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Number of new mission workers hits all-time high in 1996

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Three and a half years ago, Alan Bell said goodbye to his girlfriend, Melissa, and boarded a plane for a two-year term of mission work in Hong Kong. He remembers now it was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

Last fall, Bell and Melissa — now his wife — were named two of 590 overseas mission workers appointed in 1996 by the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board for assignments of two years or more.

That’s a record number of new workers in a year’s time for the agency, which now assigns about 4,200 missionaries to work with 336 people groups in 126 countries. The annual number of new workers has been rising steadily for several years. In 1992 it stood at 414.

The Bells fit the profile of a growing number of Southern Baptists who served shorter assignments overseas before committing themselves as career missionaries. While Bell was in Hong Kong, Melissa worked in China for more than a year as part of the Foreign Mission Board’s International Service Corps program.

Mission leaders say the hand of God is at work producing Southern Baptist overseas workers in record numbers, as more churches become aware of people without access to the gospel of Jesus Christ and stress the need to pray for them.
Southern Baptists are responding to the call for workers on “The Last Frontier” — those unreached, inaccessible areas where traditional mission methods are unwelcome. “We can’t even put into print where some of these people go. They’re tough, tough places,” said Lloyd Atkinson, director of the board’s personnel selection department. “God is the one calling.”

People also are responding to the needs of “harvest fields” — those areas where new people are accepting Jesus Christ at such a pace mission workers struggle to train enough new leaders for the congregations springing up. Lee and Cathy Zwink, appointed in February, are examples of that. The Zwinks will work in La Serena, Chile, a beach and tourist city where certain pockets of people are showing a growing interest in the gospel. Last fall they completed a two-year International Service Corps assignment in Ecuador. And before she married Lee, Cathy worked as a journeyman for two years in Venezuela.

“I accepted Christ when I was 9 … . Shortly after, I began talking about becoming a foreign missionary,” Cathy says. She felt God’s clear call while studying French in ninth grade.

The high number of new workers in 1997 appears to be part of a trend. Since 1989, when 185 missionaries were appointed, the annual number of new career appointees has risen fairly steadily to 262, the highest number in nine years. Add to that an increasing number of two-year International Service Corps workers, and what emerges is a picture of growth.

The largest growth areas are for workers in The Last Frontier and Europe. Last year, 89 of a total 415 workers assigned through the International Service Corps and Journeyman programs went through Cooperative Services International, the humanitarian arm of the Foreign Mission Board that operates where traditional missionaries are unwelcome. Of new career appointees, 101 went to work in The Last Frontier.

International Service Corps workers assigned to Europe last year numbered 57. And of the total number of career appointees last year, 37 were assigned to work in Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. Mission leaders see urgent needs in that area, where reported repression of evangelicals has raised questions about how long mission work there can continue.

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  • Marty Croll