As president of the North American Mission Board (NAMB) in a time of transition and change, I am often asked about the direction and vision of this mission agency. To be honest, on some things, we are learning our way into the future. As we work with state convention partners, associations, local churches and church planters, we are seeking to figure out the best way of reaching North America with the gospel.
When Southern Baptists overwhelmingly adopted the Great Commission Resurgence, they expressed a desire for NAMB to be more focused on church planting and to think in more missiological ways. That has meant some shifts and changes. For example, we are putting greater focus and energy on involving established churches in the planting of new churches in major urban regions outside of traditional Southern Baptist strongholds.
That leads to questions about how systems will be structured and how they will function. To the surprise of some, we continue to do a whole series of things for which we have been traditionally known. For example, we actually fund our evangelism area at a higher level now than in 2010. We are also assisting our conventions with prioritizing evangelism resources from NAMB to help existing churches and church plants in developing evangelism strategies that will impact their fields of ministry. We are involved in chaplaincy, disaster relief and volunteer missions. But yes, we have an increased focus on church planting.
Why? Because that’s what Southern Baptists told us to do — and that is what our trustees and I believe will be the best way of penetrating lostness in North America.
Being a missions agency also requires us to think in missiological ways. And part of that also helps us ask questions about how we work with our partners outside of what have been traditional Southern Baptist regions. We are committed to, and are already now, putting substantially more money into evangelistic church planting in what Southern Baptists call “new work” regions.
In addition, we are placing more money in general into those regions (not just to fund church planting). But missiological thinking also requires us to shift the way we fund our work in what are often called the “new work” states.
Historically, when Southern Baptists began work in North America outside the South, we sought to replicate state convention structures just like we have in the South. Thus, the same staffing model would be present in both places.
However, we have learned from history, and we know in missiology, that is typically not the best approach. For example, almost 100 years ago, John Nevius wrote his missionary principles that have become foundational for missiologists.
One of Nevius’ five principles is that missions should only develop the programs and institutions that the local church desires and can support itself. Missionaries discovered that when outside finances support administrative structures in missionary areas, the end results tend to be negative. However, when outside mission agencies supported church planting, that created more churches. Then, those churches together could decide how best to structure their region for more effective ministry.
We recognize that this is a difficult shift, but we also recognize that it is a missiologically sound shift. The North American Mission Board will fund less infrastructure of new work state conventions, but fund substantially more the church planting efforts in those states. We think the end result will be stronger state conventions, as those state conventions determine how best to structure and organize.
In other words, we want to plant more and more trees outside of the South and let Southern Baptists in those regions decide when and how to use some of the wood to build their denominational house in that region.
In many places, this shift has been well received, but we also recognize that in some places it leads to great challenge. But at the end of the day, we think that centuries of mission history and the current stagnation of church planting in some new work areas tells us there is a better way. We think this is that way.
I commit this-we will work diligently to help Southern Baptists plant more and better churches that will build stronger state convention partnerships in the long run. To be honest, what we have been doing has not led to the rapid advance and increase we had hoped for, which is part of why Southern Baptists so overwhelmingly directed us to change. But, we are committed to work with our state convention partners to help plant healthy evangelistic churches in their areas and to penetrate lostness together.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kevin Ezell is president of the North American Mission Board.)