RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Jesus commanded us to make active disciples — not passive converts — among all nations.
If 2003 International Mission Board statistics are any indication, that’s exactly what Southern Baptist missionaries are doing.
New believers baptized and new churches started overseas usually get the most attention back home. But two less-glamorous categories in the IMB 2003 Annual Statistical Report point to the increasing strategic importance of disciple training to the global mission task.
Last year, missionaries and their local partners enlisted 426,849 new believers (those who had become Christians within the past year) in personal discipleship training. That’s a nearly 43 percent increase over 2002 and more than triple the total for 2000. Missionaries reported increases in 12 of the 15 geographical regions where they work.
“This continues to be a huge emphasis,” IMB strategist Scott Holste notes — particularly in church-planting movements, where “just-in-time” training of new believers to train others and lead rapidly multiplying churches is critical to sustained growth.
“We want not only to do it, but to help our partners do it,” Holste says.
Another key stat for 2003: In addition to some 22,000 participants in residential pastoral training programs, more than 86,000 overseas believers participated in non-residential leadership training. That includes theological education by extension, correspondence courses, short-term seminars and similar on-the-job training approaches. The total marked a 48 percent increase over 2002 and capped an average annual growth of 29 percent over the last five years.
“That is just a phenomenal number of people in training, particularly when you consider that in 1997 we had only about 20,000,” observes Avery Willis, chief of IMB overseas operations. “A lot of people say, ‘Support national Christians, not missionaries.’ The truth is we’re working with 100,000 national Christians, equipping them to reach their own peoples and others.
“This is a huge missiological shift. We’re not just sending missionaries to do the work but to mobilize and train and equip the masses to do the work.”
That fact counters the perception in some circles that IMB missionaries have gotten out of the leader training business to focus exclusively on direct evangelism and church-starting.
“Our catalytic role in completing the task is going to gravitate more and more toward strategic training,” IMB President Jerry Rankin said. “We’re not just out there baptizing and moving on.”
The payoff? One example:
At the end of a recent training conference in South Asia, a participant went to the platform and said, “I am poor and live in a mud hut. Each week a small group of believers gathers in my home for worship. I am going back to my fellowship and form a team, train my team in what I learned here and send them out to the 12 surrounding villages — none of which has a church of any kind.”
Completing the task of making disciples among all peoples depends upon the training and equipping of thousands upon thousands of such local visionaries.
Five thousand — or 50,000 — missionaries can’t do it alone. Not in a world of untouched billions.
Erich Bridges, whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press, is a senior writer with the International Mission Board.