The last Southern Baptist president of the Baptist World Alliance says the Southern Baptist Convention is walking away from the BWA just as the seeds planted by earlier generations of Southern Baptist and other Western missionaries are starting to bear fruit.
“I think that perhaps the most powerful mission organization right now is not in Richmond or even in Brazil but is in these little Baptist bodies all around the world, who are the products of missions, and now they think they are supposed to be the mission-sending body,” said Duke McCall, a retired SBC seminary president who served as BWA president from 1980 to 1985.
Sri Lanka, for example, has four missionaries in Indonesia. “I would lay you odds they will make more difference in Indonesia than two-dozen expensive U.S. citizens that speak Indonesian with a funny accent,” McCall said in a telephone interview Thursday with EthicsDaily.com.
McCall said he has visited Sri Lanka, where a layman told, “Duke, I’m a better evangelist than you.”
“Why do you say that?” McCall asked.
“I can drink the water,” the Sri Lankan said.
“That was a symbol for ‘I belong to the people. They see me as a part of them,'” McCall said.
McCall served 31 years as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, longer than any other president in the school’s history, before retiring in 1982. Before that he was executive secretary of the SBC Executive Committee, the group that is recommending at this summer’s convention that the SBC pull out of the global Baptist network that it helped establish in 1905.
“I think it’s tragic for Southern Baptists to withdraw from really carrying forward the mission enterprise that is now going on around the world that is the product of another era,” said McCall,.
“I see the real outreach of the gospel in the world today as moving on the backs of these second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Christians who live in that part of the world,” he said. “They are talking in their language to their kind of people.”
“They don’t have to live in a compound or eat food shipped from America or drink water that’s in a bottle.”
McCall said he doesn’t disparage the work of American missionaries overseas.
“I take off my hat to the dedicated missionaries…. There’s a huge segment of our mission staff who are there at great sacrifice, because they believe God is doing something.” It isn’t an attack on them, he said, “when you say these other people are doing something, too, and God is [also] using them.”
“If we could get that kind of vision so that we didn’t think somehow the gospel flows through white-skinned English-speakers better than dark-skinned nationals, it would change the effectiveness of our own mission outlet.”
McCall said he has been giving his mission money through the BWA, not as a protest but because it is cheaper and more effective to fund the work of indigenous Baptists than to send missionaries overseas.
He said “provincialism” often keeps Americans from understanding needs in the rest of the world.
“The missionary comes with a theology that comes out of Western materialistic, scientific culture to a people who are not material, for whom spiritual things are much more real so that even rocks have spirits,” he said. “They need to state the gospel in terms of Africa, which happens to very much nearer a first-century culture than American culture.”
Asked whether funding indigenous groups causes a church to lose control over how its mission gifts are spent, McCall replied: “Southern Baptists do not really believe in the Holy Spirit. We really do not believe that God can deal directly with people.”
“If we believe the Holy Spirit can guide Southern Baptists, why can’t he guide Sri Lankan Baptists? He probably can speak Sri Lankan. He probably can work within the context of Sri Lankan culture.”
“If you tell me that indigenous Christians will embezzle money, they will,” he continued. “So will missionaries. Nobody wants to say that out loud, but missionaries have misused fund in lots of places.”
“Missionaries will make stupid mistakes in the way they spend money. So will indigenous people.”
When he was in Sri Lanka, McCall said he asked two new missionary couples their impression of the people. “The Sri Lankans are very uncooperative and they don’t know anything about organization and administration,” McCall said the missionaries told him.
Later he asked some Sri Lankans about the new Southern Baptist missionaries. “Oh they said they are so wonderful, they are so bright, they are so young and they are so educated. They’re going to find something useful to do.”
“That was the difference, at least the Sri Lankans thought the missionaries would work out,” McCall said.
On the other hand, he said, “We Southern Baptists haven’t realized what the rest of the world is like.”
“We keep trying to superimpose our experience, our value system, on the rest of the world. Well it just doesn’t fit.”
“Some of our missionaries are tremendous,” he said. “They really do understand the culture in which they work. They know the people and they care deeply about them.
“I agree they would probably be better administrators. If we had to send $50,000 overseas, they would probably do better with it than the nationals. The fact is we’re going to spend $100,000 on the Southern Baptist missionaries without getting anything out of it. There’s not going to be anything left for them to work with.”
“It would be a lot cheaper to put the $50,000 in the hands of the Sri Lankans than to send $50,000 worth of missionaries from Atlanta to Sri Lanka.”
McCall said globalization of Christian missions is taking place “whether we want it or not.”
“The truth is we ought to be going out and dancing in the street and praising the Lord for what has happened. Rather than an attack on missions, this is to say missions did work. It does work.
“Let’s recognize that when it works, let’s let the Holy Spirit go to work and use the new converts.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.