RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–“Rumors of the death of the American missionary movement have been greatly exaggerated.”
Mark Twain might have said that if he had observed the 116 Southern Baptist missionaries appointed May 20 for service around the world.
He probably would have taken a puff on his cigar and added a few sardonic comments — about religion in general and missionary work in particular. But he would have been impressed by this committed, diverse group of international missionaries, the second-largest in Southern Baptist history.
Overseas missionary appointments among “mainline” U.S. Protestants have declined for many years. Lack of financial support — compounded by a loss of commitment to the biblical mandate to evangelize the world — has taken a heavy toll on many denominational mission boards.
Even among strongly mission-minded churches, the increasing cost of financing world missions poses an ongoing challenge. Southern Baptists aren’t immune: The International Mission Board was forced to put a temporary hold on new missionary appointments two years ago when mission giving did not keep pace with the growth of the missionary force.
But churches responded faithfully to the budget crisis. Mission gifts through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Cooperative Program went up — and missionary appointments got back on track.
“Southern Baptists have pulled us out of a slump with their generous giving to missions,” IMB chairman Tom Hatley told fellow trustees during their May 19-21 meeting. “Staff and trustees have responded with the hard work of increasing the pace of our duties, which has resulted in renewed growth in the size of our team on the field.”
IMB treasurer and finance chief David Steverson agreed, but added a caution: Mission gifts “are not growing at the rate we need them to grow in order to sustain a growing missionary force.”
The mission board’s overseas expenses totaled $242.1 million in 2004. Most of that money — nearly $209 million — went to support missionaries and their families.
The total number of missionaries at the end of last year, 5,165, reflected a net loss of 205 from the previous year due to retirements, completions of service and other attrition. The missionary force peaked at about 5,500 in early 2003, but began to slide with the budget cuts and freeze on new appointments that year.
As the missionary count begins climbing again, will support from churches climb with it?
“These missionaries may not be from your church, but they are your missionaries,” IMB President Jerry Rankin told Southern Baptists who gathered in Midland, Texas, to see the 116 new workers appointed. “They were nurtured in their walk with the Lord in churches such as yours. Your gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Cooperative Program support them as they go to share the Gospel around the world. Your prayers sustain them.”
Even during the discouraging months of the freeze on appointments in 2003 — when IMB personnel consultants had to tell eager missionary candidates to wait — God-called candidates kept coming.
“It’s like a big ship,” says IMB consultant Ken Eells, who works with missionary candidates in Texas and New Mexico. “It takes a while to slow it down and it takes a while to get it running again. But during all this time we’ve never really had a reduction in the number of candidates. The people are still out there, and they’re still coming to us.”
When Eells first saw the 116 new missionaries together in one place, a tear of joy came to his eye.
“When I walked into that room and saw that many people … it’s just an awesome thing,” he said. “We’d like to see those numbers increase.”