All over the world, new Christians and new churches are multiplying in number — and changing the face of Southern Baptist missions in the process.
Consider two facts gleaned from Southern Baptist missionary reports on the year just past:
• Three church-planting movements played a major role in fueling a 37.4 percent increase in the total number of new churches over 1999.
• In East Asia, baptisms among just one people group exploded with 114,000 in one year. Just eight years ago, only eighty-five Christians and three churches existed in the province.
The emergence of church-planting movements — the spontaneous, rapid multiplication of new disciples and congregations — had a dramatic impact on International Mission Board statistics in 2000. Observers expect even more dramatic reports in the future.
Church-planting movements (CPMs) are taking root even in restricted-access countries and producing a plentiful harvest. More than just adding churches one at a time, CPMs are characterized by exponential growth — churches planting new churches, converts making new converts.
"After the new believers/leaders are baptized, they are so on fire that we simply cannot hold them back," says a missionary who has witnessed a similar movement among refugees in the Netherlands. "They fan out all over the country, starting Bible studies, and a few weeks later we begin to get word back how many have started.
"It's the craziest thing we've ever seen! We did not start it, and we couldn't stop it if we wanted to."
These church-planting movements are beginning to gain steam to the extent that last year just a handful of CPMs made substantial contributions to the International Mission Board's overall statistics for the year.
In fact, the strategy for developing church-planting movements is becoming the International Mission Board's strategy for church-planting efforts around the world — whether in a slow-growth country or a harvest field.
"The International Mission Board has always been focused on indigenous church planting but has not always practiced methods that would result in rapidly multiplying congregations," says IMB President Jerry Rankin. "The impact we are now seeing through church-planting movements gives us greater hope to seeing our vision fulfilled of giving all the peoples of the world access to the gospel of Jesus Christ."
In East Asia, CPMs are making a significant impact.
"(Recently) we started to spread the Good News in many different factories," says a Christian worker in the region. "At the same time, we train leaders and trainers.
"We find that the development has been surprisingly fast. It is very hard to count the exact numbers of churches. (One area) has about fifteen churches. Over the past two weeks, they have established twenty-eight new family Bible study groups and twenty-one new workers' Bible study groups. The total number of new believers is about 3,000."
The IMB does not report Bible study groups as churches but as outreach groups.
While CPMs like these are cause for praising God, the road isn't always easy. Sometimes growth is slowed or even stopped in its tracks.
Workers say certain obstacles can inhibit the faith and spiritual maturity that would produce greater results. Among those obstacles: dependence on foreign money and foreign help, extra-biblical requirements for leadership and the church, and poor Christian role models.
But the task is far from over.
"It is becoming evident that reaching our world for Christ is doable," says Rankin. "Once we move beyond methodologies that create dependency and unleash the power of the gospel to multiply through church-planting movements, everyone will have the opportunity to hear and respond.
"The main obstacles are not cross-cultural and geographic barriers of isolated people groups or restrictive governments but the lack of commitment to the task on the part of God's people.
"When we get a passion for reaching a lost world, prayer will break down the barriers, and people will be willing to make it happen."
IMB Fast Facts
Field Personnel under appointment: 4,980
Field Personnel appointed in 2000: 879
2-year ISC/Journeymen/Masters: 604
Volunteers in 2000: 30,805
Overseas baptisms in 2000: 451,301
Overseas churches in 2000: 60,988
Overseas church membership in 2000: 5.6 million
New churches started in 2000: 6,525
People groups engaged: 1,015
People groups of The Last Frontier: 2,161
Population of The Last Frontier peoples: 1.7 billion
World population in 2000: 6 billion