You're lying on a thin, foam mattress in the suffocating stillness of a hut. You know it's going to be a long, hot night.
Someone has just shut the only door to your hut, and you're hoping for any bit of breeze to come through the one small window. You lie awake, listening to the faint sound of a battery-operated radio spouting off in some foreign language, and suddenly the sound of a donkey braying right outside startles you. Not too far away, you can hear the sound of several dogs in a territorial match. There's no relief to be found, no rest. You know if you can just make it 'til the cool air comes in the early morning, you might be able to sleep an hour or two.
But what makes your discomfort totally worth it is knowing that just a few hours earlier, you were sitting around a campfire, telling stories from the Word of God. And you saw the locals begin to understand. You saw them mulling over the questions in their minds, and you knew the Spirit was truly at work.
That experience, related by a Southern Baptist missionary in West Africa, was repeated thousands of times over the past year. Not just in sweltering huts, but in swarming cities, where missionaries cope with crime, traffic gridlock, and choking pollution to share the Gospel. Or in places where hostility toward spiritual truth poses a bigger challenge than any physical discomfort.
Was it worth it for the more than five thousand missionaries sent around the world by Southern Baptists through the International Mission Board? Was it worth the $95.9 million in Cooperative Program gifts Southern Baptists sent to support missionaries during the past year, amid troubled economic times? Was it worth the $149.8 million they gave through the 2009 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions?
Totally worth it, as that missionary in West Africa would say.
But don't take his word for it. Here's a snapshot of what Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon support helped produce in spiritual terms in 2009:
• IMB missionaries and their overseas partners baptized 360,876 new believers.
• Missionaries and their partners started 29,237 churches.
• They worked with 163,756 churches, with a total membership of more than 3 million.
• They pursued church-planting strategies among 920 people groups worldwide, 748 of which were unreached (less than 2 percent of the population professing to be evangelical followers of Christ). Missionaries and their co-workers engaged ninety-six of those people groups for the first time.
The International Mission Board counted nearly 5,200 missionaries under appointment in late 2010. More than half serve in restricted-access locations — in other words, tough places — where most unreached peoples are found. More than four thousand missionaries serve in long-term assignments. The percentage of short-term workers (two- to three-year assignments), already down somewhat from previous years, will continue to decrease as the mission board focuses limited resources on supporting long-term workers in strategic places.
"Are we there yet?" is this year's international missions theme. "There" is the ultimate vision of every people group in the world being reached with the Gospel. Because of your gifts to international missions this year, many people groups who had never heard the name of Jesus twenty-five years ago passed one or more of these milestones to knowing God: the first missionary to accept the challenge of reaching them with the Gospel, their first oral or written Scripture, their first believer in Christ, their first church.
Long Way to Go
So, are we there yet? No. Not by a long shot. Here's a global glimpse at the mission task ahead:
• 6,648 unreached people groups (less than 2 percent of the people profess to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ).
• 1.7 billion people globally with little or no access to the Gospel.
• 1.5 billion Muslims — 22 percent of the world's population.
• 950 million Hindus in the world.
The task is doable, but it will take all of us — our churches, our missionaries, our overseas partners, our Great Commission partners.
"Have we walked every road, climbed every hill, have we told every soul?" asked Jerry Rankin, recently retired IMB president, in his last report to the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Orlando, Florida, in June.
Not yet, but the remaining people groups have been identified and now need someone to go and tell them about Jesus. There has never been a better time to spread the Gospel, Rankin said. "God has blessed and prospered us with numbers and resources and the potential for reaching the whole world," he told Southern Baptists at the convention meeting.
Every Southern Baptist church needs to accept responsibility for its own piece of the world if the Gospel is going to spread. Congregations such as First Baptist Church of Orlando, Florida, have taken up the challenge.
In 2008, First Orlando led Florida Baptists in congregational missions giving by donating more than $2.5 million to mission causes — including $1 million to the Cooperative Program.
"That number [$2.5 million] has grown a lot in the past five years as more and more of our people are getting engaged in missions," says Danny deArmas, First Orlando's pastor of ministry support and staff administration. "Our giving to the Cooperative Program says that we really believe in the cooperative concept of giving a big portion of our undesignated offerings to mission causes. The Southern Baptist Convention is the only denomination that thrives on this kind of cooperative programming.
"We are dedicated to our missionaries and are determined to allow them to stay where they are without having to come home and raise support. This is very important to us at First Orlando."
Success in the mission task requires money. More than 85 percent of the IMB annual budget supports overseas work, with most of that being spent on missionary support, including housing, salaries, medical care, and children's education. The cost averages $43,800 annually per missionary.
While supporting missionaries overseas becomes more expensive each year, the troubled U.S. economy has affected church offerings. Last year, IMB trustees were forced to curb appointments of new missionaries and suspend two short-term missionary programs entirely, initiating a gradual reduction in the IMB's global missionary force. The reduction eventually will lower missionary numbers from the high of approximately 5,600 (reached in 2009) to 5,000 through natural attrition — completions of service, retirements, and resignations.
"We are grieved that budget limitations will force us to continue to restrict new missionaries being appointed," Rankin said earlier this year. "This is not just a disappointment to individuals and families called of God to serve overseas, but it means many unreached people groups will be deprived of hearing the Gospel yet another year. We are rethinking our strategy and adjusting our organizational structure for greater efficiency in order to stretch our budget as far as possible."
One effective — and biblical — way to multiply the impact of each mission dollar is to multiply the number of Southern Baptist churches mobilized to partner with missionaries.
"We have to recognize the vast potential of partnership with Southern Baptists, Great Commission Christians, and the network of national Baptist partners around the world," Rankin stressed. Personal involvement and hands—on mission partnerships are the "desire of a new generation. I am convinced a future generation will give and give generously, but they want to be involved, and they want ownership of what they do. They want to make a difference in the world.
"Even with an improved economy, we will never have enough missionaries to reach the whole world; but 45,000 churches and 16 million Southern Baptists can do it."
God has used Southern Baptist churches as they've joined in the task. Thousands of dedicated churches have provided a continuous foundation in a supporting role, giving faithfully through the Cooperative Program and to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Many churches have looked further, exploring how they might take on a more direct role reaching people groups. Through partnering relationships, some churches have taken bold steps forward, personally engaging the unreached.
The effectiveness of those partnerships, however, depends on missionaries with whom churches can partner. And that means continuing to send new missionaries — such as Jim and Katie Harmon,* a young couple planning to head to Africa next year to work among one of the hardest-to-reach Muslim people groups in the world.
The Harmons joined fifty other people appointed in November by the International Mission Board. Where the Harmons are going, people are lost. Katie knows from experience; before she and Jim got married, she worked for two years as a short-term missionary among the same African people group they will be serving together.
"The Lord definitely gave me a broken heart for them," says Katie. "My prayer from then on was, 'Lord, we'll go wherever You want us to go, but if You want to send us back to them, that's fine by me.'"
They'll study language and culture initially, then build a team who will make disciples. Their ultimate vision: a growing church-planting movement among this lost people group.
It won't happen overnight, but it will happen — with God's Spirit, and the support of Southern Baptists.
IMB Fast Facts
Field personnel under appointment (11/11/10) - 5,110
Career/associates/apprentices - 4,273
Two-year ISC/Journeymen/Masters - 837
Field personnel appointed 2009 - 753
Career/associates/apprentices - 326
Two-year ISC/Journeymen/Masters - 427
Student volunteers 2009 - 4,016
Overseas baptisms 2009* - 360,876
Overseas churches 2009* - 163,756
Overseas church membership 2009* - more than 3 million
New churches 2009* - 29,237
People groups engaged (as of 8/6/10)** - 950
People groups of the Last Frontier** - 6,064
Population of the Last Frontier peoples** - 1.6 billion
International Mission Board budget for 2010 - $317.6 million
*Data from 2010 Annual Statistical Report (End-of-year 2009 figures)
**Data from Global Status of Evangelical Christianity (August 2010)
Erich Bridges is a member of Grace Community Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, and is a global correspondent for the International Mission Board.