Thursday, April 22, 2010

GCR Response, Part III; What We Can Do Better

Buckle up boys and girls, this is going to be a long one!

In the last two posts I have listed the good, the bad, and the ugly of the GCR preliminary report as I perceive it from the position of a missionary in a pioneer North American field. Certainly, we as the SBC can do a better job with the resources God has blessed us with to reach our own nation and the world with the Gospel. At the same time, what the Task Force has put forward so far is unlikely to accomplish that goal. From the beginning of this movement (which most would mark as coinciding with the “Axioms” message by Dr. Danny Akin), the rallying cry and rationale for a GCR has rested on the fact that we currently spend 98% of our resources on 5% of the world’s population. Missionaries are called and ready, but cannot be funded, and the SBC must do more to ensure that we play the role God would expect of us, relative to the resources we have, in reaching the world with the Gospel. This was the vision Dr. Akin put in front of the pastors in my association last November, and I saw those men rally quickly behind that vision. I have seen them just as quickly dismiss the GCR preliminary report because it does nothing substantive to meet this goal. How is it that a movement that started with the call to get more resources to the nations can end with a report that does very little for the nations, and in fact concentrates most of its attention on NAMB?
These are the thoughts I am left with as I ponder the implications of the preliminary report, and as I shared these thoughts with our Association’s Executive Board, one of its members bluntly asked “Joel, what would you do if you were in charge of this thing?”

As much as I hate being an armchair quarterback, there are many things I would suggest that would, I believe, make the SBC much more effective in reaching the original goal that was touted at the beginning of this movement. 1.7 billion people on our planet have never heard of Jesus. Each week, more than a million people within this population die separated from God because there is no missionary to share with them how they can be in relationship with Him. If we want to change that we can, but to utilize our resources to reach these people will require more radical moves than the Task Force has recommended. What follows are my own suggestions as to how this goal might be accomplished:

1. Changes at the North American Mission Board. In my last post, I stated that the indiscriminate “phasing out” of cooperative budgeting between NAMB and the state conventions was a bad idea. At the same time, these agreements do need to be revisited. . .ALL of them.
A. All national and jointly funded NAMB missionaries must have their roles examined in light of the new, sharper focus recommended by the Task Force. More pointedly, mission personnel must be directly involved in evangelism and the planting of New Testament churches in order to retain their benefits and any salary subsidies they receive. With NAMB having a more regional presence across North America under the Task Force’s proposal, accountability on this point will be easier to maintain. Those who work in an area outside evangelism and church planting would have their positions phased out over 3 years, starting in 2011. Assuming that this results in a 10% reduction in the cost of cooperative agreements, this would free up an additional $5 million by 2014. However, if the work is to remain "grass roots," missionaries will need to be answerable to local churches through states and associations rather than NAMB, as the Task Force is suggesting.
B. NAMB mission personnel involved in state and associational work in “new work” areas would be expected to model the same move toward non-dependency that they expect of the churches that are planted. Though I have strong differences with Jerry Rankin regarding the "supervisory" role NAMB should assume in the future, I agree with him that the same dependency on outside funding and support that handicapped international work for decades is today having the same effect in North America. (you can read his take on this here.) Independence and self-sufficiency are always to be prefered over perpetual ecclesiastical wellfare. As associations and new work state conventions plant new contributing churches, outside salary subsidies would be drawn down over a maximum period of 10 years. Associations that are more fiscally healthy—such as the one I currently lead—would be phased down over a shorter period of time. These funds would then be “recycled” through the appropriate state convention to start new associations if needed with more missionary personnel. If new associations are not needed, the funds would be converted and aimed at specific church planting strategies. Both the state conventions and associations would be eligible for these subsidies, as would multiplying local churches. In short, rather than eliminating cooperative agreements, make cooperative agreements directly available to partners at all levels of denominational life. Local churches and associations should have the same potential working relationship with NAMB as the state conventions now have, thereby assuring the indigeneity of any strategies that are implemented.
C. The NAMB facilities in Alpharetta, GA would be sold, and NAMB’s regional offices would be shared with the Georgia, Maryland/Delaware, New York, Northwest, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Colorado, and Texas Conventions respectively. In short, NAMB would be housed regionally within state convention facilities. The proceeds from the sale of the Alpharetta property would be used to ensure that adequate space is provided for both NAMB and the state convention in which they are housed, the balance would be deposited, and $1 million in interest annually could be given to the IMB.
The amounts freed up from these changes would be reallocated to the International Mission Board. Total anticipated allocation: $6 million.

2. Changes at the Seminaries: 5% of the amount currently allocated from the Cooperative Program to go to the seminaries would be reallocated to the International Mission Board. As each of the seminaries receives a different amount of the 22.16% of Cooperative Program dollars currently alloted to them collectively, any neccesary budget cuts would be proportional to the amount each seminary received. The average cut across the board would be a bit under $370,000 per seminary--much less than the average new work state convention is being asked to give up under the current proposal. While there are many ways that an academic institution can make up for a budget loss of this sort, one way would be to fill faculty needs with academically-qualified local pastors who would teach adjunctively.
The amount freed up from these changes would also be reallocated to the International Mission Board. Total anticipated allocation: $2.3 million.

3. Eliminate the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I'll make the case for this one short and sweet. If Southern Baptists really believe that the ultimate answer to society's ills is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then let's put our money where our mouths are! While I have appreciation for the work of the ERLC, and most of the time find myself in agreement with the positions taken, I will also admit that sound political decisions are no substitute for the power of the Gospel. We learn this from the history of the Old Testament itself. King Josiah, for example, enacted wonderful, godly reforms during his rule over Judah. But without changed hearts, Judah continued in its idolatry.
Additionally, we already have SBC leaders who speak eloquently to cultural and political issues, and represent our denomination with truth and grace, chief among them being Al Mohler. Ultimately, if America is to be "saved," it will be by people repenting of their sins and coming to Jesus. That said, I'd recommend we take the monies we have invested in Republican politics for years and years, and forward it on to the International Mission Board to reach the nations.
Total allocation: $3.3 million.

4. Changes at the International Mission Board. I would cut the current number of IMB trustees in half--one per state convention is more than sufficient. (for that matter, we would probably do well to consider this same approach at every one of our SBC entities. Talk about saving money! Another conversation for another day, to be sure). Additionally, move from 6 meetings per year to 3, with only one of those meetings being "face-to-face." Twice per year trustees could meet "virtually" and the investment the IMB would make in the technology for this to happen would be minimal compared to the continual purchasing of airline tickets, hotel rooms, meals, etc. that currently cost approximately $100,000 per meeting.
Of course, the question is then asked "how will we appoint missionaries in a timely manner?" My answer to this question is for the SBC to place its trust in the candidate consultants employed by the IMB. Trustees would still set the parameters for missionary appointment, but individual appointments could be approved by IMB staff within those parameters. The past five years have revealed clearly that IMB trustees not missiologically well-informed often choose to care about the wrong things when considering missionary candidates. Employ people you trust at IMB and then trust them! The monies saved could be reallocated internally and provide needed support to missionaries.
Total allocation: $550,000.

The above suggestions, in addition to the current recommendation by the Task Force to move 1% of CP dollars from the Executive Committee to the IMB, would result in a total increase of more than $12 million dollars to reaching the nations! Of course, churches excited to see 57% of Cooperative Program dollars on their way to resource the reaching of the nations would no doubt increase their own contributions to the CP as they are able.

With this said, here is my very simple question: If the GCR was supposed to be about getting ever increasing amounts of CP dollars to the 1.7 billion who have never heard the Gospel, why then are we not seeing proposals from the Task Force that would send substantively increased amounts to the IMB? Why, after all of the noise about "the nations" is the preliminary report predominantly about the North American Mission Board?

Jerry Rankin is right to point out that the SBC could play a major role in reaching the world with the Gospel, but that our present structure suggests we don't want to. Unfortunately, the recommendations of the Task Force as they now stand do very little in my estimation to change that. My prayer is that by the final report on May 3, we will see the kind of bold, courageous, faith-filled, Christ-centered vision that those of us who voted for the GCR at last year's convention hoped to see. Let us all pray earnestly for the Task Force in these final days. Even more so, let's pray for the courage and faithfulness to do what God expects as we seek our unique role in extending His Kingdom.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The GCR Report: A Correction and Clarification

Let me preface this post with the admission that I studied math in public school . . .in South Carolina. :) That fact should explain the following correction:

In my last post, several large figures were thrown about, one of which was a side-reference to the amount our International Mission Board spends annually on trustee meetings. About four years ago, I was speaking with a trustee who shared with me that the average cost per meeting was around $500,000, and that the Board met 6 times per year. After four years, I assumed that if anything, that cost had gone up, and therefore, stated that the amount spent by the IMB for this purpose was $3 million annually, thinking that if anything, this was a conservative estimate.

This morning I had the opportunity to speak with Terry Sharp, the chief liason between the IMB and associational leaders such as myself. During our conversation he asked me to clarify that the actual cost of a single trustee meeting is actually closer to $100,000, which would bring the total annual cost of these meetings to about $600,000, not the $3 million I referred to earlier.

Additionally, the trustees have recently looked at ways of cutting costs, including cutting two of their meetings out, which would presumably cut another $200,000 from their expenses.

My apologies for the inaccuracy of that figure. I'm always happy to hear that our entities are spending "less" than assumed on administrative costs, and the IMB has certainly demonstrated through this its own commitment to stewardship of the dollars given her by the churches. My last post on this issue will deal with ways that even more monies can be sent in her direction.

Monday, April 12, 2010

GCR Response, Part II: The Things that Puzzle Me.

The GCR Task Force was charged last year with recommending ways that Southern Baptists can do our work more effectively. In my last post I pointed out several things about their preliminary report that made me glad to have voted in favor of this approach. In this post, I'd like to address a few things that both trouble and puzzle me. They trouble me because, as a missionary in the field, the potential damage that could befall our work in North America as a result of some of their recommendations seems plain to me. They puzzle me because the folks I know personally on the task force are good and wise people, and I'm trying to understand why they too don't see the weaknesses in certain parts of their report.

1. The Centralized "de-centralization" of NAMB; I mentioned in the last post that I was in favor of the task force's recommendation that the North American Mission Board be de-centralized. The problem with the preliminary report is that the exact opposite is what will take place. There seems to be an assumption that if NAMB is relocated to seven areas of North America that the entity will be automatically decentralized. But geographic relocation alone does not constitute decentralization. In fact, when one looks at the other recommendations dealing with the phasing out of Cooperative Agreements and the direct appointment of all missions personnel by NAMB, it becomes clear that the goals of the task force are not matched by their proposed plans in this area. In the end, if these proposals are realized, it will not result in true decentralization. The consolidation of money, power, and personnel into one denominational missions board is a "centralizing" move. I'll deal with what true decentralization looks like in my next post, but for now, I'll simply say that it looks nothing like what the Task Force has proposed.

2. The Indiscriminate Phasing out of Cooperative Agreements and Budgets; This proposal has received the most attention, and rightly so. For one thing, we can certainly do cooperative budgeting better, and I'm all in favor of a total renegotiation of ALL budget agreements in light of the new emphases the task force is recommending for NAMB. At the same time, the recommendation to simply "phase out" these agreements across North America would mean the elimination of more than 1700 missionary personnel in NEW WORK AREAS. While some would certainly be retained by NAMB under the new system, it is almost certain that many would not due to the financial restraints that would accompany a strategy in which NAMB could no longer count on state conventions and associations to contribute significant percentages of financial support to its mission force.
Fortunately, the Task Force makes the assumptions behind this recommendation clear in their preliminary report:
-They assume that all state conventions are essentially the same.
-They assume that much of the $50 million now being funneled through cooperative agreements is being wasted on "state and associational employees," and that if that $50 million could just be turned back over to NAMB, it would automatically be invested in "reaching North America for Christ." The irony of that assumption is that I work with many of those "state and associational employees" in an area that is 80% unchurched, and more than 90% non-evangelical. In the past five years, more than 100 new churches have been planted in this area. Ours has been hailed as one of the better church planting support systems in North America, and our assessment process is unmatched anywhere else on this continent. I'm honestly not sure why anyone would consider an investment that resulted in those things a "waste."
-They assume that state conventions are the only entities where "waste" occurs. The obvious belief of the Task Force is that as long as states have a say in how $50 million North American missions dollars are spent, the money will be wasted, but if NAMB controls it all, it will be invested well. Isn't this the same entity that spent $250,000 on a fire truck? I'll let the reader figure this one out, because I simply can't get my head around it.
-They assume that NAMB is better equipped to design church planting strategy than state conventions and local associations. Yet recent research has substantiated that evangelical Christianity is on the rise in the northeast, northwest, and other new work areas (see map here). Much of the reason for this has to do with the fact that NAMB, states, and associations all understand their respective roles. NAMB, rather than prescribing strategy, has developed strategic frameworks, and states and associations have, in turn, developed contextual church planting strategies that fit within that national framework.
To be sure, every single cooperative agreement should be revisited, and either continued, phased out, or adjusted based on NAMB's new focus. But to phase out all financial arrangements indiscriminately will not result in forward progress in North American church planting, and in fact may roll us back a few years while NAMB seeks to catch up to what we have been doing.
Of course, I'm not the first to point out these facts, and I'm aware of how the contention over this point has been answered by those in favor of cooperative agreement phase-outs. In fact, the rancorous way in which the responses have come has surprised me . . .

-"So it seems we value the status quo over getting the Gospel to the nations."
-"It appears the job of a denominational beaurecrat is more important than an unreached people group on the other side of the world."

As inaccurate as such politically-charged rhetoric is, these statements might actually have some merit, were it not for the fact that NONE of the $50 million is prescribed by the Task Force to be redirected to the nations. It is simply being moved from the state to the national level, but staying in North America. As such, the charge that we are choosing status quo over the nations has no foundation. On this point, the Emperor is indeed naked!

Personally, I'd be highly in favor of part of that $50 million making its way into an investment in international missions, and in my third installment, I'll make some suggestions as to how this could happen. But the current recommendations merely reallocate money that stays in North America. And if I may be so bold as to channel a thought from Timothy George a generation ago, the reallocation of millions of dollars from one denominational beauracracy to another doth not a Great Commission Resurgence make.

3. No Substantive Increase in International Missions Giving. While I'm appreciative of the Task Force making an additional 1% of CP dollars available for the International Mission Board, I'm both puzzled and dissapointed that what started as a rallying cry to "reach the nations" has only resulted in a $3 million increase (which, incidentally, is what the IMB spends yearly on trustee meetings. Maybe the state conventions aren't the only place where fat can be cut.)
To be honest, my most visceral reaction to the report came upon hearing the proposed increase. After all the noise that was made over the past year about getting more resources to the nations (noise that I agree with, and joined in on), I could only think to myself "Only 1%?!? Are you kidding me?!?!?!" Additionally, when one considers what it may cost for the IMB to assume its new responsibility of helping engage unreached peoples on American soil, a $3 million increase seems more like a pentalty than an increase.
I'm truly excited that 51% of Cooperative Program dollars are now going to fund international missions. At the same time, we can do much, MUCH better. In my final post on this subject, I'll suggest some ways in which we could see, not $3 million, not $6 million, but instead $15-$20 million additional dollars on their way to the unreached peoples of the world.

Let me reiterate the respect I have for each member of the GCR Task Force, and the recognition I have for the hard work they have already done. I certainly do not envy them. Additionally, I believe they are listening to Southern Baptists across North America, and I'm holding out hope that the final report will be something around which all of us can unite, and that will actually increase our effectiveness in reaching the world with the Gospel. Many of their recommendations are helpful, but in the end, shuffling $50 million from the state to the national level, and reallocating 1% in CP gifts from the Executive Committee to the IMB is simply not enough. In my next post, I'll suggest some alternative approaches.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

GCR Response Part I: The Things Everyone Should Love

"Getting the Gospel to the nations" was the rallying cry that produced a 95%-plus vote to form the GCR Task Force on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention in Louisville last year. Mine was one of the ballots raised in favor of forming that group, and in this part of my response to the preliminary report, I'd like to point out the things that make me glad I did:

1. Unleashing the International Mission Board on American soil. This idea has been a long-time coming, and I'm very thankful to see it endorsed by the task force. For years, NAMB and the IMB have collaborated regarding unreached people groups residing in North America. (see for just one example), and the IMB has been a helpful counselor in bringing the focus on missions in North America from generations and geography to people groups. "Simple church" training for multiplying disciples has been very effective in some parts of North America, and this training has been provided by--you guessed it--the International Mission Board. At the associational level, we train missions volunteers with "Frontliners," a curriculum I was privlleged to preview and consult on for presentation in North America. It was written by the former Middle America-Caribbean Region of the IMB, and is without a doubt the best training in missions philosophy and practice out there. With this recommendation, the IMB can finally function officially in a role they have already proven to be effective in a more meritorious way. In my area alone, more than 25 unreached people groups reside without an indigenous church to reach them. Over the past six years, we have planted churches among 7 language groups, including the most recent Chin Burmese church launched just three weeks ago. Yet more than 60 languages are spoken in our area. I for one will be elated to have the expertise of the International Mission Board in helping us reach the 53 language groups and more than 25 people groups who need Gospel-preaching churches in their midst.

2. The Concept of a De-centralized North American Mission Board: Since 1997, NAMB has been charged with developing a strategic framework in which contextual and regional strategies can be developed nationwide that will effectively reach North America for Christ. Even amidst all the tumultuous activity that has taken place "at the top" of this organization, NAMB has managed over the past four years to narrow their focus from nine major ministry objectives to three, thereby producing a sharper focus toward reaching North America. With this in view, it only makes sense that the next step would be to downnsize the NAMB staff accordingly, and relocate NAMB to separate regions of the continent, with the majority locations being found in new work areas. Though I remain skeptical of the apparent assumption that geographic relocation alone constitutes "de-centralization" (I'll deal with this assumption in the next post), I'm genuinely excited about the prospect of a scenario that I hope will include the sale of the lucrative real estate in Alpharetta, and the disbursment of NAMB to areas where we should be concentrating most on penetrating lostness.

3. The Concept of "Great Commission Giving." I know there are many who believe this recommendation will spell the end of Cooperative Program giving in the classical sense. I do not share their pessimism, and in fact believe that this recommendation puts appropriate pressure on associations (including the one I am privileged to lead), state conventions, and our seminaries to be worthy of those gifts. I believe that all will rise to the challenge. Furthermore, I am one who has grown tired over the years at seeing good and godly men chastised publicly simply because their churches gave to missions in a different way. One church of which I am aware gave $1.5 million directly to the IMB to help fund a church planting movement in an area of the world that is 99% Muslim. I strongly believe such gifts should be celebrated and encouraged. No level of denominational beaureacracy should dictate what is and is not appropriate "missions giving." Such decisions should be made by the local church alone, and when such churches give sacrificially to reach the nations, the SBC at all levels should celebrate God's work through them, regardless of "how" or "to whom" those gifts are credited.

4. More than 50% of Cooperative Program Dollars Directed at the International Mission Board. If there is any rationale for a church to continue to give through the Cooperative Program, this is it. For the first time in our history since the founding of the CP in 1925, more than 50% of the gifts that make it to Nashville will in turn make it to the unreached peoples of the world. That said, $3 million is not enough and frankly, I believe the Task Force can do better in this regard (this too will be addressed in future posts), but I'm excited to see any increase in the percentage of funds that go to international missions.

As I said earlier, there is much to love about this report, and the four issues mentioned above are representative of a few things that I personally find very encouraging. At the same time, there are some unintended consequences that I am afraid will result from other recommendations made--unintended consequences that could potentially weaken our efforts to reach North America, and that do not meet the need with the appropriate resources required for missions overseas. These are issues I'll deal with in the next post.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Great Commission Resurgence: Some Thoughts From the Field

For almost six years, I have served the Lord, the churches of my association, and those separated from Jesus in central Maryland. After spending some time planting churches in the south and teaching adjuctively, our family answered God's call to come to the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor to work with what was then about 40 churches in reaching a population of more than 1.2 million who live in the area between these two large cities. Over that time, we have seen God do some incredible things. We have seen lives changed by the Gospel, more than 25 new churches started in our associational area, and roughly 100 more churches started in partnership with our state convention and in different parts of the world through our international work. Its been quite a ride!

With all this in view, it goes without saying that I was excited to see a Task Force appointed at last year's SBC to examine whether we could do more of this very thing--in more effective ways. My signature was among the first electronically afixed to the "Axioms" document, and as a missionary in the field, I waited to see what the initial results of their work might look like. After hearing the report, having the opportunity to hear directly from Task Force members, advocates and opponents of the initial recommendations, and spending some time reflecting on how these recommendations might affect our work here, as well as mission work around the world, I still don't think myself able to speak to the report in the fullest sense that I would wish. Still, I do believe I have a pretty good handle on the implications of what the Task Force is recommending, and believe I can provide an analysis that gives the perspective of a guy "in the field."

As an association, our On Mission Council (i.e. Executive Board) have all read the report, read the responses, had their own conversations with Task Force members, and sought to anticipate what this means for an association of 58 churches in central Maryland. They asked me to speak to the report, interpreting as best as I can the implications, both for ourselves and the rest of the Southern Baptist Convention. What will follow is a three-part analysis I will provide for our churches--and whoever else might be interested--on their behalf.

Next week, I will post Part I, which will deal specifically with areas of agreement. There are many. In fact, there is much, MUCH to love about this initial report, and I want to latch on to that greater vision of accomplishing the Great Commission together, and doing it more effectively.

In Part II, I will note areas of concern. Specifically, I will note areas where, as it appears to me, some of the proposed plans of the Task Force are unconnected to the original GCR declaration, and may in fact weaken our abilities to advance the Kingdom of God together. Any restructuring plan as complex as this one will never be without unintended consequences. Nevertheless, I will seek to point out some areas where--as an "insider" to our mission work in a new work area, we may want the Task Force to take a second look.

Part III is the result of a direct question I was asked by our Association's On Mission Council: "What would you do if it were up to you to structure the SBC for more effective Great Commission ministry?" Our pastors--rightly--think it is not enough to simply critique, but also to offer helpful solutions. I will seek to do that in this final part for the six or seven people who will be left reading by that point. :)

To be honest, I struggled for several weeks as to whether I should even speak publicly to the GCR at all. With all the unhelpful rhetoric on both sides out there, the last thing I want to do is join a verbal fight. To be honest, I've got better things to do. So why did I ultimately decide to speak to this?

In short, it is because I love the Southern Baptist Convention. I was brought to faith in Jesus in an SBC church, baptized in an SBC church, ordained by an SBC church, and trained in an SBC seminary. After nearly 18 years of ministry I have been on both the giving and receiving end of Cooperative Program dollars. Though it is far from a perfect system, I have experienced the incredible Kingdom advance that results when we are firing on all cylinders, and like the Task Force, I want to see our churches pushing back the darkness here, and all over the world.

So in that spirit, I'll look forward to offering to our churches, and anyone else willing to listen, what I hope will be a helpful, substantive contribution to this discussion. Additionally, I pray God continues to use our collaborative work as 40,000+ churches to bring the Gospel to everyone in the world.