RICHMOND, Va. — The International Mission Board, along with other SBC entities which receive Cooperative Program funds, recently submitted an annual ministry report to the SBC Executive Committee. IMB’s report has provoked questions regarding how the mission agency’s personnel collects numbers and how the current report relates to previous years’ numbers, but IMB leaders welcome the opportunity to share plans for consistency in future reports.
“These questions are good and valid,” IMB president David Platt said in response to questions raised about IMB’s most recent report, particularly related to baptisms and new churches. “IMB leaders are absolutely committed to practically accurate, biblically faithful reporting to the SBC.”
Throughout IMB’s history, various approaches to missions have been employed and various standards for reporting have been used. In some eras, the majority of IMB missionaries have worked in areas more reached by the Gospel, which inevitably meant more established churches were spreading the Gospel, resulting in greater numbers reported by IMB. In contrast, most IMB missionaries today live and work in high-security locations where there is little Gospel access and fewer established churches spreading the Gospel, which has led to smaller numbers reported by IMB.
In addition, IMB missionaries previously included numbers from partner conventions and unions, as well as work in which IMB personnel were less directly involved, in annual reporting. However, in recent years IMB decided to no longer include such numbers. Such factors create differentiations (and even declines) in numbers.
Various differentiations in numbers are due in part to the complex nature of reporting numbers for IMB work. IMB personnel are commissioned around the world not only to proclaim the Gospel; baptize new believers; gather them together into churches; and train leaders from those churches — but also to equip national believers to do all of the above. As national believers are equipped by IMB missionaries, they begin making disciples and planting churches in ways that are increasingly difficult to track and report accurately.
“There comes a time when the work is led more by the national believers than the IMB missionaries, and the numbers become less and less ‘ours’ to report,” Platt said. “This is actually success for IMB missionaries, for we are always working toward raising up national believers to join in the missionary task with us. However, such success ironically leads to a reduction in numbers to report, for the work now belongs more to national believers than it does to IMB missionaries.”
In such situations, IMB missionaries have freedom to move on and start work in a new place, where the numbers they report will almost always be smaller because their new work will almost always be slower at the start.
Challenges and complexities in reporting are further compounded when factoring in circumstances in working with national believers. To accurately report numbers, IMB missionaries must remain closely connected to national believers. This connection requires deep relational knowledge, language competency and cultural understanding. However, if for governmental or medical reasons IMB missionaries become less connected to national believers, the missionaries are less able to report accurate numbers; as a result, they refrain from reporting them, even if it means the IMB, therefore, reports a lesser number of baptisms and churches planted than is actually the case.
This is part of the reason for the decline in numbers from 2014 to 2015, for certain IMB missionaries connected to large movements of national believers were kept stateside due to visa denials and family circumstances, the specific details of which the IMB cannot comment on due to security concerns. In these situations, the missionaries did not believe it to be responsible to report numbers that they could not personally verify on the ground. These IMB missionaries were confident that people were continuing to come to Christ and churches were continuing to multiply, but because they were limited in their ability to measure that multiplication, they chose not to report specific numbers.
Such complexities provide a clear reminder that IMB missionaries work in areas where governments, religious organizations and social structures directly oppose Gospel work, making the collection of data regarding new believers and churches not only difficult, but even dangerous at times. Reporting numbers of new believers, baptisms and new churches can cause risk both for the ministry taking place in certain areas and for the lives of IMB missionaries and the national believers with whom they work.
Biblically faithful reports
“Even in light of all of the various complications in reporting numbers from the field, a sudden discrepancy in numbers from 2014 to 2015, in addition to similar discrepancies in previous years, demonstrates that we need to reevaluate our current methods for collecting data from the field,” Platt said.
“This is one of many reasons why months ago we began a process of reevaluating the quantitative and qualitative measures of our work around the world. This process of reevaluation is focused on defining terms, minimizing inconsistencies, increasing accountability and ensuring accuracy in our reporting. We look forward to completion of this process with a view toward consistent implementation of it in the future.”
IMB leadership has focused on establishing clear definitions for “evangelism” and “conversion,” and what IMB personnel report as “disciples” and “churches.” IMB leaders want Southern Baptists to know that when the IMB says a person has been baptized or a church has been planted, they can be confident that these numbers are not only practically accurate, but also biblically faithful, particularly in line with the current Baptist Faith and Message.
“Southern Baptists can be sure that the nearly 4,000 missionaries sent out from Southern Baptist churches and serving with the IMB are working hard in the power of the Holy Spirit to see disciples made and churches multiplied among the nations,” Platt said. “The entire IMB family asks for continued prayer that God, in His grace and for His glory, might use the faithful work of IMB missionaries to bear everlasting fruit all over the world.”
In the video greeting to IMB’s 2016 ministry report (available at SBC.net), Platt said he hopes the report is a reflection of the people who have come to Christ, the churches that have been planted and the leaders who have been trained as a result of Southern Baptists’ faithful giving, praying and going.
“To see God’s provision through churches and through the entire Southern Baptist Convention ecosystem has been nothing short of amazing to watch,” Platt said. “It’s nothing short of breathtaking to see well over $250 million dollars given from churches with the express purpose of getting the Gospel to people who have never heard it.
“I want Southern Baptists to know it’s happening, even amidst some of the challenges we have walked through in order to get to a healthier place financially and a sustainable position for the future. Amidst it all, God has been working around the world through your praying, and through your giving, and through your going and through your sending.”
“Every single day God is using Southern Baptist church members who have been sent to the nations to lead people to Christ, to make disciples, to plant churches, to train pastors and to train missionaries,” Platt said, noting the 2016 report is a picture of what lies ahead as these believers and churches are multiplied for the glory of God.