COMMENTARY: The IMB's 'subversive' retirement, new focus under David Platt may spell the end of the world's largest evangelical mission agency

by Bryan Taunton |

EDITOR'S NOTE: Just after the Feb. 22-23 meeting of the trustees of the International Mission Board and with the announcement that 1,132 of its missionaries and staff had resigned, a Southern Baptist pastor writes a response to a friend's question about the state of things at the mission agency and what he projects the future holds.

SYLACAUGA, Ala. (Christian Examiner) --There were issues at the IMB before [President David] Platt got there. There is no excuse for the current budget issues that they are facing. Preparations should have been made well before a deficit was incurred. Anyone with a basic understanding of economics should see the downturn since 2008 and recognize that there would be a cause and effect upon church giving. I understand and appreciate Platt's assertive action but believe that it fits into his global missions perspective.

I believe many probably understand Platt's direction, better than I do. It's the same position he took at the Church of Brook Hills. They did not support the IMB. He taught that rather than working together with other SBC churches through the Cooperative Program it was better for them to assume personal responsibility and send out their own missionaries. This is not all together bad, except that it creates a conflict and duplication of ministry. The very reason we have the SBC is that we hold to the same principles and work cooperatively with each other while maintaining autonomy.

Thus, when this mentality is taught from the IMB itself, and the larger churches pull out, it weakens the support of the IMB. Smaller churches contribute to the IMB because they do not have the ability to be the sole support of a missionary. They will find that their dollars do not go as far in the IMB because it is now underfunded to the point that long term viability is now questionable.

Have we been able to effect globally through working locally? I believe so, but as a young church this may be difficult to see by some. What I can tell you is this. As a mission minded church 50 percent of all monies received goes toward missions in some way. We contribute to the cooperative program and have received an award for the past three years for giving in the top 4 percent of churches who give. We support one missionary in Thailand whom you probably know, Kimberly Johnson, with $250 per month.

That being said, the idea is that we are able to do these things but also that we focus on missions to our local community to create real life transformation. The hope is that we can serve as a hub of outward growth. We do this by being an "inside out church." Most churches are trying to figure out how to get everyone in their communities inside their church. Our focus is more about how to get the people in our church out into the community. We do this through active community participation and service. Through this we develop relationships. Through those relationships we create change and growth. Is it working? Yes! It is not a form of ministry that makes a church grow fast, but it grows deep and solid through viable discipleship. So yes, I believe we have had an effect globally by working locally.

How did the IMB force anyone into early retirement? There is such a thing as subversive force. We often see this when someone is given a choice to take something like "early retirement." Virtually what they were told is, the IMB is in trouble, we need you to step down, we cannot go on to support our current numbers, if enough do not step down then support will have to be cut back, it's going to be difficult, and some are going to suffer.

When you say that to a missionary who commonly places others before themselves, naturally they will remove themselves in an effort to be a good missionary. Thus, the IMB wanted 600-800 and instead got almost 1,000. Why? Because these missionaries would rather step aside than to see the IMB or other missionaries suffer. So were they forced to take the package literally, no. It was simply worded politely in such a way so as to prevent the IMB from going to that step. As if to say, we're going to offer this but if you don't take it we will be forced to do it, because the numbers will force us to. That's just how I see it.

If SBC churches are not able to send their own missionaries and the IMB is inadequate, then it will force smaller churches to look for other missions avenues. This will be outside of the SBC network. When a church chooses to fund a missionary that is not of the SBC network then theology becomes a top concern. Why? Because there is no guarantee that missionary will teach according to SBC doctrines. For example many in Africa are mixing charismatic practices into the church because it relates to the cultures more mystic attributes. I do not agree with that practice and feel we should be cautious of this allowance. In my opinion it's the same as a stateside church supporting same sex marriage. Because these missionaries are not SBC/IMB then we have no say so regarding the legitimacy of their doctrine because they are not under our official statement.

When we see the IMB shrinking and it's ministry becomes more and more disabled, small churches are going to be forced to look elsewhere. This is not healthy as the IMB has and is our best opportunity.

I believe our greatest failure is in that of making disciples. We've been focused on making converts. As a result we've focused heavily on evangelism but little on discipleship. Yes, we are to go to all nations, but that was the original mandate to those who were listening. If we make disciples in every land there should be no need for missionaries because those disciples would be making disciples and teaching others to do the same.

By that, I do not mean that we don't go or send missionaries at all. I simply believe that we must get better at making true disciples and not pew sitters or just church attenders. The mandate of Christ was to all believers. Everyone is a disciple maker but very few accept that responsibility.

Should the IMB continue to shrink then it's viability is threatened. When current leadership continues to encourage private church SBC missionaries, then the IMB pool is most definitely going to shrink. Churches like ours welcome personal involvement, but the truth is that many aren't like us. They don't want personal involvement and seek only to send a check. That's fine if the reason they only support financially is to keep feet on the ground at home. We don't need to put them in a situation at which they have to find their own missionaries to support. Why? Because some will not want to undertake that effort and as a result more will let their missions support fall to the wayside.

In the end this will further spell the end for the IMB. For these reasons, I'm very concerned about the long term viability of the IMB.

Bryan Taunton is founding pastor of ChristPoint Community Church in Sylacauga, Ala. where he has served five years. He also serves as current president of the Coosa Valley Ministerial Association.