SPARTANBURG, S.C. (BP) -- Sparked by the disconnect between burgeoning spiritual lostness and flatlined missions giving, IMB's president is urging Southern Baptists to break from tradition and embrace new opportunities to send and support their global missionary force.
Speaking to trustees May 13-14 in Spartanburg, S.C., Tom Elliff warned that IMB "must come to grips" with the unsustainable demand placed on the organization's resources from years of declining Cooperative Program (CP) receipts and sluggish Lottie Moon giving -- revenue streams that provide the bulk of IMB's annual budget. But even if CP and Lottie Moon giving remained steady or saw modest gains, Elliff said, IMB would still be hard-pressed to continue supporting the 4,900 Southern Baptist missionaries serving today, much less meet multiple field requests for hundreds of new personnel.
"We have not substantively addressed the issue of missionary support for 89 years," Elliff said. "For all practical purposes, IMB's only answer has been to encourage Southern Baptists to increase their giving. the same message -- only louder -- again and again."
Elliff said that's why he believes IMB must make significant changes, and soon. The issue isn't about money, he told trustees, but about the billions who don't know Jesus.
"The world is not waiting for Southern Baptists to 'catch on and catch up,'" Elliff stressed. "The world is moving on while the ranks of hell are rapidly swelling with men and women, boys and girls, and their only hope is that their lives might be intercepted by people who are chasing the darkness."
While Elliff stopped short of suggesting specific changes, deferring that responsibility to the International Mission Board's next president, he chose instead to highlight areas where change is most critical -- starting with an imperative to help missionaries better connect and communicate with Southern Baptist churches.
"I have heard individuals say that the beauty of working with IMB is that our missionaries don't have to raise their own financial support ... to fully focus on the tasks of evangelism, discipleship and the planting of healthy, reproducing churches," Elliff said.
"But our strength will become our weakness if at any time our support is taken for granted or when it breeds an air of ingratitude."
The failure to connect sometimes works both ways, he added, lamenting some Southern Baptist churches send their members through IMB yet take minimal financial responsibility to keep them on the field.
"We know we can do more together than we can apart," he said. "But it is a gross misunderstanding of the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering to imagine that the Lord is honored when churches take advantage of others' generosity by failing to be generous themselves."
Elliff also emphasized the need for IMB to "welcome new avenues" for sending Southern Baptist missionaries in greater partnership with churches. He said such avenues could include expansion of current sending models such as Great Commission Global Connect (known as GC2) or new categories of service falling in a spectrum of partially to fully funded personnel. GC2 missionaries are sent for two- to three-year terms, operating under the full financial support of their sending church and under the guidance of IMB field leadership. IMB partners with GC2 churches by providing missionary assessment and strategy consultation as well as administrative support and training. But Elliff believes avenues like GC2 have only begun to "scratch the surface" for the kinds of new and innovative approaches to partnership that could greatly multiply Southern Baptists' presence overseas.
"This is a tactile, hands-on generation, with churches eager to play a personal, up-front role in missions," he said. "Our Southern Baptist churches have within them some of the most passionate, creative and concerned pastors and lay men and women on the planet. We must hear them! ... We must be willing to loosen our grip and invite them to help us."
Such challenges aren't new to IMB, Elliff reassured trustees, citing the 169-year-old organization's survival through the Civil War, the Great Depression and two World Wars. Neither is change.
"Our history is also one of constant change and adaptation," Elliff said. "While none of us enjoy financial challenges … those very challenges have always seemed to bring out the best in IMB, its personnel and strategies.
"I believe by God's grace the stage is once again set for IMB to enter into its most effective moment in history."
Trustees heard a field report from John Brady, IMB vice president for global strategy, who shared about IMB workers in Southeast Asia who focus on about 40 unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs). During a survey of one of the UUPGs, the workers asked the people about their history.
"They said, 'We are those who have been left as the survivors from a great flood. Have you ever heard of a great flood?'" Brady recounted.
The workers responded by telling the story of Noah from the Bible. To their excitement, the connection prompted the people to ask the workers to share more from God's Word. Brady said such "divine appointments" shouldn't come as a surprise because God is already at work even in the darkest, most remote corners of the earth. God is waiting for believers to join Him in His work.
In other business, IMB trustees:
-- Welcomed 59 new missionaries, recognizing them in a special appointment service, May 14, at First Baptist Spartanburg.
-- Elected new officers. John Edie, a member of Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo., was unanimously chosen to replace outgoing trustee chairman David Uth. Doyle Pryor, senior pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., was named first vice chairman, replacing Edie. Sandie Anderson, a member of New Hope Church in Manhattan, Kan., was elected second vice chairman. Vickie Mascagni, a member of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., was selected for another term as recording secretary.
-- Honored the lives and service of IMB personnel who died in 2013. This included 59 emeritus missionaries, five retired staff and one active missionary, Josh Park, who served in Japan from 1993-2013.
-- Received a brief financial report from David Steverson, IMB treasurer and vice president of finance, who also provided preliminary news on the results of the 2013 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, which closes May 31. Steverson said IMB is estimating a $3-5 million increase over the 2012 Lottie Moon offering of $149.3 million, but well short of the 2013 goal of $175 million. The final figure will be made public in early June.
-- Accepted and offered prayers of thanksgiving for three estate gifts totaling nearly $600,000.
-- Asked for continued prayer from Southern Baptists as the presidential search team seeks Elliff's successor.
The next IMB trustee meeting will take place Aug. 26-27 in Richmond, Va.
Don Graham is an IMB senior writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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