Columbus, Ohio | Meredith Flynn
A missionary “Sending Celebration” during the Southern Baptist Convention last week signaled a new, urgent day for SBC missions in North America and around the world. The vastness of lostness, said the leaders of the denomination’s mission boards, requires new thinking about getting missionaries on the field—and supporting them while they’re there.
That could mean sending out missionaries—students, retirees, and professionals— who are financially self-supported. Baptists who traditionally have focused on giving from the pew in order to support missionaries are now being called to go to the nations too.
The celebration in Columbus, Ohio, marked a shift from 20 years ago, when the commissioning might have featured flags of the world and missionaries in brightly colored international dress processing into the auditorium to “We’ve a Story to Tell the Nations.” But in Ohio, photos of the missionaries and families flashed up on large screens in the convention hall, with their home state, sending church, and a brief snapshot of the region where they’ll serve.
Across the room, the missionaries stood as their slides played, illuminated only by book-shaped lights fanned out in front of them.
The low-key, somber service hinted at the desperate spiritual need the missionaries will encounter here and abroad. In the Northeast U.S., said International Mission Board President David Platt, 82% of people don’t know Christ. In the western U.S., it’s 87%, and in Canada, 90%.
Those numbers are small compared to India, where 1 billion people are spiritually lost. Platt and Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, focused on the role of the local church during the sending celebration, urging congregations to consider their responsibility to take the gospel to the nations.
Platt also pointed to the possibility of new strategies for supporting missionaries on the field. In 2009, he said during his report prior to the celebration, the IMB had 5,600 missionaries serving around the world. The number is 4,700 now, and headed toward 4,200, due to the Board’s inability to financially support them.
“We are evaluating all of our structures and systems to discern how we can more efficiently and effectively use the resources Southern Baptists have entrusted to us,” he said. But we’ll always be limited, he added, as long as full financially supported missionaries are the only way we think about getting the gospel to the nations.
Throughout the IMB’s history, the Board has sent about 25,000 missionaries to serve around the world. “Which is awesome, but the reality is we need 25,000 now,” Platt said.
After a year in which the IMB operated $21 million in the red, a new plan is needed to send more people to more places and people groups. And everyday Christians play a key role in that plan, Platt said, painting a picture of students and retirees and professionals forming a network of support around missionaries and church planters around the world. Regular people with regular jobs, leveraging those jobs to go overseas.
“What if God has designed the globalization of today’s marketplace to open up opportunities for the spread of his gospel?” Platt asked.
The time is now, he urged during his final challenge to the audience in Columbus. “Not one of us is guaranteed today, much less tomorrow. So, brothers and sisters, let’s make it count. Let’s make our lives and our churches and this convention of churches count.”