Southern Baptist Missionaries See Baptisms and Converts…… | News and reports
The Southern Baptist Convention fell on hard times last year, with a controversial sex abuse investigation, racial tensions and a dip in the number of baptisms in the United States. But amidst the gloom, there was a silver lining: international missions.
In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of new believers harvested by the 3,552 missionaries serving with the convention’s International Missionary Board (IMB) increased 62% from the previous year . Baptisms increased 81% from 2019 to 2020 (the most recent year for which data is available), and testimonies of salvation continue to pour in.
The increases are especially significant in a denomination where many cite missions as a reason for joining and staying.
A 53-year-old Thai man with chest pains went to see an IMB medical missionary outside Bangkok. The man collapsed in the clinic and only regained consciousness after the IMB missionary, a doctor, performed emergency medical procedures.
As they waited for an ambulance, the man prayed to receive Christ, prompting the doctor to ask, “When did you first become interested in God’s story?”
The man pointed to the spot on the floor where he collapsed and said, “Right there. Before that, I had never been interested at all. But when I broke down, I heard God call my name three times, and I knew he was warning me.
It was not an isolated incident, according to IMB reports. The wave of evangelism, say missiologists, is attributable to effective methodology, the pandemic, and the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.
“We have seen the Holy Spirit working across the world in powerful ways,” said Wilson Geisler, director of global research at IMB. A mission team “saw the early believers among an incredibly hard-to-reach group of people.” Another “saw more people come to faith in 2020 than in the previous three years combined.”
In a video report ahead of the February Executive Committee meeting, IMB President Paul Chitwood noted that even with short-term mission trips canceled keeping tens of thousands of Southern Baptists at home, international work full-time missionaries was able to continue and prosper.
Despite dwindling face-to-face evangelistic gatherings due to COVID, IMB staff and their partners around the world “have found innovative, often virtual, ways to present the gospel,” according to the annual statistical report. 2020 from IMB.
The 535,325 people who heard a testimony of the Gospel in 2019 increased to 769,494 in 2020. The approximately 89,000 new believers registered in 2019 increased to 144,000 in 2020, with a corresponding increase in baptisms from 47,929 to 86,587.
IMB statisticians are parsimonious in the information they disseminate on their counting methodology. They say the data reflects the work of IMB staff and “their Baptist partners,” although neither the number of partners nor the groups they represent are specified. Several years ago, under David Platt, the IMB saw a dramatic decline in the number of converts, baptisms and church plants, as the agency transferred ministries from missionaries to national partners. (See CT’s 2016 article on how mission agencies count converts.)
Additionally, IMB cautions against analyzing the numbers too precisely, as the number of missionaries and ministers who report varies from year to year.
“For security reasons,” Geisler said, “in each part of the world, the number of employees and close partners who provide data for the report is not provided. This means that it will always be difficult to know how many individual reporters have contributed” to the annual statistics. “Field research teams and our US-based global research department review the reports for anomalies.”
Despite IMB’s qualification and coverage of the numbers, they argue that the increase is incredible.
“I wasn’t surprised at the increase,” said John Brady, IMB’s vice president of global engagement. “On the contrary, I was amazed.” He said the increase can be attributed in part to a discipleship plan that is coming to fruition in some parts of the world.
The plan begins by training new Christians through 35 Bible passages “that teach the necessity and power of transformation that comes from God,” Brady said. New believers share these key passages with their neighbors “and repeat the process.” Then they “move on to other studies such as a biblical outline for teaching key doctrines and leadership development.”
Most of the reported evangelical increase has occurred in South Asia. Eighty-nine percent of 2020 baptisms (76,904) and 97 percent of new churches (17,772) were reported in this region.
While COVID-19 has caused deaths and infections in South Asia (with 510,000 deaths reported in India so far, according to the World Health Organization), the pandemic has not interrupted daily life there. as it did in the West.
“We have heard anecdotally from South Asian pastors that because many people survive on daily work, in the two weeks following the government-sanctioned closures, people have had to ignore them to feed their families,” said said Geisler. “In urban areas of South Asia, we also heard from staff that COVID is providing more opportunities for gospel witness and discipleship.”
Missiologist David Garrison, a former IMB leader in South Asia, attributes the increases to an explosion in church planting. He retired from IMB in 2015 after 35 years of service, including the publication of a 2004 book that has become a standard work on church planting movements.
“When we entered the region, only 4% of IMB personnel were serving in this densely populated region,” Garrison said. The explosion of Christians and churches stems from “the growth of church planting movements which are an essential part of the vision and DNA of missionaries in this region. This factor is even more evident in the new churches started in South Asia.
Not all missiologists agree with Garrison’s analysis. The term church planting movement (CPM) refers to a specific methodology in the world of missions, which has drawn criticism in some evangelical circles and which the IMB says it does not use.
The traditional church planting model focuses on preaching and starting churches with a preaching pastor, said Ted Esler, president of the Missio Nexus Mission Network, which includes IMB.
The CPM model focuses on building house churches and using Socratic discussions of the scriptures – with the discussion sometimes led by a non-believer and almost always by someone from the indigenous culture rather than a missionary. Esler considers the reported IMB numbers to be plausible due to IMB’s use of CPM methodology, although he prefers not to use this terminology.
“All forms of church planting are great,” Esler said. “But most of the action in the world is with the movements. In Missio Nexus we have 320 members of mission agencies. .
Critics of CPM include Reformed evangelicals like John Piper’s Desiring God ministry and church health organization 9Marks, who argue that CPM’s methodology tends to lack quality checks and sometimes neglects the biblical task. of preaching. Proponents of CPM respond that preaching is only a method and that Scripture only requires churches to teach the Bible.
In 2006, then-IMB missionary John Massey, now Dean of the School of Evangelism and Missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a friendly critique of IMB’s use of CPM methods, claiming that erroneously elevated speed as a goal of church planting at expense. of biblical fidelity.
“In the CPM methodology, quick results take precedence over the short term over long-term sustainability,” he wrote.
But Massey said Christianity today that “much has changed in the direction of IMB” since his review was written, “with each successive IMB president moving the organization away from the CPM methodology”.
Massey is “doubtful” that the increase in baptisms in 2020 “was in any way the result of the CPM methodology, which has enjoyed declining favor among Southern Baptists.”
Garrison continues to defend his CPM framework and insists that it is “widespread in IMB and throughout the international church planting community.” Yet regardless of the label used to describe IMB’s church planting work, Garrison said the organization “stands very true” to Southern Baptist standards described in the Baptist faith and message as well. than IMB standards. Foundations document, which states “12 characteristics of a healthy church”.
The pandemic itself has driven some of the growth in conversions. “When the COVID-19 lockdown began, many Muslims in our region were out of work and in need of food,” according to the South Asia section of the 2020 Statistical Report. “Southern Baptists generously provided food to those who needed it. Local evangelists then had the joy of going house to house in Muslim communities to provide food and share the gospel.
IMB’s work leader in the Asia-Pacific region reported similar stories from South America and East Asia. Part of Asia saw 191 professions of faith among Buddhists in six weeks through a food distribution ministry. In South America, a woman and her three children “hadn’t eaten for two days”. When an IMB worker arrived with food, “the woman fell at the feet of this missionary.”
Yet not all of IMB’s statistical increases can be explained by missiological methods or doors opened by COVID-19, such as with a movement of the Holy Spirit among one of the people groups that IMB serves. in East Asia.
Last fall, a group of adults gathered in an apartment to study the Bible and worship while their children gathered in a nearby apartment to study Acts 16, the story of Paul and Silas sharing their faith in jail. Just then, police raided the rally, eventually arresting three leaders.
Like the Bible characters they studied, leaders shared the gospel in prison. Today, more than 20 previously uncommitted people have access to the gospel, along with their families and friends.
“IMB staff and partners, no matter how difficult the ground, are working diligently and with their best efforts, trusting God for the results,” Geisler said.
The IMB statistical report for 2021 is expected this spring.
David Roach is a freelance reporter for CT and pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Saraland, Alabama.