LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–An evening of testimonies conveyed both miracles and the remaining challenges of a lost world. And Southern Baptists responded on their knees with prayer — and a gift of more than $100,000 to international missions June 23 at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Louisville, Ky.
Following recent news that the International Mission Board had to suspend appointments to two short-term programs and reduce its missionary force, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention presented a check to help put more missionaries on the field. Another offering of about $43,000 was collected during the Southern Baptist Conventions’ Pastor’s Conference earlier this week.
“Just a few weeks ago we received the sad news … that we had more missionaries that wanted to go than we had funds to send them,” said Jim Richards, executive director of the Texas convention. “[We] decided to take action … to begin making up the difference.”
Despite the economic challenges and growing hostility toward Christianity, Southern Baptist missionaries are changing lives in difficult places or “pockets of lostness” — areas around the world that represent various government restrictions, persecution and logistical challenges.
‘PRAY FOR A THOUSAND’
Several missionaries — unable to be identified for security reasons — stood on an unlit area of the stage to share their stories.
One recounted how she and her husband struggled for three years to find one believer in the Muslim-dominated area where they live. One day she began praying that God would raise up 100 new believers.
“God immediately put in my mind — pray for a thousand,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t know a thousand.’ [But] He did.”
Before the couple retired from the field this past May, more than 1,600 had accepted Christ.
“God said it, we believed it, He did it,” she said.
Messengers also heard a testimony from Brad Bessent, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church in Hopkins, S.C., which began a partnership in Mali in 2006 and has now started a church among the Bambara people group in six villages. The Bambara are less than 2 percent evangelical.
Since then, Beulah Baptist, which averages around 200 people each Sunday, has made multiple trips each year and seen more than 150 professions of faith.
“What God has allowed us to do,” Bessent said, “He can do through any church that is willing to step out in faith and obey the commission.”
Beulah is just one example of churches finding a way to make an impact for Christ, with Rankin noting, “I know these difficult economic times are impacting families and churches, but has not the Great Commission always demanded sacrifice?”
There are “vast pockets of lostness where multitudes have yet to even hear the name of Jesus,” Rankin said.
The convention should take a closer look at its use of resources, Rankin contended. Last year, Southern Baptist churches reported receipts of almost $12 billion, he said. Of that amount, less than 2.5 percent was channeled through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering to reach a lost world for Christ.
“Is it more important to maintain our institutions, sustain church programs and support a denominational structure centered on 5 percent of the world’s population that is already well-churched than to send the missionaries God is calling out of our own churches to reach the 95 percent of the world who are deprived of an opportunity to know Jesus?” he asked.
“Is it really a problem with the economy or rather distorted priorities and hearts that are not aligned with our Lord’s passion to be glorified among the nations and peoples of the world?”
In May, IMB trustees approved the suspension of new appointments to two short-term missionary programs and cut back on the overall number of missionaries to be appointed for the remainder of 2009. The $141 million collected for the 2008 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions fell $29 million short of the $170 million goal and more than $9 million short of the 2007 offering total.
The IMB’s missionary force — which stands at more than 5,600 — will be 400 fewer than it is now by the end of 2009. It could be 700 fewer by this time next year. The reductions will occur through retirements and completions of service.
“Are we saying that 5,000 missionaries are enough … to evangelize the rest of the world while we support over 100,000 pastors, church staff and denominational workers in our own country?” Rankin asked.
Southern Baptists face a critical choice, Rankin said.
“We can examine our priorities, restructure an outdated bureaucracy, support the missionaries being called to reach our world or allow our hearts to become hardened, our future to decline, our influence to crumble and our witness fade into insignificance as we focus on maintaining the status quo and strive to sustain that which is increasingly irrelevant.
“Let us not dilute the Great Commission to mean less than our Lord’s mandate to disciple the nations and to be His witness to the ends of the earth.”
The organization currently is in the midst of what Rankin called “the most radical restructuring of [IMB’s] 164-year history.” In 1997, IMB launched “New Directions,” an effort to tighten the organization’s focus on unreached people groups.
Though thousands of people have come to Christ as a result, Rankin said the organization must take new approaches to continue that success.
“We cannot presume that past methods and structures will produce the same results in a changing world,” he said. “We find our own society polarized, fighting cultural battles we never dreamed would be viable issues of political debate. Denominational loyalty is fragile, and our churches are seeing diminishing success in trying to evangelize a post-modern society.”
Restructuring changes include: consolidating administrative field structures and intensifying communication between churches and their missionaries on the field. Once assigned to 11 regions, missionaries will now be able to reach out to their designated people groups anywhere and everywhere they are accessible.
“Geographic boundaries are irrelevant in our world today,” Rankin said.
Increased partnerships with Southern Baptist churches also will be a key to the success of the reorganization, he said.
“Will we not one day stand accountable before God for failure to fulfill the mission for which He blessed us in numbers and resources?” Rankin asked. “How will we explain our unwillingness to send and support the missionaries He calls from our churches?”
At the end of the IMB’s presentation, more than 50 messengers and guests gathered at the front of the convention hall to pray and seek God’s plan for missions in their lives.
Shawn Hendricks is a staff writer for the International Mission Board.