Sacrifice and support have always sustained the Southern Baptists Convention's International Mission Board (IMB), and today that sacrifice and support is more evident — and more critical — than ever in fueling its mission to reach what it calls "pockets of lostness."
Southern Baptists are obeying the global requirement of the Great Commission through the IMB as it strives to share the Gospel with people from every language, tribe, and nation. Southern Baptists support the ministries of the IMB through the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. These gifts enable IMB missionaries to find strategic and creative ways to accomplish their mission, even in difficult places.
During this past year, the Baptist partners with whom our missionaries work closely, coupled with the direct work of our missionaries, engaged ninety-three new people groups with the Gospel, started 24,650 new churches, and baptized 506,019 new believers.
But barriers still exist. There are "pockets of lostness" — areas where false religions, political oppression, multiple languages, conflict, harsh living conditions, and persecution prevent many from hearing the Gospel. Worldwide there are 1.5 billion people — many living in these difficult places — who have never had an opportunity to hear about Jesus.
"Jesus did not qualify His mission task to apply to easily accessible areas where our witness would be welcome," says IMB President Jerry Rankin.
"Many people, even in our own society, have heard the Gospel but have chosen not to believe and accept it. Some think their good works or faithful and perfunctory attendance at church will save them. Many humanistic thinkers in our post-modern society are convinced their own efforts, or whatever they choose to believe, are of equal value to faith in Jesus Christ.
"Then there are those around the world who have been exposed to the Gospel but choose to follow other religions.
"However, the greatest tragedy is not found in the arrogant self-righteous or those who reject a Christian witness. It is found among those who have never heard the Good News that Jesus saves.
"Whose mission and responsibility is it to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples? Who has our Lord commissioned to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth? Every believer and every church.
"Obedience is expected. The tragedy of multitudes dying in sin without hope of salvation should compel us to do whatever it takes to reach the remaining pockets of lostness in our world today," he said.
But reaching those pockets requires that we examine and remind ourselves of essentials such as structure, support, and sacrifice.
Earlier this year, IMB implemented a massive restructuring. This includes a push to partner with more Southern Baptist churches, to maximize effectiveness, and to develop a more efficient, cost-effective structure of administration and support. Another change in the offing is Rankin's announcement of retirement set for July 2010.
In his report to the SBC annual meeting in Louisville this summer, Rankin said the IMB is in the midst of "the most radical restructuring of [its] 164-year history." In 1997, IMB launched "New Directions," an effort to tighten the organization's focus on unreached people groups.
Though thousands of people have come to Christ as a result, Rankin said the organization must take new approaches to continue that success.
"We cannot presume that past methods and structures will produce the same results in a changing world," he said. "We find our own society polarized, fighting cultural battles we never dreamed would be viable issues of political debate. Denominational loyalty is fragile, and our churches are seeing diminishing success in trying to evangelize a postmodern society."
As the world continually changes, Rankin maintains, the IMB must keep positioning itself to face oncoming challenges.
"We need to be driven by a vision to bring all peoples to a saving faith in Christ and what it takes to get there," he said.
One challenge that continues to loom over the entire world is the current global economic crisis. It's a struggle that impacts nearly every home, business, church, and Southern Baptist entity, including the IMB.
After setting back-to-back giving records in 2006 and 2007 of just over $150 million each year, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering fell to $141 million in 2008. Even though this is the third largest offering in the history of the IMB, it represents a 6 percent decline from the previous two years. Church gifts forwarded by the states to the SBC for distribution through the Cooperative Program allocation budget also lagged behind the previous year (down 2.23 percent, or $4.5 million, of which the IMB would have received half, or $2.25 million). Thus, the IMB received about $11 million less from the churches than it received the previous year. If we add in the fact that the IMB had set a challenging Lottie Moon offering goal of $170 million for 2008, the IMB received millions of dollars less than it had hoped for.
In spite of the economic uncertainties of this past year, Southern Baptists have given faithfully through their churches to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. These gifts continue to support the more than 5,500 missionaries currently serving overseas, covering expenses for missionary housing, transportation, food, medical expenses, and other costs that keep them on the field.
No missionaries have been withdrawn from the field; however, the pace of new missionary appointments has slowed. Right now there are not enough funds to send and support everyone being called to missions from the churches and standing ready to be appointed by the IMB to go to difficult places.
Earlier this year, IMB announced cutbacks in the number of new missionary appointments it can make for overseas assignment. New appointments are now limited to more select, strategic assignments.
• Kevin and Jodi Nichols of Wheeler, Mississippi, were two of many missionary candidates who discovered that the two-year International Service Corps (ISC) program they signed up for had been suspended indefinitely.
The couple and their four children were planning to move to Russia early next year before they received the bad news.
"It hurt," Kevin says. "It would have felt better if somebody had hit me with a baseball bat than that. It breaks our heart."
Now the couple does not know when — or if — they will be able go overseas. But they remain firm in their calling.
"We know this is where God wants us to be," Jodi says. "There is no doubt."
• Another couple impacted by the shortfall is Tim and Audrey Shepard.* They sold their house, notified the schools where they worked, and even gave away the family dog, Q-Tip. Then they found out they wouldn't be able to be appointed to the mission field until next spring — at the earliest. The couple had planned to be on the field by the end of this year.
They scrambled to find a place to live and make sure they still had their jobs. Fortunately, the Shepards were able to keep their school positions and moved into a relative's condo.
• The lack of mission workers also is jeopardizing the future of a significant ministry in Europe.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who live and work in Europe board ferries every summer to return home to North Africa to visit family. As they pass through the port, Bibles and other evangelistic materials are put into the hands of these immigrants.
However, this effort may fall by the wayside.
Because of the 2008 Lottie Moon offering shortfall, many short-term missionaries who coordinate about two hundred church volunteers each summer will not be able to extend their terms.
"The project is in danger if we are not able to replace personnel," says Dave Webber,* who leads the effort in one European country, where there are believed to be about 5 million Muslims.
Last year, volunteers with this effort distributed 26,000 Gospel packets at the port gates.
"That means 26,000 families received the Gospel," Webber says. "You can't print this stuff in Algeria" where distributing Bibles and Christian materials is illegal.
"What if we're not there at the gates?" he asks. "What if we're not there at the opportunities the Lord has given us?"
A Surge of Support
As news of the 2008 Lottie Moon offering shortfall spread, Southern Baptists began to respond throughout the summer.
Many Southern Baptist churches and organizations held special offerings, challenging their congregations to give sacrificially.
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention was one of the first, presenting a check to IMB for $100,000 at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in June. Those who attended the denomination's Pastor's Conference gave an additional $43,000. In August, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary students, faculty, and staff took up a special offering of $60,000.
Teenagers and workers at Super Summer camps in Missouri raised more than $6,000 for international missions.
"There were audible gasps when I laid out the shortfall in giving," said Matt Kearns, student ministry director for the Missouri Baptist Convention. "When I asked, 'Would you all be interested in [giving]?' they cheered.
"There were piles and piles of dollar bills."
Since then, IMB announced they would be able to send twenty-five more missionaries — including the Shepards — to the field.
The Nichols family, however, continues to wait. And there are people in Russia who also will have to wait a little longer to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
"Today it still doesn't feel real … I know what God has called us to … [but] it takes money," Kevin says.
The Sacrifice of Continued Support
"We are humbled and gratified when we hear about churches encouraging their people to dig deeper than ever and taking special offerings so that more people can go to spread the Good News," IMB treasurer David Steverson said.
However, he added that in order to keep missionaries on the field, Southern Baptists must give beyond the casual offering — and continue to give like they really mean it. A one-time "surge of support" won't be enough to maintain the work.
Bob Rodgers, vice president for Cooperative Program with the Executive Committee, echoes this sentiment. He noted that, based on research published by empty tomb, inc., the average church attendee gives only 2.55 percent of his or her disposable income to congregational finances and benevolent causes. "If this figure holds true for Southern Baptists," he said, "and if each Southern Baptist merely increased his or her giving to 3.55 percent, and everything else remained the same, the IMB would receive an additional $37 million this year from Cooperative Program receipts alone."
He further noted, even at the current individual donor giving rates to our churches, "If we had collectively promoted CP in a manner that sustained church giving through CP at 8.24 percent (the average amount given by our cooperating churches when the SBC was restructured in 1997), the International Mission Board would have received a total of $180 million additional CP dollars over the last decade.
"That is enough to field every missionary needed to reach all of the unreached people groups as defined by IMB and the strategic objective of IMB would have been accomplished."
He said, "At the 8.24 percent rate from our churches, the national portion of Cooperative Program receipts would have been an additional $72 million more this year alone, of which half, or $36 million, would have gone directly to the International Mission Board, which is significantly more than IMB had hoped to receive to fund its ministry objectives for this year."
Steverson says, "We pray that those who gave a special gift this summer will give again during their church's regular focus on international missions or Lottie Moon Christmas Offering campaign.
"We must be about our Father's business," he adds. "[God] has given us a task, a mission, and we must remain faithful to what He has called us to do."
IMB Core Values
• We commit to obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to God's inerrant Word.
• We believe Jesus Christ is God's only provision for salvation and all people without personal faith in Him are lost and will spend eternity in hell.
• We seek to provide all people an opportunity to hear, understand, and respond to the Gospel in their own cultural context.
• We evangelize through proclamation, discipling, equipping, and ministry that results in indigenous reproducing Baptist churches.
• We serve churches to facilitate their involvement in the Great Commission and the sending of missionaries to bring all peoples to faith in Jesus Christ.
• We partner with Baptists and other Christians around the world in accordance with IMB guidelines.
• We understand and fulfill God's mission through God's Word, prayer, and the leadership of the Holy Spirit.