Friday, November 13, 2009

The Changing Landscape in Baptist Missions

This morning the International Mission Board of the SBC announced that it “will be forced to draw down their overseas missions force in 2010 by as many as 600 missionaries.”[i] Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Global Missions is not currently appointing organizationally funded missionaries due to budget constraints. American Baptist have already had to make difficult decisions regarding the streamlining of their missionary force. For those who have been raised in the midst of the paradigm where national and global missions are channeled exclusively through denominational or denomination-like structures these headlines are harbingers of the closing of an era. We are witnessing significant changes in the landscape of Baptist missions. In a recent conversation with a friend who serves as a pastor in another state he asked what I thought I saw happening in Baptist missions. That conversation has made me pause and take a more careful look at what is emerging and caused me to listen more closely to what is being said. As I look out at the emerging landscape, I believe I see ten markers that seem to point the way toward some of what will define this next era in Baptist missions. Let me start by sharing the first five I see. I will add the second five in the next few days.

1. The Great Commission still matters. The drop in giving to denominational structures in not an indicator that the local church has given up on the Great Commission. It is more an indicator that the local church is choosing more deliberately who they are funding and how they are funding them. The Great Commission still matters. The local church is still engaged in missions. It is just doing it a different way.

2. The congregation is called to be at the center of missions. When Barnabas and Saul were sent out as missionaries, it was because of the movement of the Holy Spirit and the act of a local congregation. The Great Commission has always belonged to the gathered community of believers. Our choice to organize and institutionalize the missions delivery system invited congregational cooperation but somewhere along the way diminished congregational involvement. The church was and is called to be at the center of missions. Bill O'Brien, one of my favorite Baptist missiologist, introduced me to one of his favorite quotes. It says, "missions is the church as flame is to the fire." When the congregation claims its place at the center of missions it is restored to its right and rightful place in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

3. We are coming to the end of the single-provider model. In my youth, if you wanted to watch the national news you had to watch one of three television networks at a specific time. You knew each of the anchors by name. If you were caught in traffic, or at a ball game, and you were not in front of your television at the specified time, then you missed it. You had to wait for the next network news broadcast to hear what was happening in the world. The old model would never work now. We can now get our news from a wide range of networks and internet options. We can choose the time, the place, the technological means, and the focus of the news we receive. I do not remember the last time I watched the evening news on one of the three old networks. I cannot tell you the name of a single news anchor on any of the three networks. That era has begun to fade from sight.

In my youth, the denomination was expected to be the single provider of all missions resources and relationships. The church became a veritable franchise of the denomination. The local church had to have the denomination because its capacity to communicate with one another and the global church was very limited. It was an appropriate model for an industrial/institutional era. Just as technology has changed the way we get our news, it has also changed the capacity of local congregations to communicate with one another and with the church around the world. It is no longer limited to doing missions and ministry through a single provider model. The era of the church acting as a primary funding and mission personnel mechanism for the denomination and denomination-like structure is coming to an end. While the model was effective, its unanticipated outcome was that it distanced the local church from the personal and active participation in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The industrial/institutional era is over and the church is rediscovering its unique voice and its place in the center of missions. Many congregations are seeking ways to more directly engage. What began with the movement of short term mission teams next calls the church into the sending and supporting of longer term missionaries. The separation between the missionary and the mission of the church to reach the world vanishes. Churches are beginning to leverage multiple relationships and multiple organizations to fulfill their mission vision. In the process, the place of the denominational single provider model will begin to close. The irony for Baptist is that this shift away from the single provider model means that the denominational structures have been effective at keeping the missions flame alive and distilling its heart back into the local church. The autonomous Baptist congregation is again finding its place in the Great Commission and in the process is joining others who have already begun this corrective journey.

4. God has created a multitude of tools to empower the local congregation in missions. There are now a wide range of organizations that are designed to help congregations discover and develop their unique missions vision. Still other organizations are prepared to help congregations send short term and long term missions personnel to the field. Local congregations can now work within denominational bounds where it helps the church fulfill its missions – and beyond it – when that is the better choice for a local church family. God has given the church a wide range of organizations and tools to empower its global efforts. In addition, research and resource tools like the World Christian Database, making critical information available that can help the church focus its global efforts strategically. The local church is being unleashed to fulfill its missional call.

5. It is better for congregations to work together than in isolation. While the tight denominational institutional boundaries are falling away, the need for the local church to work in community and cooperation with others remains. The question is not whether the church will need to work together with others, but how?

I hope these first five stir you to thought. Are there places where you find yourself in agreement? Other places where you disagree? I would love to hear your reactions. I look forward to sharing the next five with you soon.

Grace and Peace, Tom

[i] Baptist Press article posted on November 13, 2009 on IMB Trustee meeting.


Matt Snowden said...

Good thoughts. Thanks

Tim said...

Good insight, Tom.
It's not just the denominational missions that are suffering. The "Faith" missions are as well.
While my own support has not really dropped off (thankfully), I know others whose has.

And the funding that Wycliffe raises for national translation and literacy projects - well, there was a lot less to be had this year than last.