RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Eight-foot-tall grass closes around Fred Allen as he turns his four-wheel-drive vehicle off a rocky road in Zambia’s Western Province, one tire following a footpath.
It’s another day of church developer’s work for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board missionary, who closed out a career in music ministry three years ago in Lusaka to bring truth to the gospel-hungry Lozi people.
In three years, Allen has seen 15 Lozi Baptist churches and 10 fellowships started. Invitations to start new groups keep coming from other villages. People are responding in such numbers Allen and his wife, Joy, have to buy baptism certificates by the ream. And they haven’t had time yet to complete a survey for the missionaries who will replace them after they retire later this year.
“People thought I was crazy to start a new work three years from my retirement,” Allen recalled. “They asked: ‘Do you feel you can do the job of a church developer?’ I’m not a theologian or a preacher.”
But the Allens, like Foreign Mission Board missionaries in other responsive areas, found yielding their spirits to God produced better results than relying on technical preparation.
Responsive pockets of people like the Lozi account for continuing growth of the Foreign Mission Board enterprise. Last year missionaries and local Baptists with whom they worked started 2,367 new churches and baptized 283,674 new Christians. Total membership, fueled by response on key mission fields, was reported at about 4.1 million. The number of churches increased by 2 percent to 39,876.
These figures and others, just released by the Foreign Mission Board in its annual statistical report for 1996, indicate another healthy year for missionary efforts, though not a record-breaking one.
The report also indicates a quickly expanding ministry in areas the board considers “harvest fields” and “The Last Frontier” — a world region with little access to the gospel because of political or cultural resistance.
But the figures — which show that the most productive 25 mission fields accounted for 80 percent of the growth worldwide — portend changes designed to help missionaries on less productive fields reach new people. Though not a new trend, 66 fields showed no new church starts at all last year.
At a February meeting of the agency’s trustees, board President Jerry Rankin proposed a sweeping reorganization of overseas work. The restructuring would attempt to capitalize on new growth and determine how to cooperate with God to invigorate work in slower areas, said Avery Willis, the board’s senior vice president for overseas operations. Trustees plan to act on that proposal during their next two meetings.
Future growth will depend a lot on how in tune missionaries are with where God is moving, Willis said. Ten years ago missionaries tried desperately — and in vain — to reach the Maasai in Africa. Now whole Maasai villages are turning to Jesus Christ. And old men are asking why no one came earlier.
“In some areas (of Africa) people are just getting saved by the hundreds and hundreds and new churches are getting started,” said John Faulkner, who directs work in eastern and southern Africa. “God’s spirit just moves at certain places at certain times.”
Where God is apparently moving in north central India, workers are reporting disproportionate growth. After just seven years of work, 387 churches have started among a people group there — 157 new churches and 382 preaching points in the past year alone.
Other statistics from The Last Frontier show several first-ever churches among a number of people groups. In one area of central Asia, after a year and a half of witness and work, seven Buddhist men now meet to study the Bible, forming the nucleus of what will become a church. In a city of northern Africa, five churches of Muslim converts are thriving after the first Southern Baptist couple arrived five years ago.
To sustain future growth on responsive fields, missionaries last year continued strengthening attempts to train new leaders. Enrollment in discipleship programs grew from 1995 by about 25 percent, to 207,338, while the number of student centers grew by 24 percent, to 629. Enrollment in theological education by extension, called TEE, grew also, by 6 percent to 17,346. The number of seminaries and Bible schools grew by about 6 percent, to 319, with a total enrollment of 19,294.
Some missionaries are using TEE with great success. Missionary John Dina has established several churches in Mozambique by using TEE to train leaders who wouldn’t have been able to attend seminaries away from home. One pastor Dina trains walks from his town to the town where Dina teaches classes every week. His church members are people who left the local Muslim mosque.