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WORLDVIEW: Advance, not retreat

An audio version of this column is available here

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–I passed by Ground Zero in a taxi the other day.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Lower Manhattan. Tourists and New Yorkers crowded the sidewalks, enjoying the street cafes in Little Italy, the open markets in Chinatown, the sun and shade in Battery Park.

Amid the bustle and traffic of the Financial District sat the gaping hole where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Silent. Still. Strangely out of place in a city filled with sound and energy. Like an infected wound marring otherwise flawless skin, it reminded me of the sin and death that lurk just beneath the smooth surfaces of everyday life.

Seven years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, but the reverberations of that terrible day continue. Multiple wars and countless skirmishes have been fought — continue to be fought — between an array of armies, militias, factions and terrorist groups. Many innocents have been caught in the crossfire, including eight Southern Baptist missionaries and relief workers killed in terror attacks in three nations.

The world is more dangerous, to be sure. In the uncertain days and months after 9/11, some mission workers and volunteers came home. Some churches decided not to send their sons and daughters to potentially hostile places. But a general retreat of American Christians from international ministry, feared by many mission leaders, did not occur. Instead, after some soul-searching, churches and missionaries returned to the task with new global awareness — and a new commitment to reaching the lost while there is still time.

In America 2008, the word of the hour is “change” as a frenetic presidential campaign hits high gear. Change already has come to the way Southern Baptist international missions is carried out — and more change is coming.

In recent years the International Mission Board has worked hard to move beyond simply sending more missionaries to more countries. Numbers are important, but they aren’t enough.

The heart of the “Great Commission,” as Christ delivered it in Mathew 28:19-20, is: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you ….”

In a modern-day recommitment to that command, missionaries have focused their strategies on engaging and making disciples among every people group (the “nations” Jesus was talking about) — regardless of location, cultural identity or religious affiliation. That means going deep into many societies long closed to the Gospel.

The other major change in contemporary missions is the increasing involvement of the local church. It’s a return to the New Testament pattern: Christ’s mission command, after all, was directed to His disciples — the church. Missions is, or should be, the life purpose of every congregation and every believer.

The rise of “professional” or “career” missionaries in the modern era has advanced the Gospel all over the world. It continues to do so, as God-called, long-term workers fluent in local languages and cultures take the Good News to new fields, start churches and mobilize believers.

Since the earliest days of the American volunteer movement in the 1960s, however, more and more lay people and churches have gotten directly involved in international missions. The initial trickle has become a flood. Today, many churches want an ongoing, vital, personal involvement in doing missions as well as supporting missions and missionaries through prayer and giving.

When that is done effectively, missionaries, churches and volunteers form a win-win partnership for fulfilling God’s global purposes.

“We have only one missionary for every 1.3 million people around the world,” says International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin. “But if 16 million Southern Baptists and 43,000 churches could be mobilized and guided to channel their efforts and resources effectively, the task of reaching a lost world is doable.”

The changes the International Mission Board launched this month (see news stories in today’s edition of Baptist Press) aim to multiply both approaches:

— an ever-greater focus on making disciples and starting churches among all peoples, and

— an ever-growing servant partnership with Southern Baptist churches, overseas Baptists and other Great Commission Christians to complete the task.

It’s not just a matter of rearranging organizational boxes. Doing missions has changed profoundly over the past generation. It will continue to change to meet the challenges and opportunities of a changing world.

In the post-9/11 world, obedience to Christ demands nothing less.
Erich Bridges is senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges