but we know where it begins -– with leaders on their knees asking God for renewal and for His power” as they make a commitment to evangelize the world together.
“What we need in San Antonio is for Southern Baptists to see this unity. After that comes the nuts and bolts of determining how we flesh it out,” Avant said.
“The implementation for a true NAMB evangelism strategy is a 10-year journey,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we do not make immediate progress, but it does mean that we are laying the groundwork for a serious attempt to bring North America to Christ.”
This year will see an emphasis on the 150th anniversary of the 1857-58 prayer revival called the Fulton Street Revival that saw a million professions of faith. If that were to happen today it would equate to 10 million individuals turning to Christ, Avant said.
Part of that longterm strategy already is being implemented through a pilot program called “E-Coaching,” an approach that Avant said “came out of my heart that we must be more about people than products. We will not abandon great products that our churches need for evangelism, but we do not believe that anything we send to churches in a box is going to result in the revolutionary evangelistic changes that we want.”
E-Coaching is a mentoring and high-accountability partnership that will be rolled out to at least a dozen state conventions this year. Under this new strategy a group of pastors will be brought together for a two-day meeting where they explore new approaches to evangelism. Each pastor will attend sessions that are tailored to his unique ministry setting and will primarily be mentored from others across their state who serve in similar situations. Also, an occasional speaker from a national platform -– someone from NAMB or a seminary with related expertise -– will share the bigger picture with what is occurring throughout North America in similar settings.
“We will walk with them for a year, pouring ourselves into them with all the resources they need. We hope to see a significant increase in baptisms as they become more effective in reaching the lost in their communities,” Avant said.
The Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention piloted the approach in 2006. Former Georgia pastor Tim Clark, who serves as executive director for the convention, noted positive results from the experience.
“The E-Coaching approach gave our pastors the personal accountability and the encouragement they needed and raised their evangelism awareness. One of its strengths is that it’s not a program -– it’s about relationships as modeled between the evangelism coach and the individual being mentored.
“The sharing of knowledge was also valuable. Out here we serve in such isolation that whenever something good happens we frequently don’t have a way of knowing about it or even sharing it. From that perspective it offers a great support system for our pastors as they share what God is doing in their communities.
“It is not a one-size-fits-everyone approach, and I like that,” Clark said. “When NAMB rolls it out, it will be tailored to the needs of every state partnership, and that’s what will make it effective.”
As NAMB gears up for the 10-year national evangelism strategy -– of which E-Coaching is only one element -– Avant emphasized the need for a strong dependence on divine assistance.
“One thing that we’re hearing from our listening sessions is that we must see God move among us or this is a waste of time,” he said. “At the launch in San Antonio we intend to call Southern Baptists to prayer and renewal. We believe God knows exactly what our strategy looks like and He must show us for the proper approach to have an eternal impact.”
CHURCH PLANTING/STARTING CHURCHES
Richard Harris, NAMB’s vice president for church planting, is encouraged from the listening sessions by the shared vision that many partners already have for planting more churches.
“I think we live in one of the most opportunity-filled days in the history of church planting that we have ever seen,” Harris said, noting, “Church planting is the greatest tool of evangelism if it’s intentionally evangelistic.”
Harris said he believes NAMB will be far more effective with three major ministry objectives rather than the six previously in place.
“That’s who we are as a Southern Baptist [entity] -– we were doing many good things with the six objectives but perhaps at the expense of our primary objectives of evangelism, church planting and missions,” he explained.
One of the primary ways NAMB will make inroads in reducing lostness in North America will be through training church planters who baptize new believers, Harris said.
“Anything that is healthy reproduces itself. Our new direction is to ask our church planters to baptize three people in their first year, five in their second year, eight in their third year and 10 in their fourth year. That would add substantially to our baptism figures as a denomination,” he said.
NAMB’s goal is to work with its partners to start 7,500 new churches in the next four years, beginning this year, Harris said. That average of 1,875 plants a year, compounded by the 3-5-8-10 formula over four years, would result in an additional 99,000 baptisms in the fourth year -– by 2010.
The SBC’s previous high year for church plants was 2004 when 1,791 were started, followed by a slight dip to 1,725 in 2005. Final figures for 2006 are still being compiled and will not be released for a couple of months.
But NAMB doesn’t start churches in a vacuum. It works closely with state conventions and is heavily dependent on cooperation with state directors of missions or the state’s church planting director. As one of those partners, the Georgia Baptist Convention working in concert with NAMB added a record 103 churches in 2005, breaking the former record of 72 set the previous year.
More than 15 percent of those new Georgia starts were language/culture congregations. The variety of the new work is shown in the 13 distinct groups which encompassed Vietnamese, Haitian, Laotian, Asian Indian, Filipino, Hispanic, Brazilian, Messianic, French African, Romanian, Korean second generation, Bosnian and Ghanaian congregations. On the national level, 61 percent of the church plants reported to NAMB were ethnic or African American.
And that’s why the planting of new churches is so critical to reducing the lostness of North America, Harris maintained.
“If we and our partners can meet our church planting goals using the 3-5-8-10 formula, we could get one-fourth of our annual baptisms from church planters,” he said.
Harris and Avant work closely to monitor growth across the SBC because their assignments are so intertwined. Church plants produce more believers. More believers lead to more church plants.
“We know that nearly 74 percent of all Southern Baptist churches baptize 10 or less in any given year, and the average is only three or four per church. The churches that report no baptisms really bring the averages down,” Harris said. “We need to do everything we can to help churches see the lostness of their communities.
“It’s a fact that we will not be able to impact all churches; some just don’t want to get off of ‘dead center’ -– but we can certainly impact the new congregations.”
Reflecting on the future of North America and Southern Baptists’ obligation to their Acts 1:8 calling to reach all people, Harris said, “If Southern Baptists are not going to evangelize and take the Gospel to all people groups, then what is our reason for being here?”
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
One of the primary areas being beefed up through the restructuring is the area of research. While NAMB and its predecessor, the Home Mission Board, had a research department, this area is taking on greater visibility through a development arm that is crunching information from a variety of sources and distilling it for Southern Baptist audiences. In doing so, pastors and others are saving valuable time from going to numerous sites to read documents that may not apply to their unique situations, missiologist Ed Stetzer noted.
Stetzer, who serves as director for NAMB’s Center for Missional Research, said partners already are seeing results from the new emphasis. Through its portal at www.missionalresearch.info, individuals can access a variety of documents around three categories: knowing church, knowing culture and knowing community.
The “knowing church” area shares research on 14 topics such as attendance patterns and trends in baptisms. “Knowing culture” includes topics on 14 societal issues ranging from abortion to homosexuality and pornography. A Fact File for both areas contains nearly 1,600 PowerPoint slides and other downloadable research reports.
The third area, ‘knowing community,” includes resources such as demographics, how to identify people groups and how to locate a NAMB church consultant for further assistance.
The demographics section contains more than 30 maps and dozens of tables showing their implications for evangelism and church planting. More than 250 churches download a demographics report in an average month from the site, which has been online for less than a year.
Slightly more than 1,000 registered users frequent www.peoplegroups.info, which organizes content by country of origin and languages spoken in the home.
“The people groups site is a virtual link between IMB and NAMB and is a way of sharing information between the databases of the two [boards],” Stetzer said. The sharing of those databases reflects the narrowing of the definition between what are “domestic” and “international” missions; the two are increasingly overlapping as the world has come to North America.
For example, someone could search for information on the Quechua people of Peru, learn about their culture and value systems and connect with others working with those people groups around the world or in cities in North America. That’s where the true value of the system comes into play as someone in the States goes online to learn about a people group who recently settled in their community and learns ways of reaching them through networking with others who are doing the same in other locations throughout North America or around the world.
“Missions is not foreign anymore, it’s global,” Stetzer said. “We need to learn to work together to reach global peoples” as they immigrate beyond their native borders.
NAMB’s research area will expand even further in coming months as the board adds a research and development director. That individual’s responsibility will be to take raw research data and flesh it out for practical application for churches.
“Historically NAMB’s research has been more focused on crunching information from the Annual Church Profile,” Stetzer said. “While that is good, it’s no longer good enough. We want to be a one-stop shop for individuals seeking practical information on how to reach their culture and community.”
NAMB currently produces 22 research projects annually that focus on topics such as trends in baptisms and what people think of Southern Baptists. In addition, about 100 studies a month are uploaded that are culled from other sources and boiled down for easier understanding.
And NAMB has made it easier to see those reports by constantly updating the list and placing it on the board homepage at www.namb.net.
While NAMB does not do evangelism or church planting in a vacuum, neither does it appoint missionaries by itself. It relies heavily on its partnerships with the 42 state conventions and the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists who share the expense of placing individuals on the field.
Much of that cost is shared through gifts to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, which set a record high in late 2006. As of late December, NAMB had received $57.9 million, topping its $56 million goal. NAMB received in the first nine months of the year more than it had ever received in an entire year, reflecting Southern Baptists’ affirmation of the board’s acknowledgement for a strong missionary force.
Until 2006, the most ever given was $53.8 million in 2004; the amount for 2005 was slightly less at $53.6 million. The $57.9 million figure is only the third time the offering has surpassed its goal in the past two decades, said Mike Ebert, NAMB’s senior director of communications.
The board has 5,364 missionaries, the majority who are fully funded through the Annie Armstrong Offering. About 2,200 of those are self-funded Mission Service Corps currently receiving endorsement, training and other non-salary ministry support through NAMB. The board also endorses chaplains whose funding is provided by their hiring entity such as the military or healthcare or correctional facilities.
While NAMB works closely with its partners to place as many missionaries on the field as funds allow, it also is pioneering new ways of involving families in mission experiences.
Families from as far away as Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan gathered in Lynch, Ky., over the July Fourth week to share in a “Families on Mission” outreach. About 200 volunteers shared in the initiative.
The new venture is more than just another mission project to help a local community, said Rick Head, NAMB’s adult volunteer mobilization senior associate. It’s designed to bond participating families closer together -– physically, emotionally and spiritually. About half of each day is spent on family devotionals, prayer, worship, mission awareness, family small-group discussions and interacting with missionaries.
After family morning time, participants are assigned mission projects including home repairs, painting, free car washes and visiting shut-ins.
Next year’s summer projects will be held in New Orleans; Lynch; and East St. Louis, Ill. A special option for homeschoolers will be held Sept. 29-Oct. 4 in Mobile, Ala. For more information and to register, which is already underway, contact Head at [email protected] or call 1-800-462-8657, ext. 6219. Information also is available by clicking on the Volunteering in Missions link at www.namb.net.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Roy Fish, NAMB’s interim president and distinguished professor of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is confident that the board is up to the task of reducing lostness in North America through its renewed focus.
“You look at it sometimes and it almost appears impossible,” Fish told NAMB staff members in September. “But I’ve discovered that the commitment at the board is up to the task, and I find that we are going about our work with a passion that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen in a group of people that work in a denominational [entity] before.
“I know we face a task that is extremely formidable,” Fish said, “but we believe that the God who assigns us the task is bigger than the task itself.”
Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.