One-thousand, one-hundred and thirty-two—Let that number sink in. That’s how many International Mission Board missionaries and staff are leaving. While we grieve for these missionaries and their loss of calling, we also grieve for the people groups whom they were striving to lead to the Lord, for the varied ministries they served, and for the churches they started. It is a sad day—especially for a denomination that once boasted of having some 5,600 serving on the mission field.
Eleven hundred and thirty-two—The thought induces a sinking feeling. It’s approximately 20 percent of our international missions force departing at the same time. The number is nearly twice what had been anticipated taking the Volunteer Retirement Incentive or the Hand-Raising Opportunity.
Questions leap off the page: How could this happen? How can we possibly be as effective in accomplishing the Great Commission going forward?
A quick answer is the IMB for years has spent more on sending missionaries that it has received through Cooperative Program gifts and Lottie Moon offerings. Subsequently, the IMB has been selling off overseas assets and depleting reserves. It had to catch up with the board one day. And when David Platt assumed the helm, he told Southern Baptists that something had to be done; the board must gain more solid financial footing. So, here we are.
At our meeting in Puerto Rico, Platt asked state editors to encourage unity among Southern Baptists, knowing the shock that was imminent. How would we react to the mind-boggling numbers? Even though we’d like to comply with his request, it is hard to escape that sinking feeling. It is difficult to remain positive when so many good, faithful servants are losing their livelihoods. One wonders how we can possibly be as effective in carrying the gospel to the nations.
Last Thursday, via livestream, Platt shared his vision for the International Mission Board, attempting to shift focus to the remaining missionaries—and those to be appointed. If the questions tweeted to Platt are any indication, many Southern Baptists are eager to know where the IMB is headed. In case you missed it, you still may be able to hear his vision at lifestream.com by searching for “Q&A with David Platt,” or read a news release on our website, westernrecorder.org.
Platt shared his five desires for IMB’s work: to exalt Christ, to mobilize ordinary Christians, to serve and equip local churches, to facilitate church planting, and for SBC churches to each play a part in accomplishing the Great Commission. He envisions a “three-legged stool” of local churches sending and encouraging missionaries while the IMB facilitates them by coordinating a global strategy to evangelize the world’s unreached people groups.
“The potential exists in every single church no matter what size—13 or 13,000—to send somebody,” he said. “If that’s the case, then how much more the beauty of how this picture in the Southern Baptist Convention works, because no one church can do this alone,” Platt said. Attempting to restore a hopeful outlook, he noted that thousands of missionaries, with thousands of years of collective experience, still remain on the field, and the IMB wants to surround them with students, professionals and retires who will leverage their studies, vocations and relocations to help spread the gospel.
In our assessment, Platt cast a biblical vision and attempted to stay within historical Baptist polity in encouraging associational, state, national and international cooperation. Yet, it is going to take time for his church-centric model to resonate with some pastors and churches that they can and must become sending agencies of missionaries. While he didn’t throw out the IMB’s role as a sending agency, he did embrace an emphasis on facilitating churches in direct engagement in their missions work. However, as more and more of our churches accept the challenge of obeying the Great Commission, it could have an unintentional consequence of necessitating fewer dollars going through the Cooperative Program to support the IMB’s ongoing work. This, indeed, would be tragic!