In an email interview with SBC LIFE on November 15, 2013, IMB President Tom Elliff shared his thoughts about how the historic and the newer ministry initiatives of the International Mission Board assist churches as Southern Baptists work together to reach the nations with the Gospel.
SBCLIFE: In 1997, each of IMB's ministry statements was edited to open with the phrase "assist churches." How does IMB interpret this phrase? How does that shape the future for IMB?
Elliff: Currently IMB assists Southern Baptist churches by bringing effective training, strategy, and cohesion to the nearly 4,900 full-time missionaries (and their approximately four thousand children!) sent out and supported by Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Southern Baptists, of course, determine the number of missionaries we send from their churches by the level of financial support provided through these two offerings.
These 4,900 full-time missionaries serve as a global force that enables Southern Baptists to impact the world's vast lostness. Today we are able to "assist churches" by facilitating an additional 70,000 to 100,000 Southern Baptists engaged in short-term mission projects every year. Currently, more than 6,800 churches partner with these missionaries on the field as strategic partners in the engagement of the people group they serve. As of today, 1,900 churches have responded (and are responding) to the challenge to embrace an unengaged, unreached people group. Until these churches stepped in to embrace these unreached peoples, there was no identified effort in place to evangelize, disciple, and plant churches among them. These are three examples in which we directly assist churches.
SBCLIFE: What are some of the new paradigms that distinguish the missions strategies of today from those in days past? Is IMB open to innovation and change?
Elliff: God is calling out Southern Baptist missionaries in a manner that is nothing short of overwhelming. IMB missionaries across the globe seek to provide the strategic connections necessary between churches and the lost. I am praying Southern Baptists will give as never before so that an increasing number of God-called Southern Baptists can answer that call with the confidence Southern Baptists are solidly behind them. That said, it is doubtful that Southern Baptists will ever be able to deploy the vast number of missionaries the task demands through one sole means. So we must seek new ways through which the Lord will thrust out laborers for the harvest.
IMB provides assistance to every Southern Baptist church, no matter the size, no matter the age—whether a new church plant or a church that existed before Southern Baptists joined together 168 years ago. No matter where they are in that continuum, we believe God is calling them as a church to engage in the missions task.
We realize that Southern Baptist churches not only differ greatly in size and age, but even in the specific ways in which God is calling them to be about fulfilling the Great Commission. We have been assigned the task of walking alongside each church, hearing how God is specifically leading them, and helping them respond to that next step God is calling them to take.
One new way for churches to engage lostness is Embrace, where a church commits to bring the Gospel to an unengaged, unreached people group.
Additionally, Great Commission Global Connect (GC2), enables IMB to come alongside a Southern Baptist church that is sending teams over a two- to three-year period with the goal of planting indigenous reproducing churches among a people group or population segment. This initiative allows IMB to assist the church by providing counsel in the strategy and selection of team members, their training, and their on-field supervision.
God is strategically placing Southern Baptist marketplace professionals in vocational roles around the globe. Through Marketplace Advance initiatives, IMB seeks to equip and nurture these professionals and the churches of which they are members in their strategic Kingdom role in engaging the nations.
IMB hosts conferences and training events throughout North America to equip local churches in the task of making disciples. Resources and coaching are geared to assist the church wherever she is in her missional involvement.
Our School of Prayer for all Nations is an experiential training for individuals and churches in developing greater fervency in effective intercessory prayer for the nations.
Recognizing the generational, ethnic, and racial diversity of Southern Baptist churches, and the unique opportunity that each church has in engaging the nations with the Gospel, IMB seeks to serve all the congregations of our Convention including our growing number of African American, Hispanic, Asian, Deaf, and less traditional churches.
Just as God is directing us to go out to the nations, He is also bringing the nations to North America. Therefore, IMB assists churches, associations, and state conventions in collaboration with the North American Mission Board in the task to evangelize unreached and underserved diaspora people groups within North America.
IMB continues to explore new arenas by which we can better assist churches in effectively engaging the lost.
SBCLIFE: Throughout its history, IMB has primarily served Southern Baptists by training, sending, and supporting overseas missionaries. Has this primary ministry changed over time and, if so, how?
Elliff: Echoing the words of William Bullein Johnson, the SBC's first president, the idea of a Foreign Mission Board has given focus to the Convention since its founding in 1845. Johnson urged its creation "for the purpose of organizing an efficient and practical plan, on which the energies of the whole Baptist denomination, throughout America, [could] be elicited, combined and directed in one sacred effort for sending the Word of Life to idolatrous lands."
Today IMB clings strongly to that original purpose. IMB is 46,000 Southern Baptist churches focused together in one sacred effort to fulfill the Great Commission among all peoples. We train and strategically deploy personnel sent out and supported through the combined efforts of our Southern Baptist family. It is, indeed, one sacred effort.
And what is that one sacred effort? According to our Master, it is to make disciples of all nations. No one is to be left out. Our mission is evangelizing, discipling, and planting multiplying churches among all peoples in fulfillment of the Great Commission. And our vision is a multitude from every language, people, tribe, and nation, knowing and worshipping our Lord, Jesus Christ. As followers of Christ, we are laboring together, not holding anything back, according to His command, empowered by His strength and His Spirit, in His effort to advance His Gospel among all nations.
One Sacred Effort! I love the sound of that phrase.
SBCLIFE: One of IMB's ministry assignments is to "provide a general organization for Baptists . . . for the promotion of Christian missions at home and abroad." Missions is the stack pole around which the hearts of Southern Baptists are most united. How does IMB stay on mission during this era of the world's vast lostness?
Elliff: IMB is diligently pursuing new and effective means for getting the Gospel into the great pockets of darkness around the world. Each local church must also take greater "ownership" in the task of global discipleship. But we can never ignore the strength and effectiveness of working together as the body of Christ as 46,000 churches.
IMB must faithfully pursue our role of facilitating and equipping Southern Baptists to pray with greater fervency, give with greater sacrifice, go with greater effectiveness, and send out with greater strategic focus. We are constantly evaluating and adapting the training and assistance provided to Southern Baptist churches. This hour demands that we send out increasing numbers from our churches to the field.
SBCLIFE: How effective do you think these efforts have been?
Elliff: Every week, more and more are churches engaging in the task strategically. We are seeing people groups being engaged through partnership by churches. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone there are one hundred people groups being engaged by Southern Baptist churches that very possibly might not otherwise be currently engaged if the churches weren't there.
SBCLIFE: If there were one thing you could tell Southern Baptists about IMB's commitment to assist churches for the fulfillment of the Great Commission, what would it be?
Elliff: We're in a time of great opportunity with unprecedented ease of access and resources to be able to get the Gospel to every people group, every language, people, tribe, and nation. As long as there are Southern Baptists, this world's lost should have a legitimate reason to believe someone will get to them with the truth of the Gospel. My prayer is we will be found faithful in that task. IMB is committed to serving and helping churches reach the nations. I pray that Southern Baptists will step up to the challenge of bringing the light of Christ to the darkest corners of this world.