It’s no secret that the past few months have been tough for the International Mission Board family.
Major financial shortfalls have compelled us to offer a voluntary retirement incentive for missionaries and staff over age fifty who have served at least five years. This will be followed by a “hand-raising initiative,” giving all IMB personnel the opportunity to reconsider their current assignments as God leads them. Knowing that we must reduce the number of our current personnel by six to eight hundred (about 15 percent of our current force) to get back on sound financial footing, we have asked every member of the IMB family to put a “blank check” on the table before the Lord and to seek His leadership regarding whether or not to make a transition. For those who sense it is time for transition, we want to be as generous as possible in supporting them—financially, practically, and spiritually.
As I’ve talked with different brothers and sisters on the field and on staff, I have continually been reminded of the emotions and challenges that accompany a journey like this. Many are thinking, “I didn’t see this coming.” Neither did I. The whole reason I transitioned last year from pastoring a church I love to becoming IMB president was to mobilize more people to go to the mission field, not fewer. A reduction in missionaries and staff is the last thing I envisioned for the IMB. But together, we’re trusting that God is working all of this together for our good and for His glory.
So, are we retreating from the Great Commission? Absolutely not.
Last year alone, IMB missionaries and the national Baptist partners alongside whom they serve proclaimed the Gospel to nearly two million people in almost one thousand people groups, seeing about two hundred thousand people baptized and more than thirteen thousand churches started. Southern Baptists made this mission work possible through their praying and giving, with more than $94 million given to IMB through the Cooperative Program and more than $153 million through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, the second-largest offering in IMB history.
But nearly three billion people worldwide still have no realistic access to the Gospel. That includes thousands of people groups who remain unreached and even unengaged—in other words, no one is intentionally and strategically working to make disciples of Christ among them. That is intolerable for us as His followers.
Retreat from the Great Commission, therefore, is not an option for us. For this reason, IMB is working in the present to “reset” for a future marked not by a decreasing mission force, but by an exponentially increasing mission force taking the Gospel to the nations.
The Centrality of the Local Church
What does that “reset” look like? It is still a work in progress and will be for several years to come, but I can tell you this: It’s all about connecting Southern Baptist churches to the nations. When you look at the pages of the New Testament, you don’t see global mission boards like the IMB, but you do see local churches active in global mission. You see the church at Antioch worshiping, fasting, and praying, and the Lord is setting apart missionaries from that local church to take the Gospel to those who have never heard it. As the church sends and shepherds missionaries to start new churches in varied places, those churches then begin working together in the mission, constantly pressing forward to peoples and places where Christ has not yet been named.
This picture, then, frames the way we must understand the IMB in relation to local churches. Each and every local church, by God’s design, exists for the spread of God’s global glory. We are all a part of “Antiochs”—local bodies of believers who worship, fast, and pray together—and as we do these things, God sets apart people from our churches to proclaim His glory where there is no church. Now no one church can reach all the nations alone, and this is why IMB exists: to partner with a multitude of different churches who are working together to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
My prayer is that God would raise up more than forty thousand Antiochs across the Southern Baptist Convention. No church is too big or too small to be a part of a global mission. I was talking with one pastor recently who has thirty members in his church. They don’t yet have a building in which to meet. However, they have already adopted an unreached people group, and the Lord has set apart one family to move and work for the spread of the Gospel to that people group. I praise God for pastors who believe global mission is more important in the local church than even having a building, and I pray that God will continue to raise up thousands of churches like this across the SBC. Further, I pray that thousands upon thousands more men and women will answer God’s call to take the Gospel to those who have never heard it.
“But that’s the problem,” some might say. “The IMB is calling people to return from the mission field. If God calls more people to move to the mission field, then how will the IMB help them get there?”
That is a great question, and the answer leads us to expand our understanding of the role of ordinary followers of Christ in the extraordinary purpose of God.
When most of us think of missionaries, our minds immediately go to men and women who leave their jobs, pack their bags, and move overseas to work full-time in church planting. Without question, God calls many people in this way, and such persons are critical to the spread of the Gospel among the nations. I pray that God will raise up and send out many more such missionaries from local churches in the days ahead, and IMB is committed to training and supporting them as they go.
At the same time, as long as full-time, fully financially-supported missionaries are the only way IMB can send Southern Baptists, we will always have a cap on Southern Baptists’ missions involvement. That’s much of the reason for IMB’s current financial challenges, for even though Southern Baptist churches have increased their giving to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering over recent years, there’s only a limited number of missionaries we can support who are working full-time on church planting. My hope, however, in the days ahead is to lead the IMB to remove that cap altogether and to create limitless pathways for Southern Baptists to get the Gospel to unreached people.
We will only realize this potential if IMB and churches think and work wisely and creatively through the limitless opportunities God has given for people not just to leave their jobs to go overseas, but also to leverage their jobs to go overseas. We must open our eyes and see the globalization of today’s marketplace as God’s invitation for multitudes of Southern Baptist church members to work in places around the world, and to do so strategically for the spread of the Gospel in those places. Moreover, we must lead our children and students to take advantage of the countless opportunities that are available for them to get undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate degrees around the world, all while intentionally spreading the Gospel to unreached places. For that matter, we must totally reorient the way we think about retirement as Christians, purposefully thinking about how we can use the last years of our lives in the one task that matters most before we die: introducing people to eternal life in Christ!
In all these ways, IMB is committed in the days ahead to leveraging the limitless opportunities God has given Southern Baptists to take the Gospel to the nations.
So What Now?
Every local church and every believer has a part to play in fulfilling Christ’s commission. I invite members and pastors of Southern Baptist churches to pray relentlessly for the spread of the Gospel among the nations, including praying for God to raise up more laborers for work in unreached harvest fields. Then, as we pray relentlessly, let’s give sacrificially. Especially as we find ourselves in Lottie Moon Christmas Offering season, I invite and exhort churches to give generously so that more missionaries can stay on the field, and multitudes more missionaries can join them in the days ahead. Then, as we pray and give, let’s all open our lives to the possibility that God may lead us to go and spend our lives spreading the Gospel to unreached people.
We know that a day is coming when disciples will have been made among every nation, tribe, tongue, and people. This mission is ultimately going to be accomplished through followers of Christ in local churches who are praying, giving, and going for His global glory.