The Future of Southern Baptist Missions
This summer I attended the SBC convention in Orlando. How was it? Expensive. The seminary very graciously put me up in the Hilton. Not cheap. However, I noticed a nearby Days Inn whose rooms went for half the price. That's where I spent my second night. Felt good to be able to save the school some money. Besides, little David had something Goliath lacked: An internet terminal in the lobby where guests could check their email. Gotta have that! I met lots of people, both colleagues and students (former and prospective). Jason Hall did an absolutely phenomenal job of setting up and managing the SEBTS booth. David Allen sauntered by one day, as did many other good friends.
Multiply these encounters a hundredfold and you'll understand why these conferences are so much fun. I don't know how many messengers attended this year's meeting but the place was packed solid. The SEBTS luncheon on Wednesday, at which both Danny Akin and Johnny Hunt spoke, was fantastic. I came away from the convention with a new realization that a Great Commission resurgence will not begin at the denominational level. It will end there. A Great Commission commitment must begin in our homes and marriages, and then in our local churches, each one of them. This is clearly the pattern of the book of Acts. The church at Antioch, the world's first missional church, is proof of that. As I came to this realization, I was filled with excitement. Clearly missions is now possible on a scale as never before. I'm not talking about professional missionaries only. The work of the Great Commission will certainly include them. But the work is much broader than that. The playing field has been leveled as never before. It is level in the sense that everyone can now be a player, and in venues once thought impossible. Just do a Google. I did so the other day and found an interesting site, in Iraq of all places. A new American University has just opened there and is willing to pay you to be a fulltime missionary to Iraq -- as long as you are willing to teach business or English. Here education, as it so often has done in the past, is leading the way in breaking down walls and knitting the world together. The dynamic behind this globalization in education is practically begging us North Americans to capitalize on it. (I am tempted to grab a quick degree in ESL and apply for the job myself.)
Let's say you want to do missionary work in China. Did you know that secular Chinese universities are hiring Americans to teach courses in biblical studies? A couple of years ago I got an email from an American scholar who was taking a sabbatical in China and teaching at Shanghai University. He wrote to tell me he was using my beginning Greek grammar in one of his courses. I was flabbergasted. Here was an American evangelical teaching both Greek and New Testament Introduction in a Chinese university, at the expense of the Chinese. In Dalian -- China's silicon valley -- there are 22 universities and colleges with over 200,000 students. Most of these ambitious young people are eager to study English. The era of top-down missions -- where all missionaries are professionally trained -- is rapidly vanishing. Something infinitely more satisfying is arising alongside the traditional model. The faster the transition, the greater the potential for involving larger and larger numbers of "laypeople" (you and me) in the cause of the Great Commission. This flattening of world missions has the potential to unlock pent-up energies for hundreds of thousands of North Americans, Southern Baptists included.
It is impossible to exaggerate how important this development is. Couple this with developments in communications and transportation and the world has become not only flatter but a lot smaller. Becky's missionary parents traveled to Ethiopia for the first time in 1954. Their trip by freighter took 6 weeks. Today we can fly from Washington DC to Addis Ababa in a mere 19 hours. Moreover, wherever you're going, there's probably a job skill God can use. Working in a secular job while actually being a fulltime missionary may sound rather routine and dull. But these jobs often pay well, and you have a natural venue for establishing relationships with a view toward sharing the Good News. In addition, biblical education is possible as never before. It's is no longer campus-centered, and you can easily educate yourself -- even in Greek and Hebrew -- online. When Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft, his goal was to provide every individual "IAYF" -- information at your fingertips. His success is obvious.
The global information revolution has impacted missions. The world is now connected, and it seems that nothing will stop the digital representation of practically everything. Back when my in-laws were working in Ethiopia, this infrastructure was missing. Now everyone is online -- writing, blogging, tweeting. (Personally, I believe HTML is the greatest invention of the twentieth century, since it has allowed average people like me to author web pages with ease.) We have reached a point in missions that almost any of us can become personally involved, whether it's by going or informing or teaching via one's website. The great thing about modern missions, as I heard over and over again at the convention, is that anyone and everyone can be involved. Indeed, everyone ought to be involved. Even a Facebook page or a Twitter account can become a powerful evangelistic tool in this day of social networking. In other words, once the idea that every Christian is a fulltime missionary is accepted, the work of missions will advance with much less hierarchy -- and much less wasted money. In time, I think we will see a new equilibrium emerge in which professionally-trained missionaries will work side-by-side with an army of volunteers in a low-friction environment that enhances cooperation.
For me, working in Ethiopia is a dream come true. When Becky and I went to Ethiopia in 2004 our sole purpose was to see the places in her childhood that shaped her. Today we make two trips a year. There are many professional missionaries working in Ethiopia, but Becky and I have still found plenty of room to maneuver in places where most foreign missionaries would never think of going. As with blogging, where an army of citizen journalists has matched the official media outlets in the information gathering and disseminating routine, today there is an army of citizen missionaries harnessing the power of the Spirit and channeling it into significant ministries. And as never before, these ministries can stay connected. It is impossible to gauge the impact of the internet on the SBC, but when you hear Johnny Hunt say that he read hundreds of tweets during the Orlando convention it is clear that the social media are successfully monitoring the news. My generation had to adapt to the internet, but the current generation is growing up online. (I once read that one third of grade school students have their own email addresses.) The bottom line of what I am saying: It's time for us to wake up to the fact that there is a fundamental shift talking place in the way many of our churches are thinking about missions. We face the potential of tapping into the energy and abilities of five times as many people as before. As missions becomes flattened, local churches will realize they can plant other churches or send out missionaries themselves. The missions "connection" will move from vicarious support of foreign missionaries via missions giving to raising up local personnel and sending them forth. "Let's get the job done!" is a rallying cry I'm hearing from more and more Southern Baptists. And the students I'm seeing these days in seminary are like Swiss Army Knives -- sharp and adaptable. This is what happens when the missionary enterprise is no longer outsourced. Collaborative innovation flourishes -- and the result is expanded involvement on all levels in the Great Commission.
The point I took away from Orlando was a simple reminder: We are all fellow missionaries. The Body of Christ is moving into a world where less and less of the work of global evangelization is being outsourced. When we develop a missional mindset, we get rid of the notion that missions is only for others. We are moving into a world where more and more of us will do the work of an evangelist. In the meantime, missionary communications are being revolutionized. During the Orlando convention I kept up with a friend's mission trip to Greece via his tweets and twitpics. (I imagine he was keeping up with the convention as well.) In short, my two days in Orlando showed me that there is potential for our priorities to get completely reshuffled -- with an accompanying awareness that missions is ultimately the responsibility of local churches -- yours and mine. As I said earlier, a Great Commission resurgence will not not happen in the convention without it happening in my own life. Let's face it: We can say we are "Great Commission Christians" until we are blue in the face. Meanwhile, the world is going to hell. Recently the BP chairman apologized for the oil spill and added: "We made it clear to the president that words are not enough. We should be judged by our actions." Southern Baptists need to hear that loud and clear. More and more of us are asking which of our values are worth preserving and which should disappear. I hope that all of this gets sorted out at the denomination level (and I predict that it will). But even if it doesn't, there is nothing to keep me and my local church from doing all we can to help advance God's kingdom on earth, both through our support of the CP and through our personal involvement.
September 10, 2010
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.