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The future of Baptists and missions: what is the missions future for Baptists? The question is more than a rhetorical one or the speculation of an academician.

The question is being asked with more and more frequency by Baptist young adults who are seeking an avenue for their missions calling, by lay people who are confused and perplexed by the politicization of missions, and by missionaries who feel censured and their witness proscribed. The question is important to all Baptists, because it addresses issues central to their identity and calling. In fact, the manner in which Baptists answer this question will determine what kind of missions future there will be for Baptists.

Baptists will do missions in the future because of a fundamental belief that humankind can only be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. This conviction mandates that Baptists proclaim the gospel to people of every tribe, language, and nation. The question is not whether Baptists will do missions but whether Baptist missions will be relevant in a changing world and a dynamic force for world evangelization.

New Realities, New Rules

Within the local church, the denomination, and the world at large, change is a fact of life. Few missions scholars still try to make the case that a change in missions is coming. Rather, most describe the change that has already come or is currently taking place. (1) The overwhelming conclusion of these interpreters of the new realities is that former practices, structures, and traditions no longer function as they once did and thus have become like old and outdated machines, ill-fitted to keep pace or to operate with effectiveness. While an acknowledgement of the new realities is helpful, merely enumerating them is far from sufficient. In the wake of new realities, corresponding rules must emerge. Baptists, like many evangelicals in North America, find themselves loitering in an area of uncertainty between new realities and new rules. Whether Baptists will or will not have a viable missions future will depend largely upon how well they navigate the passage that leads from recognition of the signs of change to bold innovation and action.

The good news is that Baptists have a history of successful transition to new rules when presented with new realities. For example, when Congregational missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson and Luther Rice adopted Baptist convictions in 1812, Baptists enthusiastically embraced this new reality and put new rules in place. One of the existing rules for Baptists was a narrow definition of local church autonomy. Baptist polity was centered in limited identification and cooperation at the associational level with resistance to outside control and direction. The old rule worked well to facilitate expansion on the frontier and to affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ over each congregation, but the old rule was inadequate for the new reality. (2)

Even though a missionary spirit existed among Baptists, not until the missions potential evident in the Judsons and Rice presented itself did Baptists adopt new rules. Missions-enthused leaders called Baptists to a different way of relating to one another. Their campaign culminated on May 18, 1814, when Baptists gathered at the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia to launch the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions. (3) The Triennial Convention, as it was called, marked the beginning of a process whereby new rules of organization gradually evolved into a cooperative missions effort within a denominational structure. Missions reality birthed new identity and structure that had eluded Baptists to that point.

Baptists stand today at a similar crossroad. Today's realities are vastly different from those facing Baptists on the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Yet, the same kind of spirit is needed to challenge old rules and transition to an ideal future. The intent of this article is to point Baptists toward a preferred missions future by offering an assessment of five realities and then identifying new rules that these realities necessitate.


In the words of management guru Tom Peters, "distance is dead," and this changes everything. (4) The world truly has grown smaller. The reality of our shrinking world is seen in the array of exotic products on the grocery shelves, in the fact that a call to one's bank helpline is answered in India, and in the chat taking place all over the world via the worldwide web. (5) As distance has disappeared, our ways of shopping, banking, communicating, and traveling have changed.

Once upon a time, travel was expensive, difficult, and outside the experience of the average person, and thus, the distance between Richmond and Burma seemed insurmountable. The need existed for an agent to mediate the distance and to close the culture and travel gap. The role was essential because of the expertise necessary to equip, train, and send missionaries to faraway places. Reality has changed the need for such an agent.

The old rule states that an intermediating agent is indispensable. The new rule advises that "you are free to move about the world." The expense of travel is negligible, transfer between modes of transport is easily navigated, and what risks do exist can be negotiated, because information and communication have eliminated distance. Individuals and churches are no longer looking for the same kind of mediator; they are on-line looking for the best airline deals. They are not asking permission to go; they are buying tickets and going.

Intermediation not only gave an agent an important role, but it also centralized power in that agent. Disintermediation makes the agent redundant and apportions power to the collective parts. Thus, as distance diminishes, ordinary Baptists are embracing the new rules that close the distance between them and the world.

The disappearance of distance is merely the next chapter in a long discussion among Baptists. The inaugural issue of the Southern Baptist missions magazine, The Commission, insisted that "the work of converting the world belongs, not to the Board but to the CHURCHES which they represent. The Board is only the agent of the churches. It can do nothing but what they choose to do through it. It is the duty of the Board to seek to interest them in this work, and judiciously to apply the means placed at their disposal for accomplishing it." (6) In the decades since the Foreign Mission Board's (FMB) formation, its representing role grew with the size and importance of the missions enterprise.

Challenges to this growing centralization and control came at varying times. One such challenge came at the close of the nineteenth century from T. P. Crawford, a veteran missionary to China. Crawford opposed the centralized role of the FMB and urged it to act as facilitator and coordinator rather than agent of ecclesiastical control. One dimension of his reform was to call "Churches to the Front" and to challenge them to engage the missions task directly. (7) However, old rules of intermediation prevailed and the movement that Crawford and others initiated failed because distance was still a reality.

Today distance is not dying; it is dead. While churches could not at the outset of the twentieth century respond to Crawford's call, they can today. In fact, churches are rewriting the rules as they directly engage the world. They are demanding that their denominational boards and agencies exchange the organizational mindset of control and mediation for one of connectivity and facilitation for missions. Disintermediation is the new reality, and connectivity is the new rule.

Diverse Witness

During the recent past, fierce and cut-throat competition was the mode of operation for most businesses. The practice was to establish brand identity and then gain control of a majority of the market. The goal was sole domination for the highest profit. In the trenches of production and sales, competition meant assaulting the competitor through a variety of tactics in order to weaken its ability to offer a viable challenge.

A new reality reigns in business. Rather than vicious competition or even civil cooperation, today's innovative and successful companies seek collaboration with those who should be their competitors. (8) Collaboration means that common ground is sought in order to combine efforts for greater profit. What a company might accomplish in competition against another is far less than what the same company will achieve through collaboration.

A similar shift is occurring in missions. Rather than establishing denominational brand identity and loyalty in order to build denominational or organizational dominance, missionaries and agencies are forming alliances, cooperative ventures, covenants, and partnerships for the sake of wider and stronger witness. The shift to collaboration is fueled by several convictions.

First, in light of the overwhelming number of people yet to hear the gospel, those involved in the missionary enterprise see the need to find points where they might unite forces to coordinate rather than duplicate efforts. Too much needs to be done for there to be competition. Specialized organizations and unique events and consultations offer collaborative forums where agencies and field personnel network their needs and resources across confessional and organizational boundaries. The verdict is that collaborative efforts produce fresh initiatives and multiplied effect.

Second, characteristics of the rising generation of post-moderns include mutuality and shared purpose rather than strictly defined identifies that divide and pit groups against each other. The narrow denominational story holds only mild interest for them and is seen as a distraction to the greater cause. This post-modern mindset is more than a western phenomenon. The latest edition of The World Christian Encyclopedia highlights the increasing post-denominational nature of Christianity worldwide and the rise of networks and paradenominations. (9)

Planting churches and conventions in a foreign setting that are of a particular denominational or confessional variety has become less and less the missions priority. Individuals and churches are forming alliances around the missions task rather than conventional ties or confessional parameters. While the Southern Baptist Convention continues to solidify its boundaries through compulsory signing of the Baptist Faith and Message and its decision to withhold appointment to people with public or private charismatic tendencies, an increasing number of its missionaries and lay persons ignore these boundaries and operate by the new rule of collaboration that urges them to seek common cause with Great Commission Christians from Bible, Community, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, and Presbyterian churches, as well as from churches from a wide variety of ethnic and language orientations. The particular confession, language, and traditions of each of these churches and organizations remain intact, but they are able to do missions together because of a passion for all peoples to know Christ and the currency of collaboration. They recognize that diversity is strength and collaboration enhances witness.

Missionary Disciples

"Isn't the day of the missionary over?" Such a query comes from secular and religious people when the topic of missions is introduced into conversation. For most people, the missionary belongs to an era of the past or represents an archaic way of viewing the world. Among these people are some Baptists. While some Baptists are committed to the Great Commission, they express a growing uneasiness about the professional missionaries for several reasons.

First, the post-colonial critique judges the missionary as accessory to the odious policies and practices of the colonial powers. (10) Thus, the missionary is a painful reminder of what should have never been. Antimissionary sentiment runs high in many of the countries of former colonial occupation. Some of these countries are enacting anti-conversion laws and denying access to missionaries. The vocational missionary is being proscribed and legislated out of existence in place after place.

Second, because Christian churches exist in every country of the world and Christianity is making its way into every people group, the professional missionary from abroad is viewed as less and less necessary. Brazilian pastors, evangelists, and missionaries are the chief gospel bearers to Brazilians and to unevangelized language groups within Brazil and nearby countries. Thus, some argue against Baptists in America expending their limited funds on foreign missionaries and insist that Brazilians do the same job at a fraction of the cost and the least amount of social disruption.

Third, the professionalization of the missionary task seems to be running its course. The modern idea of professionalism came with notions of the autonomous self and specialized division of labor. (11) Just as agents representing the East India Company went to India and did business on behalf of the company, so William Carey left England to represent the gospel and the Baptist Missionary Society. He acted on behalf of a constituency who had sent him to India and supported him with their financial gifts. In a post-enlightenment era, the constituent wants firsthand involvement rather than representation by a professional.

Both the Baptist constituency that sends missionaries and the world that receives missionaries have changed, and thus Baptist missions leaders have a choice. On one hand, they can act as if nothing has changed and continue to promote the vocational missionary as the sole or chief means of cross-cultural witness. In time, as the role of the professional missionary diminishes, Baptists will find a shrinking pool of missionary candidates and fewer resources to fund such a position. Or on the other hand, Baptist leaders can emphasize a missionary role that is non-professional and transvocational. Such an emphasis would facilitate a shift from the static institutional category of missionary as employee of the denomination to an organic model in which missionary distinctions are fostered among all believers. Rather than missionary being solely a vocational choice along with engineer, teacher, or accountant, being a missionary is an essential dimension of following Jesus Christ. To be a disciple of Jesus is to he missionary. This does not mean the professional missionary will cease to exist, but his or her role must be one of servant to the mission of the whole body of Christ, and where the professional missionary continues, he or she must be known first and foremost as a disciple of Christ.

Such an organic understanding of missionary requires a shift in missions education from promotion of the career missionary vocation to discipleship of the whole church. The new rule is missionary discipleship that commissions and equips all Baptists to be missionally focused.

Bi-directional Missions

The aim of missions has been to prepare and send missionaries to foreign lands in order to convert the unconverted. The gospel trafficked only in one direction, from here to there. This one-way arrangement had the effect of placing Baptists in the position of ultimate arbitrators of truth. In the end, missionaries did more than just proclaim the gospel; they were the authority on matters of morality, doctrine, and church polity.

The new reality is that missions is a two-way street. Several phenomena have prompted this change. First, the Christian faith implanted in the southern hemisphere is not only surviving but is thriving. It currently outpaces northern Christianity in terms of numerical growth, as well as vitality and health. (12)

Second, the church of the southern hemisphere is not only exploding within the South but is expanding to the North. As it migrates northward, it is infiltrating the spirit and structures of northern Christendom. The authors of The Missional Church characterize North America as "a post-Christian society, or what might better be labeled as a post-churched culture." (13) The general feeling is that American Christianity is trapped in modernity and thus has little to say to men and women living beyond modernity; it is in collusion with nationalism and thus assists the cultural agenda of the powerful; and it is controlled by consumerism and thus unable to speak against its idolatrous consumption. Institutional and denominational structures and identity no longer provide the yeast for the fermentation of society, or a distinct light that gives direction. Rather, the church has become an enclave or ghetto of cultured Christianity in a post-Christendom era.

Christians from the South offer men and women of the North a dynamic faith equipped for a pluralistic society and a world full of demonic forces. (14) Because Christians of the South live outside of the Christendom legacy, they know what it means to live alongside other faith traditions. Because they have first-hand experience with spirits and demons, they know that the spirit world cannot be dismissed. Christians of the North need to experience a faith that is able to embrace the mystery around them and to interact authentically with Muslims and Hindus.

The reality is that when it comes to missions Baptists are not and never have been the sole possessors of truth. In 2006, Baptists have much to receive from others. Missions has become a busy highway that runs not only north to south but south to north. The future witness of Baptists hinges on their willingness to listen to and receive from brothers and sisters in the South.

Power at the Margins

As descendents of radical reformers and dissenters, Baptists, for the majority of their history, have endured discrimination and have existed as a disadvantaged people. Only in the last fifty to sixty years have Baptists gained a place of respectability in civil life and as a result have ascended to social and political prominence. In order to accommodate this new status, attitudes toward the relationship of church and state have tilted toward social privilege as a divine right and political power as a necessity for religious life and witness. While religious establishment of Baptists or any other denomination in America is highly unlikely, attempts by some Baptists to establish nuanced, and at time not so subtle, forms of state support or sponsorship have become more and more acceptable.

The Baptist discussion of church and state has been framed for the most part within the domestic context, and yet its impact upon international missions is significant. If Baptists approach the world in a manner that portrays power and privilege as essential to their witness, then missions can become a representation of our cultural aspirations rather than the proclamation of Jesus Christ.

In reality, the new power of Baptists is no power at all. It is an illusion. The convenient relationship of Baptists and other evangelicals with the privilege and power of the state produces a kind of anti-power. In the same way that colonial domination casts a long shadow over Christian missions, the exportation of western technology and culture is understood throughout the Middle East and Asia as a new form of imperialism. As these nations and regions come into their own economically and politically, they are determined not to stand in awe of the West or ape its ways. What was once thought to be power has become just the opposite.

The biblical reality is that culture, economic and political policies, and national spirit and aims cannot be equated with the Kingdom of God. In fact, they may form opposition to the reign of God on earth. Jesus demonstrated that missions must occur under the sign of the cross. The church's confession of Jesus will be as an underprivileged people and in the midst of persecution. For Baptists to have a missions future, they must recognize that missions is the activity of marginal people, living in distinction from their culture and giving witness to the gospel as the ultimate power. (15) Victories for the gospel will not be measured by influence exerted or territories won, but by solidarity with those at the margins and faithfulness to the power of the gospel. The new rule for Baptists is that power is at the margins rather than the center of society.

Pilgrim Existence

Baptists find themselves in a hallway between a glorious but fading past and an emerging future. The challenge for Baptists is to move forward rather than to attempt a return to what once was. They cannot return to their missions past, because it no longer exists. Baptists will have a dynamic and relevant missions future, if they acknowledge that there are new realities to which they must respond with new ways of being and operating. Will Baptists find common cause with the expansive evangelical witness to the world and thus move away from a competitive spirit and toward collaboration? Will Baptists abandon a truncated model of the missionary that limits missions activity to a group of professionals and move toward mission as the life of every believer? Will Baptists acknowledge that brothers and sisters from the southern hemisphere have many truths to teach them and in fact may become their leaders? Will Baptists aspire to be people at the margins?

In the future, Baptists must see themselves as pilgrims in transition between realities, always moving toward new ways of operating. Such an existence comes only by way of a spirit of dependence and humility. An establishment mentality that suggests that Baptists have arrived and should take their ease in Zion extinguishes missions fervor and passion, and thus thwarts hope for a bold missions future.

(1.) See William Tinsley, Finding God's Vision: Missions and the New Realities (Rockwall, TX: Veritas Publishing, 2005); James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000); Reggie McNeal, The Present Future (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003); and Lamin Sanneh, "Christians and the New World Order," Missions Frontier (July 10, 1988).

(2.) Robert G. Torbet, A History of Baptists, 3rd edition (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press), 31.

(3.) H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 344.

(4.) Tom Peters, The Circle of Innovation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 1.

(5.) See Thomas L. Friedman, The Worm is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005).

(6.) The Commission, "Why Publish a Magazine" (July 1856), 1. In this same issue, J. L. Burrows, "To Southern Baptist Pastors," stated that "through the agency of the churches of Christ is the sublime purpose to be effected."

(7.) T. P. Crawford, Church to the Front (China: n. p., 1892), 13-14, cited in Keith E. Eitel, Paradigm Wars: The Southern Baptist International Mission Board Faces the Third Millennium (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2000), 44.

(8.) See James C. Collins, Good to Great, Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001).

(9.) David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, Worm Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study Churches and Religions in the Modern World, 2nd edition, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 10. See also Alister E. McGrath, The Future of Christianity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 101.

(10.) For example, see Arun Shourie, Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas (New Delhi: Harpers, 1997).

(11.) David J. Bosch, Transforming Missions: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 262ff.

(12.) See Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2003); Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Wilbert Shenk, "Recasting Theology of Mission: Impulses from the NonWestern World," International Bulletin of Missionary Research (July 2001); and Dana Robert, "Shifting Southward: Global Christianity Since 1945," International Bulletin of Missionary Research (April 2000).

(13.) Darrell Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 55; and Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian Worm Missions (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), 100.

(14.) Philip Jenkins exclaimed that "the era of Western christianity has passed within our lifetimes, and the day of Southern christianity is dawning," The Next Christendom, 3. Wilbert Shenk maintained that we have much to learn as "the churches of Asia, Africa, and Latin America know at first hand what it means to be a missionary church because they are much closer in time to missionary action. Persecution and suffering for the sake of Christ continues to take place." See Shenk, "Recasting Theology of Mission," 104.

(15.) Wilbert R. Shenk, Changing Frontiers of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series, no. 28 (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999), 188. Newbigin stated that "missions, which have been accustomed to flowing down the current of world power, are now faced with the need to learn for the first time to swim against the current.

Mike W. Stroope is the M. C. Shook associate professor of Christian missions at George W. Truett Seminary, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
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Author:Stroope, Mike W.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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