If we hope to make a real difference in how missions shapes the mission of each local congregation, we have to begin with an honest assessment of where we find ourselves now. Knowing where we are going not only needs the context of where we once were but also where we stand presently regarding the call of Christ to make disciples of the nations.
The missions mandate of Christ in the Great Commission has neither been rescinded nor fulfilled. What then has happened among His people that we are witnessing a serious neglect of that mandate in how we conduct our lives together in congregations where He is gladly proclaimed to be the Lord? Rare is the occasion when I run into anyone who thinks the churches of our land are doing a commendable work in taking the gospel to the nations. Nearly all evangelicals love the idea of missions. Something about it is so noble and shows off the best we have to offer—that is, if we ever get around to doing anything about the idea so that it moves from theory to practice!
As a high school student, I had the privilege of going on my first mission trip. Some might question the hardship factor because we went to Jamaica! Still, my first exposure to international missions took place at the age of seventeen, and I was profoundly changed. The trip was not sponsored by a church but by a nondenominational group of students affiliated with a ministry which started in a local YMCA.
Before that trip, nearly everything I knew about missions had been thirdhand at best. The church in which I grew up supported missions financially, but I was not familiar with any hands-on involvement by anyone in our congregation. We did sing missions songs a few times a year—mainly around the time we recognized the children's ministries that had a missions emphasis. Nothing but favorable thoughts remain as I think back on those early occasions of exposure to missions, but it all seemed remote from anything that had to do with our church experience. I do remember a couple of occasions when a "real, live missionary" couple visited, showed their slides and snake skins and told their stories of life overseas. Everyone loved it, but their time with us seemed more like an interesting novelty than a model to follow.
Each Christmas a missions offering was collected as the church tried to reach its giving goal (and yes, a thermometer at the front of the sanctuary tracked progress each week in December so we all could see where we stood). But other than that, as a child I did not know much about the priority of missions in the life of our church. Perhaps I was too young to notice, or maybe it was treated as a special interest group for those inclined to care about such things. Either way, I do not ever remember any appeal made, or emphasis given, to challenge the congregation to step up in any personal way to fulfill the Great Commission.
Sadly, my experience and my limited memories reflect a reality that continues in the life of an embarrassing majority of churches all over the country. Missions is a priority in theory but not in a practical way that makes any difference in what actually happens in the life and ministry of local churches. Statistical data on what is taking place in churches regarding their call to missions reveals a sad tale of neglect for an agenda that was deeply etched on the heart of Jesus Christ.
A cursory look at the statistical data from several denominations suggests that the problem of missions neglect exists across the board. To be fair, it would not be prudent to make broad statements about the neglect of missions in local churches from a wide range of denominations without starting closer to home with my own denomination. Rather than make general statements about those problems of neglect, a specific look at one denomination's efforts may illustrate where we are as a nation of churches.
As we think about the existing state of missions in today's churches, the following case study comes from my own background. The congregation I serve is a Southern Baptist church, a denomination known historically for its commitment and dedication to missions. From its founding in 1845, the initial stated purpose was to support the proclamation of the gospel. Two mission boards were established in order to pursue that end—the Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board) and the Domestic Mission Board (later the Home Mission Board and now the North American Mission Board). The first appointment of foreign missionaries took place in 1846; and over the 164 years since, the Foreign, or International, Mission Board has had the honor of appointing a total of more than twenty thousand missionaries.
Over 28 percent of that number, 5,656 are currently serving as full-time international missionaries somewhere in the world beyond the borders of the United States. More than forty-three hundred of that number are career missionaries joined by more than twelve hundred additional workers who are on overseas assignments of two years or more. That number of full-time missionaries offers some encouragement to those of us who want to be a part of a movement among churches to participate in the work of the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations.
However, if we are honest, as years of denominational life went by, like most Christian organizations, bureaucratic growth resulted in a diminishing focus and diluted emphasis on the priority of missions. As scores of other ministries have crowded the agenda and cut into the pool of resources available for that essential focus, missions received less and less support from both the individual congregations and Southern Baptists as a denomination.
In my first year as a pastor, I quickly discovered that my passion for missions was matched by fervent appeals from speakers at conventions, in publications from denominational agencies, and in state and national periodicals—all calling for loyal giving to support missions. At first I was glad for such an unabashed advocacy of our call to fulfill the Great Commission together.
What I soon came to realize is that not everyone meant the same thing when they talked about missions. The giving plan of Southern Baptists through which funds are gathered to support the work of missions is the Cooperative Program. Imagine my confusion when I first realized that in the minds of many of my Southern Baptist colleagues the words missions and Cooperative Program were synonyms. This became clear to me in a personal and painful way when a statewide denominational publication stated categorically in one of its articles that, according to their records, our church gave nothing to missions. The truth was that our congregation was heavily involved in missions giving but had made the decision a few years before to bypass the Cooperative Program as its chosen means of supporting missions and ministries outside our local congregation. At that time the Cooperative Program budget was allocating over 30 percent to colleges, universities, and seminaries and less than 17 percent to international missions. Because we redirected our missions giving outside the denominational plan, the editor of the publication felt completely justified in making the judgment that we gave nothing to missions.
So, considering that context, I believe we face a disconnect in what people understand about the definition and priority of missions. The lines have been blurred between denominational ministry and global missions. As a congregation and as a pastor, our decision to find more direct and effective ways to support missions brought many consequences as far as denominational life is concerned. The message being conveyed to churches like ours was that we should just send our money in and leave the decisions to the judgment of those in denominational leadership who were better qualified to manage the funds than those at the local church level. During those days, many Southern Baptist congregations simply made other arrangements to get a better return on their missions dollars than they could by following the course the denomination had chosen. Perhaps that trend can be reversed but not without a major overhaul of the purpose, vision, values, and priorities of both the churches and the denomination.
Although the Southern Baptist mission boards might be doing great work, the sobering reality is that for all of our public statements and affirmations in support of missions, the biblical call to support missions is still suffering from systemic neglect. By forcing all missions efforts through the bottleneck of denominational agencies, the systems we have put in place to find people and fund the effort have created a comfortable distance from the front lines of missionary action. For all the times we get goose bumps and lumps in our throats when we hear amazing stories of God's grace at work overseas through the evangelistic efforts of our missionaries—and for all the bragging rights associated with how much is given to missions from the churches and individuals who stand for Christ in our nation—the record shows that we actually have little practical interest in meaningful engagement in reaching the world beyond our own church walls with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If we just look at certain categories of the data we have about how much money and how many missionaries are invested in international missions, we could easily draw the wrong conclusions about how well we are doing. By giving and sending more than many other groups, by comparison SBC churches feel a certain pride in the breadth of their effort. In addition, many of those same churches are expanding their impact far beyond their denominational efforts. They are entering partnerships with many nondenominational missions agencies like TEAM, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Africa Inland Mission, SIM (Serving in Mission), African Leadership, Overseas Missionary Fellowship, Operation Mobilization, and a host of others. Still, the truth we must face as followers of Jesus Christ is that the composite picture of all that we know does not provide a positive view of where we stand now or where we are heading.
Each church faces the challenge of assessing its response to missions in light of what we have seen consistently in the reports and annual statistics from various denominations. The information available from nondenominational churches suggests the same trends. Although this is not a book on missions statistics, in this case study we find a troubling trend that is just an example of how one denomination is managing its commitment to missions. After all, Southern Baptists as a denomination have a reputation for being strongly evangelistic and leading the way in global missions. A brief review of how they are doing should challenge all of us to ask if the data provided by their own agencies might not be representative of a missions-support problem facing churches all over our country.
So what do we know according to the latest records providing data from the Southern Baptist Convention? Well, the annual report from the year ending December 31, 2007, offers some encouraging news. Nearly forty-five thousand churches across the United States are affiliated as Southern Baptists with a combined membership exceeding sixteen million. Total gifts reported by the churches have averaged 4.5-5.0 percent increase per year since the year 2000; $8.7 billion in undesignated gifts were received during the year 2006-2007. Of that amount, approximately $500 million per year since the year 2000 has been given through the Cooperative Program. Each state with its own denominational organization, or convention, then allocates a portion of that money to fund ministries within its own state and a portion to be sent to the national organization to support ministries on a broader scale than would be possible by individual state conventions. The philosophy behind this approach is that we can do together cooperatively what no one could do in isolation from the rest.
So if you tally up all the data from that many churches cooperating together for the common causes of the gospel, the numbers in the previous paragraph look impressive! However, rather than leading to the conclusion that this denomination is really committed to sacrificial generosity to fund missions, how do these statistics stand up under more careful scrutiny? Let's break them down to see a little more clearly what kind of priority Southern Baptists give to the commission of Christ to make disciples of all nations.
1. Membership. Although records report that there are sixteen million members of Southern Baptist churches, worship attendance hovers at just over six million people per Sunday, nearly ten million fewer than the number of members! If a business tried to operate with over 60 percent of its workforce failing to show up, that would seem to indicate that the work would need to be scaled way back or that something was wrong with how it identified who its workforce really is. But the question has to be asked, where in the world are ten million people every week?
With an average attendance each week of approximately six million people and with 5,656 missionaries appointed by the International Mission Board, we can presently account for less than .09 percent of regular attenders in Southern Baptist churches who have responded to God's calling to vocational missions overseas. If we used the stated membership number of sixteen million instead of using the attendance number (obviously more accurate than the membership number), the percentage of missionaries to members plummets to .03 percent! If we applied .09 percent to the membership number of sixteen million instead of the attendance number of six million, we would then have to find a way to fund an additional ten thousand missionaries! As it stands now, Southern Baptists cannot even find ten million of their members, much less hope to send any percentage of them overseas for the proclamation of the gospel! But a more immediate concern is that current giving levels do not even support the number of missionaries already qualified, committed, and waiting to go!
2. Local Church Stewardship. Of the $8.7 billion received in undesignated funds received by Southern Baptist churches in 2007, only about 6 percent of that amount is passed along through the Cooperative Program for the intended purpose of supporting denominational work, or missions in the vernacular of some within the denomination. Many of the churches, like ours, have found other avenues for achieving their missions purposes than the routine denominational giving plans. The pursuit of good stewardship has led many to find different avenues with a higher likelihood that the funds given will make it to missions endeavors more in line with traditional definitions of what constitutes missions than most denominations use.
Like many denominations, Southern Baptists are now asking how to generate more giving from local congregations so that adequate funding can be received to pay for the smorgasbord of ministries that have been added over the years. But if a new congregation with no history of denominational connectedness or a young pastor with no denominational loyalty asks sound management questions, it is bound to come to their attention that a passion for missions may not be served best by the current formulas for distributing the dollars entrusted to the denomination's agenda. Across the land, churches are looking for better ways to leverage their missions giving. Southern Baptists as a denomination are facing austere times financially if they do not adjust the priorities of the denomination to match the biblical heartbeat of the churches looking to make the greatest possible impact for the kingdom.
3. Cooperative Program (the SBC giving plan). Although more than $500 million was given through the spending plan of the denomination, the average amount making it out of each state to the national organization was only about 36.55 percent. Some states do much better than others, with some keeping 50 percent in the state and sending 50 percent to the national work; but others, like my own state, North Carolina, keep 65 percent in the state and send only 35 percent on to the national budget. Although the Cooperative Program is promoted broadly as the missions giving arm of the denomination, missions is so widely defined that nearly any form of legitimate ministry fits the bill. So across the denomination, an average of 63.45 percent stays in the state where the "missions gifts" are collected and invested in ministry close to home and a much smaller portion makes it to the "uttermost parts of the earth" and "all nations."
None of these observations are intended to suggest that there is not a need for local ministry. Of course there is! But when state conventions spend nearly as much on colleges and universities as they do in contributions to the International Mission Board, it is past time to make some serious adjustments to the priority and definition we give to missions. Hearing proponents of the current allocations argue that Christian higher education should be acknowledged as missions just as much as the work of the International Mission Board or the North American Mission Board strains our common sense! When can we just tell the truth about the way things are and have been for many decades now? That is, that missions has been redefined to be an all-inclusive term for denominational ministry and has been stripped of its historic and biblical meaning.