The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship‘s (CBF) General Assembly got off to a rousing start Wednesday night and continued that on Thursday and Friday with lots of emphasis on missions — and an awareness that we don’t support missions the way we used to.
The CBF was formed, in part, because many moderates believed so strongly in missions that they couldn’t imagine not supporting the enterprise, but no longer wanted to do it through the Southern Baptist Convention‘s shift to an evangelism-only strategy that sacrificed hospitals, schools, and social programs — while also tightening restrictions on who could be missionaries and what they had to believe. We didn’t want to be a denomination so much as a missions-sending agency.
The early years saw a flurry of activity and excitement, with money flowing to the movement’s growing missions program, some missionaries leaving the SBC to do missions through CBF, and multiple fully-funded missionaries being appointed every year. Keith Parks, former head of the International Mission Board, came over to lead CBF’s new Global Missions effort and preached stem-winding sermons that had us walking the aisles to volunteer for missions and opening our wallets to give sacrificially.
Over the years, however, though we still claim to be a mission-minded people and Global Missions makes up more than 50 percent of the CBF budget, financial support for the program has faltered. We rarely appoint fully-funded personnel any more, but expect new missionaries to raise a considerable portion of their own funding from family and church friends or other partnering organizations.
I’ve been wondering why. I’m no missiologist, this makes no claim to be a well-researched essay, and I’m sure there’s nothing original here, but I’m wondering how much the following factors have come into play:
1. The more progressive we are, the more we’re aware that the mission enterprise is so identified with colonialism in many parts of the world that it’s no longer well received. We’re aware that well-intentioned missionaries through the years have sometimes done more harm than good, whether by bringing new diseases along with the gospel, or introducing new customs that destabilized cultures and set neighbor against neighbor. We’re more aware, I think, that mission work should be both holistic and done very carefully. I suspect this is one of the reasons CBF no longer uses the term “missionaries,” but appoints “Field Personnel.”
2. Many places in the world are now more Christianized than America. The center of global Christianity is now south of the equator — and it’s often more conservative and more charismatic than the faith most of us practice. Nagaland, in northeast India, may be the most Baptist place on earth (and they have the fights to prove it). In many places, polarized conflict between Christians and other religious groups spills into murderous violence and reprisals on a large scale. We may feel hesitant to pour more fuel on the fire.
3. The paradigm that compelled us to sacrificial giving in former times was based largely on a call to “win the lost at all costs,” with images of millions of souls who were destined for perdition if we didn’t persuade them to follow Christ. The more progressive we are, the less likely we are to believe (a) in hell as an eternal torture chamber, and (b) that God would damn people to eternal punishment for failing to accept a gospel they’d never heard. While that may be a more theologically appropriate position, it does take something away from the missionary imperative.
4. Although the 2012 Task Force report calls for mission engagement “with the least evangelized and most neglected persons of the world,” the most apparent focus is on social ministries that make life better for people, seeking to touch those who are the most impoverished or oppressed. That mission is laudable on every level and I believe it’s the right way to go — but the truth is, it doesn’t spark the same excitement as the call to save lost souls.
5. Another significant factor, as noted by new CBF missions coordinator Steven Porter in his remarks on Wednesday night, and by executive coordinator Suzii Paynter on Thursday morning, is that the world is shifting and churches have changed. Increased ease of travel and the growth of short term mission trips for both youth and adults has led to more personal engagement. This has led to a wider awareness of human needs and broader participation in missions, which is terrific — but it also shifts financial support from traditional career missionaries to travel expenses for short-term trips. Let’s face it: a church can raise $30,000 to send a mission team to Zimbabwe or Ukraine or India more easily than raising the same amount to support someone who could stay long enough to learn the language. It’s also easier to raise partnership support for a specific missionary we know than it is to collect a large offering for Global Missions in general.
6. The church in general is suffering decline, whether mainline or evangelical. With societal trends leading to a more secular and less religious population, churches are struggling to support their staff and maintain their buildings. When compounded by the national economic downturn, churches become more concerned with keeping the lights on than with spreading the Light of the World. When budget cuts become inevitable, missions giving is not immune. When we see the dollars going down, we become depressed and defensive, more focused on our own needs and less concerned about others.
The end result is that CBF mission personnel have to work on a shoestring budget and spend significant portions of time raising support rather than doing the work. Networking with other groups is not only desirable, but essential, though it may diminish our sense of ownership in the mission — and if we don’t feel ownership, we’re less likely to pay for it. We can make the best of that and spin it as the way God is working in the world today, but we can’t ignore the reality that CBF folk have not supported mission efforts the way we could and the way we should.
I wish answers were as easy as observations, but they’re not. I’m glad we have folks who know a lot more about these things than I do working on it. One way or the other I have to hope that if we truly believe in the Great Commandment as well as the Great Commission, we’ll find a way to become as enlivened by feeding the hungry as by saving their souls. If we can see the Global Missions line in CBF’s budget start trending upward again, the future of CBF itself will start looking a lot brighter, too.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.