AUSTIN–Instead of asking whether or not new church starts adhere to the Baptist Faith and Message, the International Mission Board president believes the focus should be on missionaries proclaiming and sharing a gospel that changes lives and society while using their influence to promote sound doctrine.
Jerry Rankin addressed the subject during his Sept. 9 report to trustees meeting in Austin. He noted that neither missionaries nor the board have any authority over churches that are planted.
“Our missionaries do not serve as bishops nor doctrinal watchdogs over autonomous congregations around the world,” he said. “Missionaries go to proclaim the gospel and use their influence to train leaders and encourage these churches to believe and practice what the Bible teaches.”
IMB administration and trustees ensure personnel abide by the doctrinal convictions of the denomination while at the same time recognizing that the phenomenal growth in overseas church starts complicates efforts to assess effectiveness. The basic task of evangelism is accomplished “through proclamation, discipling, equipping and ministry that results in indigenous Baptist churches,” according to IMB principles, incorporating the command to “go” and to “make disciples.”
Questions arose in the recent board meeting as to the length of time IMB missionaries should spend in the discipleship process while planting churches that remain doctrinally sound.
Rankin did not back off of his conviction that Southern Baptist missionaries should affirm and carry out their work in accordance with the BF&M 2000, reminding trustees that all current missionaries have honored his request to do so. “Those of us in administrative leadership of the IMB and every regional leader have said that we will lead our mission efforts consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message. I would hope that assurance would be adequate to give you confidence in the integrity of our church planting efforts around the world.”
Texas trustee Debbie Brunson of Dallas told the Southern Baptist TEXAN, “The Great Commission commands that we go, teach and baptize.” She spoke of her daughter’s service as a journeyman missionary in an area where the use of the Baptist label would cause new Christians much difficulty.
“I do not have a problem with the necessity of starting ‘Baptist’ churches overseas,” she said, emphasizing the overwhelming need to deliver the gospel around the world. “More important than titles are souls that can be reached with the gospel. To me, that must place an urgency in our hearts to reach as many people as we can with the gospel,” Brunson said. “As I have shared many, many times on the mission field, it is not about religion. It is all about a relationship with Christ.”
Rankin said the suggestion that the IMB ought to more closely examine the fruit of overseas efforts implies what a church does reflects on the integrity of a missionary’s work. “Our personnel are out in the hinterlands, seeking to penetrate the lostness where there are no churches. The issue is really not who we should work with and whether or not they are churches that agree with our statement of faith. Our primary objective and relationship is with a lost world. We must not be diverted from the main task, and return to an era of negligible growth because our time is consumed in trying to lead and control the churches once they are established.”
He cited the biblical account in Acts of rapid church multiplication to explain the nature and power of the gospel. “Many have identified a church planting movement as a movement that is out of control as churches plant churches,” he told trustees. “Is that not what we want to happen? Is that not the power of the gospel? Is the life-changing message of God’s word, indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit, not something that should spread spontaneously?”
In East Asia every new believer is immediately encouraged and trained to share his faith and lead others to the Lord, he explained. New converts become leaders of other church fellowships, train more new believers to replicate the pattern of winning others and starting additional house churches. “Would we want to curtail this biblical model and stifle growth in order to exert control?”
He posed the question to warn of “skeptics and detractors” who question what is being called a church by the IMB and whether or not the new churches reported are Baptist churches. Rankin said, “We have always recognized that our witness and mission efforts, whether through institutions, social ministries or direct evangelism, must result in local, indigenous churches.”
Southern Baptists have one missionary unit [or couple] for every 1.8 million people, he said, a figure that expands to one unit for every 9.6 million people in South Asia. “Even the most effective personal witness would never be able to touch such a large population segment,” he said.
When those won to Christ are drawn together by the Holy spirit into a visible body of believers, Rankin said the witness of the missionary is extended as churches multiply and reproduce, undeterred by dependency on foreign leadership or outside resources. ” A network o local churches potentially makes the gospel accessible to an entire people group, a nation and the whole world.”
Rankin said a lone missionary couldn’t control or determine what these churches believe and practice, seeking only to exert influence through discipleship anchored to the Word of God. While the churches being reported by Southern Baptist missionaries probably “are Baptist in terms of their strict adherence to the pattern and teaching of the New Testament,” Rankin said they do not necessarily replicate “the traditions and forms of what we know as Baptist in America.”
In many cases overseas churches avoid a Baptist designation due to persecution, Muslim oppression, advantage gained with a neutral name, and prior identification of an ethnic group with Baptist name. Furthermore, churches begun in countries where existing Baptists are liberal prefer not to be identified with “established leadership and influenced by the heresies they represent.” Rankin elaborated, “The strain in our relationship with BWA is not simply due to their recognition of CBF, but the fact that many member bodies do not reflect a commonality of doctrine compatible with the convictions of Southern Baptists.”
For example, he said, “We’re starting churches in countries where the Baptist union is so liberal we would not want these groups of new believers to be identified with that label. To do so would allow them to be perverted by the established leadership and influenced by heresies they represent.”
When asked specifically to respond to rumors that Southern Baptist missionaries are planting churches that have female pastors, Rankin said the committee evaluating IMB strategy had been sensitive to this question, particularly in East Asia where the growth is so prolific and a lot of women are pastoring. “We have yet to find any IMB personnel that is planting a church and encouraging and advocating and putting in place women pastors.”
As chairman of the committee involved in the assessment, Trustee Jay Owens of Vinton, Va., said 8 of the 15 regional leaders said that all of their churches limit the office of pastor to a man. In the other regions, he said IMB leaders made it clear that “none of the missionaries have planted churches that have called a woman as head pastor, however, a small minority of churches that belong to one of the national conventions have” called women as pastors. He described these churches as “not coming from any of our influence,” adding, “Unequivocally, we are not planting churches with women as pastors.”
Texas trustee John Hatch told the Southern Baptist TEXAN of reports from the field received by some trustees that raised concerns over whether certain church were operating according to biblical principles as reflected in BF&M 2000. “We are sure from the reports we’ve had now that our missionaries are planting New Testament churches,” Hatch stated. “That concern that we had has been answered. I’m satisfied that the missionaries we’re sending out are working in accordance with the statement of faith.”
He is concerned that Southern Baptist representatives not abandon new church starts too quickly “before they’re really firmly set and going in the right direction.” Hatch praised the “valiant efforts” of missionaries to do that. Unprecedented growth in some regions “causes you to want to get your breath and get things in perspective.” he said. “That tension will always be there. We’re seeing God blessing in the growth of churches and things are moving forward. At the same time, we want to be sure, as best we can, that we nurture them properly.”
Other Texas IMB trustees share a concern that discipleship remains a part of the mix. “Since we are starting indigenous churches, we cannot take rule over them,” stated Bill Sutton of McAllen. “But, like Paul, we can guide them on a proper course. We should start churches that hold to the same faith principles that we use in our own churches.”
Giving records show IMB trustees from Texas come from churches with strong contributions to mission causes such as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. Several Texas trustees are members of churches that rank among the top givers to Lottie Moon. Several of these have made great strides toward increased giving since the individual became an IMB trustee, reflecting an increased awareness of the needs. While asking hard questions, trustees are pushing their churches to give more generously and be involved more personally in missions.
In examining the IMB’s effectiveness overseas, Texas trustees remain supportive of the vision to “lead Southern Baptists to be on mission with God to bring all the peoples of the world to saving faith in Jesus Christ.”
“I do believe in the course we are on,” stated Sutton. “But we need an ‘army’ of missionaries to do follow-up where our ‘marine’ missionaries have established a beachhead.” He’s leading his church to raise their Lottie Moon goal by a third to help fund more personnel overseas.
Having served as a missionary to Chile for eight years, trustee Kyle cox of La Marque, Texas, understands the dynamics on the mission field. “Therefore, the question of [whether missionaries are starting] Baptist churches has not been a major concern to me.” However, because he is familiar with the denominational situation stateside, he said he understands why the issue was raised.
“It is appropriate to deal with that issue,” Cox affirmed, adding, “Yes, I am very satisfied with report [by Rankin] and trust the general membership of our churches will also.”
There are circumstances in which overseas churches actually adopt the Baptist Faith and Message as their own doctrinal statement at their own initiative. In some areas where the document has been translated into the native language, house church networks are adopting the BF&M as their own statement of faith, Rankin reported. However, he said, the issue is not whether or not “all the churches being started around the world adhere to the Southern Baptist Faith and Message, but do we want our missionaries to proclaim and share the gospel we believe has the power to change lives?”
Responding to a floor question, Rankin clarified that the IMB defines a local church as “a group of baptized believers convenanted together into a community by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of worship, fellowship, nurture and ministry, with the following characteristics: The meet regularly for worship, fellowship, and mutual support in ministry; proclaim Christ to unbelievers; disciple believers; organize and administer their affairs, choosing their leadership who may or may not be paid, trained, ordained or one of the members of the group; they administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”
At the board’s next meeting in Lexington, Ky., trustees will review a comprehensive assessment of church planting movements through Strategic Directions for the 21st Century, previously called New Directions. Rankin said statistical reports will describe phenomenal growth and advance around the world as church planting movements emerge in unexpected and unlikely places.
In his closing statement Rankin spoke of “a prominent southern Baptist leader” who often challenged him with the question, “do you believe that what we believe and practice as Baptists is worth maintaining and propagating in our mission efforts overseas?'” Rankin said his answer had always been an unequivocal affirmation.
“But I think the more valid question is, ‘Do we believe the lostness and destiny of those without Christ and the consequences of their eternal destiny is worth getting the gospel to them through whatever means and channel it takes?’ and, ‘Do we believe the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to the extent that it can penetrate a lost world and bring people into the kingdom whether it is through a witness identified as Baptist or not?’ I hope our answer would also be an unequivocal, ‘Yes!'”