Monday, November 23, 2009

Markers in the Changing Baptist Missions Landscape

A week ago I posted the first five of ten markers I saw on the changing Baptist missions landscape. They were fairly brief and intentionally direct. I had planned to post the second five within a day or two of the original posting, but the email response to the first five made me pause and take a second look at the document I had been developing. I was asked to expanded some of the earlier thoughts. Others offered input on what they hoped would be addressed in the second five. I took the initial document I had been working from and expanded it to address the questions and issues that were being raised. In the process, the breadth and the length of the document expanded. I asked a couple of friends to help me do some friendly editing to make sure that I was clear and that causal grammar did not get in the way. The result is a fairly length post. I invite you to wade in if the topic is on interest to you. I would love to hear your reactions. God is moving. Grace and Peace, Tom

In the last weeks the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention 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 has had to trim the breadth of what it would like to accomplish and refocus its missionary sending methodology because of 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 in the United States. This list is not born in the ivory towers of academia but instead emerges from the missional life of a local congregation and living relationships in the global church.

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 centralized 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 centralized 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 centralized 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. Historically Baptist congregations have found ways to work together. It has leverage different cooperating models based on the era and the culture that defined it. This principle of cooperation will not vanish. The question is not whether the church will need to work together with others, but how?

6. Collaborative Collectives/Networks are emerging to help the church fulfill its missional call. Churches are finding ways to connect together. You witness it in networks born at Willowcreek and Saddleback. You see it in the Acts29 Network wither churches are working together to start new churches. You see it happen on the community level when local congregations choose to partner together where they share a common passion or to meet a specific need. You see it when congregations choose to work together on a global project or in reaching out to an unreached people group. Globally, you see the emergence of EthnĂȘ. EthnĂȘ is a decentralized movement built on the strength of various global, regional, national and UPG-focused networks. It changes its facilitation leadership as it meets in different regions of the world. It transcends denominational, cultural, regional, and theological boundaries. The shape of each of these networks and collaborative collectives are different, but the two things they have in common are: they are driven by common mission or ministry objectives rather than common doctrine or denomination; and they are more relationally focused than structurally focused.

I witnessed the birth of a new collaborative collective in Oklahoma City just a few weeks ago. I had the opportunity to be one of those that extended invitations to a group of Baptist pastors coming from a diversity of church sizes, church life stages, and ministry settings to spend a couple of days together in a missional conversation. The group also offered an interesting blend of denominational relationships. Many of them did not know each other before the meeting, but they quickly connected with one another. In their diversity they are better understood as like-hearted Baptists than like-minded Baptist. They are people who are actively engaged in creative missions and ministries. Their time together focused on how they might connect together – share information and resources with one another – so that they and their congregations might be more effective at fulfilling their respective missional calls. The result looks more like an intentional web of missional relationship than any traditional Baptist organization. It does not ask nor anticipate that any of us will give up our relationships with our larger Baptist families of choice, but instead invites us to leverage our relationships with one another for the greatest missional impact. It empowers us to pick and choose among a wide range of organizations, resources, and relationship as each is helpful to our congregation, in fulfilling its unique sense of call. It is the kind of collaborative collective that I believe will become more common in the emerging era.

7. It is more important to be Like Hearted than Like Minded. The old adage is true; “where two or more Baptist are gathered, three or more opinions exists.” The expectation of doctrinal homogeny that emerged in the last half of the twentieth century resulted in a growing fragmentation of the Baptist community. This fragmentation has had a profound impact on the way churches could and would partner together. It seemed that the goal became to work exclusively with “like minded” Baptist. The problem is that Baptist in the United States have rarely been truly like-minded.

Our historic reality is that Baptist have always been a diverse people in the way we worship and the way we see our place in the world. General Baptist and Particular Baptists disagreed on the nature of atonement. Charleston tradition Baptist congregations claimed a more formalized worship pattern and a tendency toward a more educated clergy, while Sandy Creek tradition Baptist congregations were more informal in their worship patterns with a tendency toward a less educated clergy. We witnessed open communion Baptists and closed communion Baptists. It seems that when you look at almost any era or any major issue, the reality that Baptist have never been very good at being “like minded.” The only area where Baptist have been comfortable agreeing and working together for long periods of time has been missions. This simple historic pattern seems to have been forgotten by many in the last three decades.

The emerging generations of congregational leaders are less concerned with working with those who are “like minded” and are more focused on working with those who are “like hearted.” Most of the younger congregational leadership were not a part of past Baptist battles and are more focused on what needs to be done than what separates one Baptist from one another. Many congregations and congregational leaders have quit checking for whether one bares Baptist battle scars and are ready to find ways to partner together with congregations who share a common heart or passion, a common mission vision for a specific work or people. While some expressed theological and missiological commonality will still shape the developing networks and collaborative collectives, missional relationships will be at their core.

8. The Global Church is a ready partner and a potent leader in the changing world missions landscape. There was an era when the face of the “missionary” was primarily Caucasian coming out of the European and North American church. That era is over. The question on whether Baptist in America should be partnering with the global church is almost comical. As Philip Jenkins reports in his ground breaking text, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, the greatest places of growth and energy in the church today are found in South and Central America, Africa, and Asia. The global church is no longer just receiving missionaries; it is sending them in record numbers. The small nation-state Singapore has become known as the Antioch of Asia, has sent out more than 1000 missionaries. A Christianity Today article from 2006 reported; “South Korea today sends out more missionaries than any other country except the United States. In terms of missionaries per congregation, Korea sends one missionary for every 4.2 congregations, which places it 11th in the world. (The U.S. does not rank in the top 10.)”[ii] Comiban is a Latin American missions sending structure that empowers churches of diverse theological indentity in South and Central America to sending missionaries focused on unreached people groups. They are a catalyst for sending an ever increasing stream of missionaries across the globe. As of 2006, over 10,000 missionaries have been sent from South and Central America by over 400 different organizations. These examples reflects the broader picture of a global church moving cross-culturally for the sake of the gospel. "The day of Western missionary dominance is over, not because Western missionaries have died off," says Scott Moreau, chair of intercultural studies at Wheaton College (Illinois), "but because the rest of the world has caught the vision and is engaged and energized." [iii] In the emerging era the global church will not only serve as a participant in the world missions endeavor, it will find its place in leadership in meaningful missional movements.

If Baptists from the North American church are going to be relevant in the emerging congregational missions era then they/we must choose to come along side the global church in missional partnerships. Field mission teams will become a blend of missionaries from across the globe, each bring their unique gifts and unique cultural and theological/missiological presuppositions to the table. Missions sending organizations that are exclusively structured for the sending and support of the white, North American, Baptist missionary will slowly but surely fade from existence. The Baptist organizations and congregations in the United States that are going to be effective they must not only talk about partnering with the global church, but also actively engage in meaningful partnership where missional strategy and team priorities are set in common. This will also create a climate for congregation to congregation partnerships that reach across national, cultural, and linguistic bounds.

9. There will be a better balance between Word and Deed. A false dichotomy has emerged in Baptist life in the US. Those on the theological right have gravitated toward a ministry of the word, focused on evangelism through proclamation. Many have steered away from more humanitarian ministries, fearing that they would deteriorate into social gospel. Those on the theological left have gravitated toward a ministry of the deed, defined by how they love and treat others. Many have steered away from direct proclamation fearing an abusive or manipulative evangelistic methodology. This dichotomy is particularly evident in denominational life, where the tugs of theological/political activists have the greatest impact. The fatal flaw of both perspectives is that they are not consistent with the Biblical model found in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus preached and fed, taught and healed, often as a part of the same act. This dichotomy has isolated congregations who desire a balance between Word and Deed. The fail to find a missiological home in either perspective. The right will have to rediscover a passion for spiritual and physical healing both for the body and the soul. The left will have to rediscover an passion for evangelism so that the deep care for the physical condition of the body also draws them into a deep care for the spiritual condition of the soul. It will not just be the cup of water to fill the body’s thirst. . It will not be just a religious proclamation to touch the soul. It will be the cup of water in Jesus name to touch the whole of the person with the love and the grace of God. Those who have claimed the ideal of a “ministry of deed” expressed in Frances of Assisi’s "Preach the Gospel, and, if necessary use words" will have to remember that he was also known as a fervent preacher.[iv]

This dichotomy is dramatically less prevalent in the global church. They are culturally less impacted by the spiritual dualism that has claimed Western thought. Services that move freely between preaching and healing are more common place. As the Baptist church in North America acts in missional partnership with the global church I believe it will discover a more holistic understanding of the ministry that brings together Word and Deed. For much of the world there is not separation between the physical world and the spiritual world, between body and soul. The missional expectation will be that partner ministries touch the whole of the person and the whole of the soul. This will stretch and correct the flaw of the US Baptist mission perspective. It will draw them toward a better balance, a healthier balance, between Word and Deed.

10. The mission for denominational and denomination-like structures born for a different era will change. One can argue on whether we have begun to enter a post-denominational era or not, but it is clear that the place of the denomination is changing. We have clearly entered into a congregational era. There was a season where when denominational and denomination-like organizations could speak to the local church with more authority and with an expectation of response. While this remains true in some congregations, it is clear that for a growing number of congregations and congregational leaders this era has begun to fade – and for some – fade quickly. More and more congregations are reclaiming their sense of congregational autonomy and their place at the center of missions. One of the places where you see this demonstrated is in the change in congregational giving/funding patterns to denominational structures and denominationally related mission organizations. Fewer dollars are being sent to national bodies. More dollars are staying in the hands of the congregation to be expended on the missions and ministries that best resonate with them. As the change in congregational funding and identity patterns becomes more pervasive it will trigger the need for the mission of denominational and denomination-like structures born for life in another era to change. Their role will need to be more focused on becoming true resource centers for congregations within their faith/identity community. This does not speak of the production and promotion of programs and resources it develops on its own. It means that its focus will shift toward acting as a resource tool to help congregations connect with one another and to resources developed in the broader faith community. Payrolls and employee headcounts will have to be dramatically reduced. The structures will have to be dramatically streamlined. The focal point will return to its historical moorings in the local church.

This change will have the most profound impact on denominationally related mission organizations. Their role as primary sender and educator is already beginning to change. It will become one of the sending tools congregations will leverage in sending the called from within its midst based on the shared vision and mission strategy of the congregation and its missionary units. The mission organization core purpose will mirror the shift in the broader denominational and denomination organization. Its primary purpose will need to serve as a resource point for congregations within its community; connecting them together, introducing them to global partners, providing strategy development support, and empowering congregations in the missional endeavors.

The denominationally related mission organization’s expectation of congregational funding based on denominational identity or special annual offerings will have to pass. Funding and personnel will be born in a shared sense of vision and purpose. A unique role that the denominationally related mission organization could claim in sending would be to act as a prophetic voice, inviting congregations to work together to address a specific need or a particular strategic opportunity. There will be limited motivation for congregations to work together with denominationally related mission organizations for more general or generic mission strategies.

I recognize that this offering is far from infallible. It represents my best effort in this particular moment to deal with the dramatic changes about us. The ten that I offer are the ones that I think are the most important that I see. I am sure that there are many others that could and should have been noted. This is where I eagerly await hearing from you. What would you challenge? What do you see that I missed?

I think the days ahead for Baptist missions will be grand ones. I can hardly wait to see what God will do next in and through us in the coming days.

Grace and Peace, Tom Ogburn
November 16, 2009

[i] Baptist Press article posted on November 13, 2009 on IMB Trustee meeting.
[ii] Rob Moll, “Missions Incredible” Christianity Today, March 2006 available online at, 2009.
[iii] Moll, Ibid.
[iv] From “Excerpts from the Little Flowers of St. Francis” found in Devotional Classics by Foster and Smith, (HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollinsPublishing: New York, 1993),pp.314-315


Matt Snowden said...

"Most of the younger congregational leadership were not a part of past Baptist battles and are more focused on what needs to be done than what separates one Baptist from one another. Many congregations and congregational leaders have quit checking for whether one bares Baptist battle scars and are ready to find ways to partner together with congregations who share a common heart or passion, a common mission vision for a specific work or people. While some expressed theological and missiological commonality will still shape the developing networks and collaborative collectives, missional relationships will be at their core."

Thanks for that quote. It is exactly how I feel. I was born in '76 so I simply missed out on much of the Baptist war. You thoughts are appreciated.

PT said...

Thanks, Matt. These are interesting days in Baptist life. I think we stand on the verge of something that will prove to be challenging - and fun. I would love to get to know you better. How about dropping me an email and tell me more about you and the place you serve. Tom

Ron Cava said...

Tom, thank you for articulating some thoughts that have been buried in many of us for too long. I think there is a bright future if we will pro-actively respond to these "markers" rather that resisting them. Change is always easier and healthier when embraced with a positive attitude.

Ron Cava