Prof calls for SBC overseas missions reform: Does drastic drop in IMB baptisms merit major remake?

by Will Hall |

SBC professor calls for IMB strategy reform

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Christian Examiner) – As Southern Baptists across the country prepare to take up collections for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering -- a missions fund that supplements year-round support from the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists' primary funding channel -- for their International Mission Board, a seminary professor suggests a major overhaul is needed for the rubrics that guide the entity's overseas evangelism.

The call for reform comes as the IMB, in August 2014, elected a new leader, David Platt, former pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, and, after the IMB reported this summer a continuing decline in overseas baptisms from 266,451 in 2012 to 114,571 in 2013, a 57 percent drop in one year.

REMAKE PROPOSED

Robin Dale Hadaway, professor of missions at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., a Southern Baptist Convention institution, says the SBC international missions strategy needs a course correction with regard to the two percent threshold it uses to determine if a people group is reached enough to reallocate resources to other global areas.

Writing in the fall edition of the Southwestern Journal of Theology, he said two changes have dramatically impacted most mission agencies, including the SBC's International Mission Board, to divert or reassign "personnel from the majority populations in most countries in order to concentrate on their hidden or unreached peoples."

One was the intensification of segmenting populations into individual ethnic groups, essentially partitioning a country or race into multiple people groups. The other was an arbitrary change from using 20 percent as the benchmark for determining whether an evangelical movement could sustain itself within a given population without outside help – and thus justify reallocating resources from this population to a less-reached group.

"Few South American countries fell under this threshold [20 percent] but within a year the percentage was lowered to twelve percent," he said. "The following year the first version of the Church Planting Progress Indicator (CPPI) was unveiled by the IMB, featuring a precipitous drop in what had been considered the measure of 'reachedness.' Two-percent evangelical believers became the new statistical benchmark for the IMB and most other mission agencies."

Essentially, Hadaway explained, a rule of thumb for social research was adopted and applied by evangelicals to guide allocation of resources within missions work. Then without any research-based discoveries, a couple of missiologists proposed their own rubric – and it fundamentally shifted how agencies, including the IMB, assign missionaries and allocate funds.

"If the twenty-percent designation was somewhat arbitrary, then two percent is astoundingly so," according to Hadaway.

Importantly, there was a subsequent shift from reaching individuals to reaching groups.

Hadaway said he could not find a research basis for either the 20 percent or the two percent benchmarks that have been used and that only one peer-reviewed sociological study he could find shows how a minority percentage influences a majority – and that minimum level of influence is 10 percent.

"This study says that an extremely committed ten percent within a population segment can influence the remaining ninety percent to embrace their thinking," Hadaway offered. "Furthermore, the article insists that when the minority falls below ten percent, the minority opinion has no measurable effect on the majority.

Hadaway argues that at the least, if a ten-percent threshold replaced the two-percent benchmark, "it would give a more reliable indicator of what is really happening on the ground."

The missions professor also proposes a strategy that places more emphasis on evangelizing "responsive" people groups and moving away from a purely "need" based strategy (what groups are more statistically "lost"). It is his attempt to balance "harvest missions" with reaching people groups.

He said overseas missions have become "primarily a pioneering enterprise" where national believers are left largely to disciple themselves. Moreover, he argues, placing missionaries in "resistant places" is self-defeating, with many somewhat hostile people groups "becoming more resistant due to the large number of Christians being sent their way."

Hadaway proposes four changes:

1. Drop the two percent "reachedness" threshold and return to the original 20 percent or at least adopt a 10 percent baseline.

"Exiting a people group that is more than two-percent evangelical," he said, "is the historical equivalent of the United States declaring victory in the Vietnam War, only to see the country fall three years later."

2. Send missionaries in greater numbers to places more receptive to the Gospel.

3. Appoint a cadre of trainers and professors to teach in churches and seminaries worldwide to increase teaching and discipleship.

4. Deploy missionaries overseas with the following ratios: 40 percent to the resistant unreached; 40 percent among receptive groups; 15 percent for training and theological education; 5 percent to perform administrative functions.

These measures will correct what Hadaway describes as a maturation deficit cause by the present focus on church planting.

Third-world Christianity has often been described as "a mile wide and half-an-inch deep," he wrote. "Mission societies should broaden their definition of missions to include not only reaching the last frontier, but also reaping the receptive in the harvest fields and teaching and discipling the new converts from both."

Hadaway's points about receptive and resistant groups, and the shift from focusing on individuals to emphasizing groups, seem to be bolstered by trends in data published by the IMB.

WHAT THE DATA SHOWS

IMB baptisms have dropped decidedly from a high of 609,968 (later corrected to 596,115) reported for 2007. The trend since then has been: 565,975 (2008), 506,019 (2009), 360,876 (2010), 333,823 (2011), 266,451 (2012), 114,571 (2013).

However, according to a 2010 report in Baptist Press, part of the decline can be attributed to a change in reporting methods that now separates out data that are not the direct result of work by IMB missionaries (affecting 2009's numbers and beyond).

Reports about church planting remained strong over that same six-year timeframe with a total of 161,811 new congregations formed – an average of nearly 27,000 churches established per year even though fewer baptisms were realized.

For comparison, within the United States during the same period, Southern Baptists baptized: 342,198 (2008), 349,737 (2009), 331,008 (2010), 333,341 (2011), 314,956 (2012), 310,368 (2013). Also, a total of 6,290 new congregations were planted in the United States, Canada and U.S. territories.

NEW LEADERSHIP

David Platt has been the head of IMB only about three months, but already he has crafted guiding principles that will shape his tenure.

In early November, Platt announced a five-point strategy that will mark the start of his leadership of Southern Baptists' overseas missions efforts. An IMB release published in Baptist Press said the "five biblically based goals for IMB are: exalting Christ, mobilizing Christians, equipping the church, facilitating church planting and 'playing our part in completing the Great Commission.'"

"Missions is [sic] not our life. Christ is our life," Platt said in the article. "I want to lead us to love Him, to enjoy Him ... and to exalt Him among all peoples."

He also identified four practical steps he will take, "including shaping culture, streamlining strategy, simplifying structure and solidifying leadership."

Before accepting the helm at the IMB in August, Platt was pastor for eight years of The Church at Brook Hills, a congregation with about 5,500 in weekly worship attendance that reported 100 baptisms his last year -- a gain of 453 in weekly average attendance but a drop of 59 in annual baptisms from 2005, the year before he took over, according to information in the Annual Church Profile, a database of churches maintained by the Southern Baptist Convention.