Dear Southern Baptist Missionary Leaders,
Let me first say a very heart felt thank you. Our family has deep roots as East African missionaries. Through many years IMB (International Mission Board / Southern Baptist) missionaries have been very dear friends. We’ve retreated together. We educated our children together. We labored together in leadership projects. I’ve lost track of the number of times when I needed good counsel I first called an IMB friend and he nurtured me along. In fact I’ve noticed when someone tells me my counsel is wise I frequently respond, “It’s really not mine. An old Southern Baptist missionary once gave me that nugget of wisdom.” Your sacrifices to support such outstanding missionaries paid great dividends not only among Southern Baptist church planting movements, but influenced many other evangelical missionaries. Thank you so much.
Next, let me say I can’t imagine what you are going through. I still can’t believe the news I’m hearing. Can it really be true that 1,000 IMB foreign missionaries are returning to the United States? What a tremendous loss you must be feeling. One IMB friend told me, "We were once known as an organization that sent missionaries. Now we will be known as the organizations that brings missionaries home.”
Over breakfast my wife, Jana thought I had a little wisdom about such a loss, and suggested I write. I bounced the ideas off of a few Southern Baptist friends, and they concurred. Thus with a sense of fear and trembling I write what may be the counsel of God to people I deeply love. I apologize for the counsel that is misplaced.
Three bits of wisdom quickly come to mind. The first is tough. Please join me in repentance. With what I know I don’t see any way around the bottom line. In fact, I hear a an IMB missionary who returned to his eternal home, Harry Garvin say to me, “The bottom line is the bottom line.” There is not enough funding to keep all the IMB foreign missionaries overseas. The funding has declined due to local American churches and their movements decline. None of us can escape our responsibility. Over the last 20 years there has been a decline in Christian influence in the United States. It’s time for us to repent.
As the Southern Baptists are the largest evangelical denomination in America many are watching. Those watching include both fellow evangelicals and secular seekers. We believers want to see a new model that gives hope. The seekers with a critical eye are watching for arrogance and responsibility dodging. The tragedy of returning so many missionaries needs humble repentance for the good of Christianity in America.
There are many bloggers assigning blame for the decline. I’m done with the blaming. We need to learn from our sins, but grace calls us to become something new. Let’s go forward wiser and with stronger resolve. Were us missionaries praying for our supporters as much as we were prayed for by them? Were we connecting our churches in the USA with our people when they immigrated to the USA? Did we find ways to share wisdom and pastorally hold our support bases accountable as we watched decline? Or did we just try not to rock the boat when we saw clear signs the boat had holes that needed repair?
Second, don’t throw any “Welcome Home” parties for the missionaries who return to the USA. The most troubling language I hear from Southern Baptist people goes something to the effect of “we’ll soon be bringing our missionaries home.” No, you’re asking your missionaries to leave their home due to a funding crisis. Old Southern Baptist missionaries counseled us that to understand the major building blocks of a new culture would take about 2 to 3 years. Then around years 7 to 8 the “new” culture became intuitive. An IMB missionary told me, “There is a wealth of experience that is getting on a plane… and never coming back."
When you walk into a Southern Baptist missionary home you may notice the most worn Bible is of the language they preach in. When the missionary is honest you find they pray most deeply from the heart in that language. The missionaries’ home town newspapers are the ones where they know the editors. In fact, some of the missionaries have mentored the editors in their place of service. The missionary kids in college go “home” on holidays to their parents’ missionary posting. The missionary kids’ best friends are those who blend all these diverse cultures. Their class reunions look like the United Nations. The missionary kids don’t understand American football, but many are skilled soccer, cricket, and rugby players. Those missionary families’ lives may be tremendously disrupted by their return to the United States. There may be a few familiar places and people, but for the adapted missionary America is no longer home. Their return is a loss. Please don’t deny their loss in a welcome home party.
Third, commission and bless the missionaries who are being reassigned to the mission field of North America. Missionary families are remarkably adaptable and resilient. It is one of the Holy Spirit’s gifts to them. You in America now have a tremendous opportunity. We know you have fought a tough battle in which it felt like you were losing for 20 years. Some of your best soldiers will soon be joining you in the battle for North America’s soul. In fact by prioritizing those over 50 years old with 5 or more years’ experience for early retirement the missionaries entering the USA are in their peek career years.
Old Southern Baptist missionaries counseled us years ago that there were bottom lines. There were not resources, time, nor personnel to pursue every missionary dream or possibility. Some matters had to be prioritized. Their general counsel was to prioritize three matters. First prioritize the unreached. Second prioritize the receptive. Third prioritize locations where movement replication is likely. Missionaries of old saw those dynamics in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. Their churches grew in amazing ways. Now those churches people are immigrating to the USA. Simply put the old missionary bottom lines make North America a high foreign missions priority.
Who better to help the North American missionary cause than seasoned overseas missionaries? They can nurture immigrants coming from Christian backgrounds as missionaries to North America. America needs creative new church planting models. America also now hosts immigrants from the most difficult to access countries in the world. Currently, Gospel opportunities exist in urban centers in North America like nowhere else in the world. Maybe even the loss of so many foreign missionaries is an answer to prayers for the Lord to send more harvesters to America?
Now is the time to put on our partnership and creativity hats. As missionaries are commissioned who will pray for them? Who will fund them? Who will shepherd them? Some may find ways to be “supported.” Yet, others will make tents just like they do in difficult fields. Who can open economic doors and be to them like Priscilla and Aquila were to Paul? Those tent making opportunities in fact may be just the openings for relationships that bring Revival to North America.
Now, I’m back to where I started. Southern Baptist missionaries have immensely blessed me. They are dear friends. It is tragic that they’re leaving their homes. Yet, America is a great mission field. America needs Revival. History teaches Revival starts with repentance.
Can you join me in repentance?
Mzee Dave Jenkins