Previously, the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board carefully observed the geographical separation between their two ministry assignments. But national borders no longer define the task of missions in a globalized world marked by the rapid migrations of people groups in need of the Gospel.
Messengers to the SBC annual meeting in Phoenix gave final approval to ministry assignment changes for both boards emerging from "Great Commission Resurgence" recommendations adopted at last year's SBC annual meeting in Orlando, Fla. One of the assignment changes directs the IMB to "provide specialized, defined and agreed upon assistance to the North American Mission Board in assisting churches to reach unreached and underserved people groups within the United States and Canada."
NAMB and IMB mobilization leaders met while in Phoenix to discuss some of the directions that cooperation will take in the days ahead. Plans coming into focus include:
-- joint ethnographic mapping of the top 100 North American cities.
-- creation of a unified information database to help identify unengaged, unreached people groups in North America and provide resources to reach them.
-- multiple training opportunities to help churches and individuals plant churches among unreached groups.
"We're recognizing the diaspora of peoples and the globalization of the world, and we're seeking the unreached and least-reached peoples wherever they are on the globe, including North America," said Ken Winter, IMB vice president for church and partner services. "What the convention in Orlando recommended, the convention in Phoenix has now approved -- and we're moving forward with it.
"We're beyond the 'Can we do this?' stage. Now we're identifying the strategies to assist the churches," Winter said.
The urban face of North America in particular is changing as the world rushes toward the United States and Canada. According to current mission research, 584 unengaged, unreached people groups can be found in North America, many of which live in urban areas. These groups have less than 2 percent evangelical Christians among them, and no evangelical church or group has a viable plan to present the Gospel to them in ways they can understand and respond to it.
"We're no longer training people here in America just to engage people groups overseas," said Aaron Coe, NAMB's vice president for mobilization. "We're training people to engage people groups here in America and overseas.
"We have IMB missionaries working among peoples overseas, but we also have many of those peoples living within the boundaries of North America," Coe said. "We can strategically work together as we look at reaching those people groups overseas as well as here at home. We're just at the beginning of what that could look like, but you might have missionaries that come home and move to a city where their people group lives. For instance, if you've worked with West Africans in Mali and there's a high concentration of West Africans in a place like New York City, that might be an option for you. …
"We're excited about the potential," Coe said, "because we're on the same team working toward the same thing, and there are a lot of resources we can share. We're going to be far more effective and efficient because of it."
Speaking of New York, it will be the first of three North American locations for "EthnéCITY: Reaching the Unreached in the Urban Center," a gathering designed for pastors, missionaries, church planters, missions leaders, students or anyone who might be described as "interested in exploring what it will take to engage the diaspora of unreached people groups in the urban centers of the world." Dates and sites: Oct. 20-22 in New York; Nov. 17-19 in Houston; and May 3-5, 2012, in Vancouver, Canada. To find out more or register, visit http://ethnecity.com
Strategists from Southern Baptist churches, associations, seminaries, state conventions, NAMB and IMB gathered May 9-10 to trade ideas about the challenge of engaging unreached people groups in U.S. urban centers. In April, NAMB President Kevin Ezell met with IMB President Tom Elliff to brainstorm ways to partner in mobilizing Southern Baptists to evangelize the lost, make disciples and plant new congregations.
"We're overjoyed that leadership in both IMB and NAMB are determined to be good stewards of the resources that are entrusted to them," Elliff said. "One of the evidences of that is a new and refreshing openness to utilizing the strengths each organization brings to the table for reaching a lost world."
Ezell added, "It just makes sense to Southern Baptists that their two missions entities would work together like this. North America is too big and too diverse for us to say we can't benefit from IMB's expertise. We want to say to every church, 'If God has put a people group on your heart somewhere in the world, help us reach them here at home as well.'"
Top leadership of both mission boards intend to meet again later this year to continue joint planning. In the meantime, IMB is surveying retired and former missionaries who might serve as resources, mentors and participants in reaching the unreached of North America. They're also developing ways missionaries currently overseas can interact with U.S. churches to share ideas for engaging peoples in North America, including a monthly webinar that connects people across the globe for dialogue.
"We're trying to create learning communities," said IMB mobilizer Terry Sharp, who works with Southern Baptist state conventions and associations and facilitates urban strategies. "It's so much fun seeing how God is opening these doors, seeing barriers broken down and the way people are getting it now.
"For some reason, because we as a convention have said, 'Let's do this together,' people are saying, 'I've been overseas and this people group is on my heart. Help me discover where that same group is here in America.'"
Erich Bridges is an International Mission Board global correspondent.
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