Aspect 7(a): A Mission Based on Local Church Initiative and Supplemented by Entities and Associations (national convention, seminaries, IMB)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Through four centuries of history, Baptists have displayed a remarkable continuity in doctrine and practice. With historic Christianity, we have confessed that God is Triune, that his Son is fully God and fully man, that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone, and that the Scriptures are the very words of God.[1] In addition, we have held that the church is regenerate in its membership, autonomous under the headship of Christ, and free from state control. These last three distinctives relate to the doctrine of the church. Baptists have always been serious about church and specifically about the local church. It is through his churches that Christ disciples his children, directs his mission to the lost, demonstrates his glory to a watching world, and extends his kingdom.

What does this mean for the Southern Baptist Convention? The SBC was formed as a network of local churches who partnered together for the sake of mission. In the last 50 years, however, she has become more and more of a denominational bureaucracy. We must help our denomination return to her roots. The SBC of the twenty-first century must be a missional network, just as the churches of Acts were a missional network. Our focus must be the gospel, and our means of cooperation must be primarily “churches partnering for the sake of mission.” Thom Rainer has urged our churches to simplify and streamline so as to maximize their effectiveness, and we think that this applies to our convention as well.[2] The roadmap for revisioning the SBC, as well as any institution or entity within the SBC, will always involve two ideas: local church and missional cooperation.

What then will the Southern Baptist Convention look like if we re-vision it for the 21st century? That is, of course, a very difficult question to answer, a question that exceeds our abilities of and the scope of this post. However, we can point out the broad contours of what it might look like, and raise some pertinent questions along the way. One issue that we might examine is our name. We are the Southern Baptist Convention, but “Southern” neither describes who we are or who we want to be. Perhaps we should modify our nomenclature to better describe our nature as a transregional network of churches. A second issue that our churches might agree upon is that the Cooperative Program needs to be continually re-examined to make sure that it is serving the churches in the best way possible. One of the great motivators during the Conservative Resurgence was the fact that 60 cents of every dollar went to a moderate/liberal bureaucracy. One of the great motivators for a Great Commission Resurgence is the fact that often 60 cents or more of every dollar never leaves the state and often goes to bureaucracies that spend not nearly enough of it on missions and church planting (regardless of whether it is North American or international missions).[3]

What are some challenges ahead for the seminaries? One challenge the seminaries face is how to locate as much of our education as possible in the local church. Is there a reason not to return certain courses of study, such as pastoral ministries, to their native environment in the local church? Another challenge we might face is how to provide the most affordable seminary education. Are there ways we can streamline our institutions? A third challenge is for the seminaries to reject the temptation to be divisively competitive and instead commit to being a network of truly cooperative campuses. Such a network could, for example, provide a combination of on-campus and distance education to international missionaries in a way more beneficial that what is offered presently. A final challenge is for the seminaries to remain vigilant to ensure that our professors are doing theology primarily for the church and secondarily for the academy.

What are some challenges ahead for the International Mission Board? The International Mission Board has taken major steps to re-organize for its 21st century mission. One challenge for the IMB is how to continue to restore mission initiative to the local church, just as our churches must repent for ceding all mission responsibility to the IMB.[4] Local churches must become Great Commission churches who recruit, disciple, and support their members as they go on mission. They must stop recommending candidates who are unfit (morally, spiritually, or otherwise) for the field, and must stop sending candidates to the field while never really intending to support them. Further, our churches must realize that the IMB is not the true “sender” of missionaries. The local church is. Churches send missionaries. Some churches will be able to call from their midst a team of church planters and handle all of the discipleship and team dynamics as they go to the field. The IMB provides oversight, further training, and strategy. Other churches may send only one member to the field, in which case they may partner with other churches in putting together a team to reach a particular people group, and to hold that team accountable. Regardless, we must work hard to help our churches blossom into Great Commission churches.

[1] Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, 58-98. Dockery cites Francis Wayland who, in 1861, wrote: “I do not believe that any denomination of Christians exists, which, for so long a period as the Baptist, has maintained so invariably the truth of their early confessions…The theological tenets of the Baptists, both in England and America, may be briefly stated as follows: they are emphatically the doctrines of the Reformation, and they have been held with singular unanimity and consistency.” Francis Wayland, The Principles and Practices of Baptist Churches (London: J. Heaton and Son, 1861), 15-16.

[2] Thom Rainer, Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville: B&H, 2006).

[3] I (Danny Akin) spoke to this issue in “Axioms,” 16-18. Paige Patterson addressed this issue in Patterson, “My Vision of the Twenty-First Century SBC,” in Review and Expositor 88 (1991), 37-55. He argued that Baptists emphasize cooperation and resist connectionalism, and yet ironically the state conventions’ control of money is a form of connectionalism. He suggested that the local church itself should decide which percentage goes to the state and which to the national. Ed Stetzer’s research demonstrates that SBC pastors overwhelmingly want their CP dollars to go to North American and international church planting. Ed Stetzer, “Cooperative Program Research and Your Opinion,”, (December 22, 2008).

[4] Jerry Rankin writes, “It is not the responsibility of the International Mission Board to do missions on behalf of Southern Baptists; the Great Commission was given to every church, every believer and every denominational entity. The IMB is to serve, facilitate, and enable God’s people to be obedient to our Great Commission task.” Rankin, To the Ends of the Earth, 105. 179-204.

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  1. Les Puryear   •  

    Danny & Bruce,

    Good post, but I’ve got to ask the question regarding the elephant in the room. In regard to missions, you mention IMB but not NAMB. Why wasn’t NAMB included in a post on a mission based on local church initiative and supplemented by SBC entities?


  2. Tim Rogers   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    I will not lose blood over removing “Southern” from our name. However, I will lose time in debate over it. While I understand the regional argument, I feel it is null and void considering the expanse of our convention and her work today. Second, ask the lost person on the street in New York what the difference is between a Southern Baptist and a Baptist. I believe one will find they know there is a difference, it may be a negative difference, but a difference is noted. With that in mind, it seems that changing the name is not going to solve the problem that some point to. While we change our name our beliefs will be the same and to a lost and dying world that is no more than “hocus pocus” marketing.

    Also, you say; “our churches must realize that the IMB is not the true “sender” of missionaries. The local church is. Churches send missionaries. Some churches will be able to call from their midst a team of church planters and handle all of the discipleship and team dynamics as they go to the field.” Could you un-pack this a little more? It seems that you are asking the autonomous church I serve to support another autonomous church’s choice of missionary candidate. I thought part of the reason we had trustees at the IMB was to keep us from becoming landmark in our views. With your proposal it appears that we are being asked to accept members of congregations based solely on the congregation’s recommendation. As I said, I would like for you to unpack it as I may be reading more into it that you intended.


  3. Brian   •  

    “Local churches … must stop recommending candidates who are unfit…” This is true for Missionaries (as stated in the article) but it is also true for Seminary students. The drive for more “fte’s” runs counter to our purpose.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Les, good to hear from you. Tomorrow’s post will be NAMB, state conventions, ERLC!

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Brian, you are “spot on” with your insight.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Tim, IMB still assesses candidates and keeps authority on field, but churches are more hands on in discipling, etc. But most importantly, they help the team to get to know one another, have common vision, work through any relational challenges, etc., before the team goes to the field. This type of team formation has been happening for the past several years, and continutes to increase. Hopefully it will be a good thing.

  7. Ken   •  

    “The SBC of the twenty-first century must be a missional network, just as the churches of Acts were a missional network.” I agree with and love this statement!

  8. Jimmy Scroggins   •  

    On the issue of the name: Outside of the Bible Belt (and probably urban areas inside), when you say “Southern” or “Baptist,” you are instantly associated with terms like rural, racist, backward,and undeducated. If I tell someone in South Florida I am with a Southern Baptist Church, I may as well be saying, “Hello, I’m with the backward, uneducated, racist Convention.” The name is important for historic and doctrinal reasons, but it may be time to consider if our Great Commission mandate warrants a rebranding for the future.

  9. Carter Mundy   •  

    I appreciate the idea of changing the name of our convention. While it may not be necessary, it can be nothing but beneficial. Unfortunately I’ve noticed a certain stigma that comes with being “Southern” Baptist. We’re either recognized as backwoods hicks, or die-hard dixie women and gents. It’s obviously not a true view, but it exists nonetheless. We’ll have to be careful not to let this issue divide us; but if our first reaction is opposition, perhaps we should ask why it matters that we change our name. If we don’t simply for tradition’s sake, I hope we’ll rethink. If it will somehow affect the way the gospel is shared, though, then by all means let’s consider it! Thanks for tackling this and other hard but very important questions, Dr. Ashford and Dr. Akin.

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jimmy and Carter, you are spot on. Although I love being Southern, perhaps “Southern” is not the best adjectival modifier for our convention…

  11. Tim Rogers   •  

    Dr. Scroggin, and others,

    As I said earlier, I will not lose blood over “Southern” in the convention, but I will lose time debating the issue. IOW, I merely present an argument that I am not in favor of losing the name “Southern”. If my being Southern Baptist keeps people from accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ, then I am not presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


  12. rynoyak   •  

    the comments on the IMB-SBC local church relationship has got to be the next big thing for the development and perfecting of the IMB as sending organization of the local SBC churches’ missionaries/apostles/”sent-out ones”: the relationship of the IMB personnel to the local churches and vise versa is weak to say the least.
    it seems that the churches don’t know what their responsibility is to the missionaries they support (because they are directly from their church or becuase of their cooperation through the overall SBC/IMB). the seminaries don’t teach this to the pastors to a degree that is effecting a change. and this is not highlighted anywhere to the point of effecting a change.
    of course, many (if not most) of the IMB personnel do not know their mutual responsibility to their personal local church as well as to the other cooperative churches that “sent” them. this would be at least an “easier” fix, as it would be much simpler to roll out this info to them.
    the way that situation currently is among the local churches, the overall SBC, and the IMB, the need and biblical model of the local church-apostle mutual responsibility is usually unknown or at least not emphasized or dealt with on either end.
    for many IMB personnel, their “home/sending church” is whatever they put on the interview/appointment form.

  13. Ryan G   •  

    The IMB cannot be seen by our churches as one of many parachurch organizations that send missionaries. The IMB is not a parachurch. It is the way that our churches cooperate to send missionaries. It is not a separate entity but is overseen by representatives chosen by the churches (the trustees). The IMB is the point of the spear of our churches being thrust into the heart of darkness.

    Unfortunately our churches have lost that understanding. Perhaps the way trustees are chosen should be rethought, to make sure that every participating local church sees that they are connected and cooperating to support and oversee the IMB. Our missionaries need to be proactive in connecting with churches, but I don’t think the problem is primarily at that point. Somehow the churches have lost their sense of ownership over the IMB.

    Support (including financial) for the IMB will only wane across our convention as more and more people are turned down for missionary appointment (due to a lack of finances given to the IMB), and instead go with alternative para-church organizations, (thus taking supporters and finances with them). The way out of this spiral is letting the churches see that they own the IMB.

  14. Ryan G   •  

    Regarding the name, it will be hard to change if many of our churches and people view their identity as being “Southern” more important than their identity as being the “church.”

  15. Brian   •  

    Ryan G,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your desire for what the IMB aught to be, an your assessment of how churches often respond to the current situation. I must, however, respectfully disagree with your assessment of what that condition is.

    Regardless of whatever well intentioned philosophical nuances shaped the structure of its governance, the IMB is a para-church.

    In every practical way that effects its functioning, from recruitment and evaluation of candidates, prioritizing field assignments,to the rewarding/disciplining of its employees, the IMB functions no differently than any other para-church organization.

    The SBC churches which support the IMB are effectively insulated from any direct influence on the organization through the same SBC trustee elections process that ties the IMB to the denomination. While the “SBC” may hold authority over the IMB, the churches certainly do not.

    When a local congregation approaches the IMB they are most often faced with a well-intentioned bureaucracy that places them squarely in the “follower” role of any partnership. If one is to “partner” with the IMB one does so according to their “procedures”. If the established “cookie-cutter” pattern fits, great! If not, well the autonomous church is free to seek another “vendor”.

    I agree that it should not be this way, but I believe the solution is not simply one of education. I believe churches treat the IMB as one of many para-church organizations, precisely because that is all it has become.

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