Editor's Note: The cataclysmic events in Haiti unfolded as this issue of SBC LIFE was being prepared for publication. They certainly underscore the reality of this article's title — we never know what will develop around us or the corresponding opportunities for extending the Lord's compassion. May we be faithful to Him in those opportunities. To respond to the crisis in Haiti, see the sidebar below.
Billy Graham sometimes shares the story of a young boy whose family's grandfather clock stood near his bedroom door in the hallway. The boy just happened to be awake at midnight one night when the clock malfunctioned and instead of chiming twelve times, chimed thirteen times. Immediately noticing the anomaly, the young boy ran through the house yelling, "Wake up everybody. It's later than it has ever been!"
In some sense, that's one of the Great Commission roles the North American Mission Board plays in Southern Baptist life. We're reminding our Christian brothers and sisters that the hour is getting late and there are a growing number of people in North America who are desperate for the hope, love, and salvation only Jesus can bring.
As we raise our families, work our jobs, keep up with our homes, and complete the everyday events that make up our lives, it is sometimes easy for us to forget that we live on a mission field. It's also easy to miss the shifts and changes that are taking place all around us. While we've been going about our lives in North America, the United States and Canada — if their people are combined — have become the third largest unreached population in the world.
A population as vast and diverse as the one that inhabits the US and Canada must have a coordinated approach when it comes to missions. There are 587 people groups among our two nations and the great majority are entrenched in world religions and belief systems other than Christianity. Our states, regions, and cities share some common traits, but the approaches to church, sharing the Gospel, and building connection points with communities can be quite different. We need national resources and big picture perspective coupled with local knowledge and on-the-ground love and concern for people.
Our Great Commission Focus
Ephesians 5:16 reminds us to make the most of the time God has given us on this earth. That is why the North American Mission Board is setting a laser focus on three priorities — Sharing Christ, Starting Churches, and Sending Missionaries. Everything we do lines up under one of those priorities, and we are closely partnered with state conventions, local associations, and churches, listening as they tell us how we can serve them better in these areas.
Currently NAMB is carrying out each of these tasks under the umbrella of a ten-year evangelism initiative called God's Plan for Sharing (GPS). The first phase of this decade-long emphasis is called Across North America and it begins in the weeks leading up to Easter. NAMB designed a media campaign and put forward $1.2 million for media buys which state conventions combined with another $800,000. That means $2 million will be spent this spring throughout North America to tell our friends and neighbors hope can be found in Christ.
But the true strength of Across North America will be set in motion when thousands of Southern Baptists spread out across their neighborhoods and communities to prayerwalk, invite people to church, and share the Gospel.
Across North America is based on four very simple steps. Praying — Every church praying for every lost person. Equipping — Every believer sharing as a trained witness. Sowing — Every lost person receiving a complete witness. Harvesting — Every church harvesting and celebrating every salvation experience. Any church of any size can participate.
If your church is not already planning to participate, contact your state convention office today. You can find more details by visiting www.gps2020.net and clicking on the "Across North America" box.
In addition to GPS, NAMB's Sharing Christ priority is focused on leading people to Christ and helping others do the same. We partner with state Baptist conventions to recruit, train, and resource missionaries who are fulfilling the Great Commission by meeting physical needs like hunger and illiteracy while sharing the Gospel along the way. The chaplains we endorse, resource, and train on behalf of Southern Baptists are sharing Christ in tough places like Iraq and Afghanistan along with the hope-starved hallways of our prisons and in hospitals, workplaces, and sports facilities.
We celebrate the saving of more than five thousand babies' lives in 2009 at 270 NAMB-affiliated pregnancy centers and rejoice that 1,700 women chose to accept Christ because of the ministry of these pregnancy centers. Southern Baptist hunger fund ministries in North America, which NAMB administers, fed more than five million people this past year and saw 36,000 led to Christ.
NAMB's sharpened focus means we are making each of our ministries more evangelistic. Through our national coordination role in Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) we've added SBDR chaplains and are helping volunteers be more intentional about sharing Christ in the midst of disaster settings.
When more than 22,000 students participate in World Changers each year, they refurbish sub-standard homes, but their bigger purpose is to bring the hope of Christ to lives that would be otherwise condemned to eternity without God.
North American Church Deficit
Since NAMB came into existence in 1997, Southern Baptists have started 18,693 new churches or an average of 1,558 churches annually. That's a new church every six hours, four a day, thirty every week. NAMB is not involved in every church start, but in most cases we partner with state Baptist conventions, local associations, or an existing church to help launch a new church.
NAMB's focus on church planting sometimes raises a question from people: "Doesn't North America have enough churches already?" My answer is "no." Here's a good way to look at it: The latest United States and Canadian government data shows there are 341 million people living in North America. Of those, our research tells us 258 million don't have a personal relationship with Christ. That's three out of every four people. Including Southern Baptists and all churches that meet the SBC's definition of evangelical, there are approximately 185,000 evangelical churches in the US and Canada.
Considering that the mean membership of existing SBC churches is 206, if we reach just 1 percent of the current number of lost people — that would be 2.58 million people reached — we would need 12,500 new churches. If we reached 5 percent, 62,500 churches would be needed. If 10 percent are reached for Christ, we would need to add 125,000 new churches. Are you beginning to see why I say we don't have enough churches in North America?
Here's another important reason for new churches: they generally do a better job at reaching lost people. The average baptism ratio of all SBC churches that reported baptism data on their 2008 ACP report was 2.3 people baptized for every one hundred members. But if you pull out new churches — those existing five years or less — the rate rises to 7.5 baptisms for every one hundred members.
The facts reveal that new churches reach new people for Christ, so Southern Baptists must continue in their commitment to congregationalizing North America if we are serious about reaching our land.
The Power of Partnership
The strength and beauty of NAMB's ministry is the work we do through partnerships. It all starts with the partnership of our 44,000-plus SBC churches who give so generously to the Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. Because Southern Baptists choose to "join arms" in these ways, so much more is being accomplished for God's purposes in our land than would otherwise be accomplished if we were all just doing our own thing.
Partnership means our mission work in North America benefits from local, state, and national perspective, and it means we can take the best of what we've learned in some areas and implement it in other settings as well.
Yes, partnership sometimes means we have to slow down and listen to other voices that have a stake in decisions. It also means commitment, responsibility, and living up to your end of the bargain. But in partnership we gain from the experience, knowledge, and God-directed calling of others who care deeply about reaching North America for Christ.
As Southern Baptists enter a new decade that holds both promise and challenge, my prayer is that we'll look back ten years from now and see that our actions reflected the behavior of a people who truly believed that Jesus is the answer people are looking for and that the hour, indeed, is growing very late.
Haiti Disaster Relief
Southern Baptists are demonstrating compassion through their disaster relief efforts in Haiti following the devastation wrought by the earthquake of January 12, 2010. Southern Baptists can contribute to "Haiti Earthquake Disaster Relief" through their local church or directly to their state convention, the North American Mission Board (www.namb.net) or the International Mission Board (www.imb.org). The North American Mission Board has set up a Haiti disaster relief fund that will direct money to state conventions and other Southern Baptists who are doing relief work in Haiti. Donations may be made online, www.NAMB.net, by phone, 1-866-407-6262, or by mail, North American Mission Board, P.O. Box 116543, Atlanta, GA 30368-6543. Make checks payable to "Haiti Disaster Relief Fund/NAMB." Initial funding for the relief effort will come from the International Mission Board's disaster relief fund. Contributions can be made online, www.imb.org, or by mail, International Mission Board, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230. Regardless of the SBC channel, all funds received for this purpose will go to relief efforts; none will be used for administrative costs.
Richard H. Harris is a member of First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Georgia, and is interim president of the North American Mission Board, where he also serves as vice president of the Sending Missionaries group.