Monday, October 05, 2015

The Forest, the Trees, and the Future of Global Engagement

I do not envy David Platt.  At all.

One year into his tenure as the President of my denomination's global missions entity, the International Mission Board, Platt announced that fiscal realities would necessitate the "early retirement" of between 600 and 800 missions personnel.  For many years now, it seems the IMB has been draining reserves and selling global properties in order to maintain and build upon its efforts.  Yet in spite of significant increases in its Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and other streams of revenue, the Board was unable to close the gap, and is now in the process of offering Voluntary Retirement Incentives (VRIs) to missionaries over 50 who have served for a determined number of years.

It is always heartbreaking when fiscal realities mean you have to tell someone called by God to a mission vocation that you can no longer support their work.  Many of these folks who labor in the name of Jesus around the world are personal friends of mine, and over the past few weeks I've received multiple calls from IMB missionaries who may be, or have already been affected by these realities.

In the midst of these difficulties, its easy to play the role of armchair quarterback, and a number of Southern Baptists have been happy to fill that role--with many criticizing Platt and seeking to place the blame on him (though no one who looks honestly at the long history of this problem can do so), and others offering any number of other options to try and keep these faithful individuals on the field as well as IMB's payroll.  A few have also been quick to charge Southern Baptists with being "cheap."  Just give more money to Lottie and this issue can be solved!

Often, an institution's greatest strength also ends up being its greatest weakness, and I think its fair to say this is the case with the primary way my denomination has executed global missions for the last 150 years.  Every methodology will eventually reach a ceiling, and when it does, the temptation is to sit astride a stationary bike, and think if you just "peddle harder" you will get somewhere.  That's where we are where global engagement is concerned.  And to a large extent, this is because the world in which our delivery systems came into being no longer exists!

Simply put, the International Mission Board (as well as NAMB, all 42 state Conventions including the one that currently employs me, and all 1000 Baptist Associations) is a product of the modern missions movement.  A little over 200 years ago, William Carey unknowingly launched what would in just a few years become a behemoth missionary enterprise.  In 1780, with rare exception, if you traveled more than 150 miles from the north Atlantic Ocean, you would not find a Christian.  Carey and his contemporaries changed all of that--beginning with Carey's own use of "means," and continuing along the historical timeline with Hudson Taylor's emphasis on indigneity, William Cameron Townsend's contributions to linguistics, and Donald MacGavran's emphasis on the utilization of the social sciences.  These and many others built an effective missions delivery system that was equal to the modern world in which it was birthed.  It was a delivery system that included:

-An understanding of mission as a full-time vocational calling
-a large, capitalist funding base
-Organized efforts under "missionary corporations."
-Bifurcation between "domestic" and "international" missions

Then came a host of fresh challenges that stretched a century, and tested the limits of this delivery system:

-China's boxer rebellion
-Mao's cultural revolution
-The Great Depression in the United States
-The Rise of Communism in eastern Europe and Asia
-Rising tensions between the west and the predominantly Islamic middle-east
-The "Great Recession" of 2008

Restrictions on religious freedom and activity around the world resulted in a new phrase emerging in our missions vocabulary--the "closed country."  We actually believed that entire countries were "closed" to the Gospel.  And our recent financial squeeze coupled with the resistance we feel around the world toward our mission efforts leads us to believe that unless we figure out a way to pour more money into our existing system, our best days may be behind us.  Neither are true.

So today, we who care about taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth are tempted to sit in sorrow, and mourn a day we fear is passing.  The reality is that we lament our recent financial woes for exactly the same reason we see some countries and peoples as "closed."  Its because 200 years after the start of the modern missions movement, we equate successful accomplishment of the Great Commission with the financial perpetuity and global receptivity of our delivery system. The reality is that the biggest barrier to the spread of our 2000-year-old message may very well be that 200-year-old delivery system.  From his grave, William Carey must be shaking his head.

This is why I was excited to hear that David Platt spoke of "widening the funnel" at the last meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Because there is simply no way to reach the world effectively using only professional, vocationally paid missionaries.  To be sure, these men and women play an invaluable role, and will continue to do so, but if we rely exclusively--or even primarily--on full-time, vocational missionaries to get to the ends of the earth, we fail!

I don't know the extent of Platt's thinking, but my hope is that his "wide funnel" analogy exemplifies what I hope is coming.  Specifically, the IMB has to reinvent itself to become as effective after the modern mission era as it was during its prime.  Over the past five years, my denomination has rightly looked with critical eyes toward our structures at all levels--Association, state, and NAMB.  But the IMB must also come to grips with the fact that it is doing its work in a world that did not exist during either its inception or its prime years.  My hope is that this is what Platt is referring to when he talks about increasing opportunities for mission while simultaneously seeking to reign in the deficit spending that has plagued this entity for some time.

In the mean time, Southern Baptist's biggest problem might be that we just can't see the forest for the trees.  That is, we are so focused on a funding gap that keeps us from doing missions the same way we've done it for years that we aren't considering whether we should look at our mission mandate in a completely fresh way.

What will this "new way forward" look like?  I'll be the first to admit that I don't have all the answers, but four things specifically come to mind:

-Local church-led efforts that connect their neighborhoods with the globe.  No more false categories like "domestic" and "foreign."  Everyone now lives everywhere, so why do we continue to speak as though missions in North America should be executed differently than anywhere else?
-A renewed focus on the Kingdom of God and tangible ways to express it around the world
-A commitment to "go through the front door," because we have too long assumed that resistance to our modern delivery system meant a culture or people were "closed" to the Gospel
-A process to equip the entire body of Christ to engage the grid of society around the globe, not just those who preach and teach

In the next post, I'll elaborate on each of these components in an effort to envision how we can move forward together.  The plain truth is this:  many of our most effective churches are already adapting how they do mission in this new reality, and they will do so with or without our denominational entities.  But if the IMB can adapt itself in the near future to be the flywheel that helps centrifugally energize the coming mission, her best days could be ahead!

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