The IMB reported last week that it has to dramatically reduce its force at home and abroad. This is obviously bad news, no matter your perspective. Less missionaries on the field, specifically when due to insufficient financial resources, is not the preferred path. However, moments of crisis can also breed moments of great opportunity. In light of that, here are some of my personal reflections:
- This is a horribly sad thing
I experienced several emotions when I heard the news, ranging from sadness for those affected, to confusion as to how we didn’t take drastic measures before, to even anger. I fought back tears a few days ago as I told my church that we have to bring God-called men and women home, and at least in the short term, reduce our gospel witness around the world.
- This is a good decision for the long term effectiveness of the IMB
There is a biblical and agricultural principle that pruning is necessary prior to fruitfulness. However, pruning is rarely, if ever, pleasant at the time. I feel for IMB leadership who have to make difficult decisions in the face of the crisis, and I feel for those who will be affected by it. It is easy to stand back and evaluate these decisions in light of pure numbers. Each of these numbers being reduced, however, reflects real, individual missionary lives who are being affected. That matters to me. However, I recognize that no organization can survive like this – continually dipping into reserves and selling off property. This decision is necessary so that we have an IMB in the future. While the problems that cause this are tragic, the solution doesn’t have to be.
- We should rejoice in the IMB’s decision to open up multiple pathways
Our traditional model at the IMB is wonderful and has been very effective. However, that model alone will not be able to finish the task of the Great Commission. We now have the opportunity to consider the history of the CP and the IMB, as the CP prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It is true that while our current model has been incredibly effective, it’s ceiling has been pretty firm. We have been functioning for many decades, and yet there still exists approximately 1/3 of the globe’s population that has yet to hear and understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is unacceptable. If we retain our current model, there will always be a ceiling on how many we can send (even if giving at home increases by millions!). We need the both/and approach the IMB has laid out for the future. Let us equip and deploy increasing numbers of fully funded missionaries, yes, but let’s also equip bivocational and volunteer missionaries en masse. Our denominational family has thrived for years on the backs of bivocational and even, at times, unpaid pastors. It is not difficult to imagine a mission field in the future that thrives in a similar way.
- Churches and pastors at home need to sacrifice more.
We all should shoulder the blame for what has happened. This is unacceptable! We need to lead our churches to sacrifice and give more so we can send more. As a pastor, I understand financial realities and the challenges churches face when making a budget. However, it is possible – no matter what your church’s situation – to lead your church to sacrifice and give more for missions. It just is! My church is strapped with debt, and yet last year we gave more to Lottie Moon than we had ever given in our history. We have also increased our Cooperative Program giving by at least 6% and given historic highs to Annie Armstrong in that same time. It is a false dichotomy to argue that you can’t give to mission while struggling under debt or other financial constraints. We should all sacrifice and give more.
- State conventions need to sacrifice more.
The IMB is the reason we have an SBC, and yet 800 workers will be laid off while the majority of our CP giving remains at home with the most believers and churches. I’m so thankful for state conventions that are making radical and quick moves to get to 50/50 or more! May their tribe increase! Every state needs to move to 50/50 as quickly as possible – and it is possible! I’ve written about this previously, and maybe churches need to take these drastic measures, but I mention it here simply to show the potential that is there currently: “If by decree tomorrow (impossible by our polity and rightly so), every state convention moved to a 50/50 split, then that would mean $55.4 million more to the SBC and $27.7 million more given to the IMB. That’s without any increased giving at all!” That would have been a big chunk of the IMB’s nearly $35million yearly shortfall! Do we need a bigger pie? Yes (see point 4 above). But, do we need to allocate more of the pie to the places with the least access to the gospel? Absolutely!
- We need to welcome these returning missionaries home with a hero’s welcome.
These workers have served long and faithfully. They should be allowed opportunities to both serve the church and rest from their work, depending on their needs. Every church family into which these missionaries go would greatly benefit themselves by helping these folks and hearing their stories. There is a wealth of wisdom in each of those that will retire. What a treasure to our churches!
Obviously the issues at play here are larger than any single blogpost can rightly dissect and resolve, but I hope more pastors will grapple with our individual responses to the current struggle at the IMB. Friends, this is not their problem, it’s our problem. Let’s fix it together. Cooperative Mission is, after all, the Southern Baptist way.
Jon Akin is a founding member of B21 and Senior Pastor at Fairview Church in Lebanon, TN.