Today, we are featuring an interview with a representative from the International Mission Board, the mission arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The mission is a considerable force in furthering God’s Kingdom, having aided thousands of missionaries since the agency’s beginning over 150 years ago. Today, with over 5,000 missionaries serving in virtually every country of the world, the IMB continues with God-given power. The agency receives funding from an annual offering, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, named in honor of an SBC missionary to China (1873-1912). We spoke with Wendy Norville to find out how the IMB got started, what they’re facing today, and information that is helpful for any believer interested in world evangelism.
Tell us a little bit of the history of the International Mission Board.
The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 mainly to create two mission boards – the Foreign Mission Board and the Domestic Mission Board (now North American Mission Board). This was precipitated by controversy with northern Baptists over appointing slave owners as missionaries. The Foreign Mission Board, in Richmond, Va., held its first commissioning service in 1846. Since then more than 20,000 missionaries have been appointed.
After Southern Baptists assumed support for some missionaries in China, the denomination’s missionary efforts grew slowly. The Civil War and the South’s agrarian economy made support difficult, and the board often was hampered by debt between 1861 and 1943. Significant growth in the board’s overseas work did not occur until after World War II.
Empowered by the support of the Cooperative Program, founded in 1925, and an enlarged worldview, Southern Baptists answered the call, reaching 1,000 missionaries in 1955. Under the 25-year leadership of Baker James Cauthen, global expansion continued, reaching 3,000-plus missionaries in 94 countries by 1980.
In 1976 Bold Mission Thrust was begun as a Southern Baptist effort to evangelize the world by A.D. 2000. From 1981 to 1992, Keith Parks led the IMB to adopt new, innovative strategies to reach restricted nations and unreached peoples. Dr. Jerry Rankin led IMB from 1993 until his retirement in July, 2010.
Currently, there are 5,189 missionaries serving with 950 people groups throughout the world. In 2009, Southern Baptist missionaries and their national partners reported 506,019 new believers baptized and 24,650 new churches started.
The world is a big place, and the great commission commands us to go to all peoples. How does the IMB prioritize its task in continuing the Great Commission?
Priority is given to the unengaged, unreached people groups with a population of more than 100,000. The number changes frequently (with shifts in population, etc.) but there are approximately 600 people groups of this size who have little or no evangelical witness. Other factors include opportunity, accessibility, and response. Missionary candidates are presented with the most strategic needs and are challenged to consider which assignments match their calling, their gifts and skills.
5,189 missionaries. That’s a big number, and I’m sure it represents a mammoth cost for support and continuation of the work of evangelism and church planting. Where does the money come from?
Southern Baptists support their international mission efforts through two main initiatives. Churches give a portion of their receipts through the Cooperative Program. This supports ministry here in the United States and throughout the world. Many churches also collect a Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, 100% of which provides support for the overseas costs of our missionary force. (Some churches do this in December and others at different times of the year.) With the economic downturn, funding has not kept pace with the needed income to grow our missionary force. We’ve had to limit the number of new missionaries sent in 2009 and 2010 and anticipate doing so in 2011.
Some mission boards focus their efforts on humanitarian relief. Others focus nearly exclusively on verbal gospel proclamation. What about the IMB?
Matthew 25:34-40 is a good reference of how our missionaries do their work. Some are involved primarily in evangelism and church planting; others have as their primary assignment ministering to human needs, community and business development, etc. All seek to build relationships and share God’s love – in word and in action – so that those with whom they work will have the opportunity to hear, understand and respond to the Gospel.
Please tell us some of the exciting developments in world evangelism as you see them from your perspective with IMB.
The task of taking the Gospel to every people group (Rev. 7:9) is possible! Research has helped us know who they are and where they live. The Great Commission was given to the Christ’s bride, the church. Many local churches, both in the USA and around the world, are beginning to understand their part of fulfilling the Great Commission. New believers in many parts of the world understand their responsibility to share the Gospel, both within their people group and beyond. In multiple places around the world, there is rapid multiplication of churches. The church of Jesus Christ is growing and thriving in places completely untouched by the Gospel just few short years ago.
Can you provide a bit of advice for those who are interested in getting involved in missions?
Involvement in international missions does not have to begin when a person gets a passport and travels to a different country. The world has come to the USA! In most town and cities, there are individuals from different people groups who have moved here to make their home. Build relationships, get to know these ‘new Americans,’ learn their worldview, and share your life with them. Teach them, but also learn from them. As the opportunity presents itself, share with them what you believe and share the Good News.