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A longstanding (un)believability issue with results reported by the Southern Baptist Convention‘s International Mission Board has resurfaced. At least two recent blogs have questioned the reliability of baptisms and church starts reported through the auspices of IMB missions efforts.

Former IMB trustee Wade Burleson began the new year by suggesting that the IMB make a resolution to put some integrity into its numbers. On its website, the IMB cites statistical reports claiming that in 2007, IMB mission efforts resulted in 609,968 baptisms and 25,497 new church starts.

Burleson points out that such numbers would require that each of the IMB’s 5,500 or so missionaries would have to be responsible for five new church starts and about 120 baptisms, and George Frink picked up on that discussion, pointing to an Ethics Daily post from 2005 that cited several international Baptists who dispute the way the IMB takes credit for baptisms and church starts that are unrelated to its work.

Since a large number of the IMB’s 5,500 claimed missionaries are partly self-supporting, and a significant number are in orientation, language school, or on furlough at any given time, the numbers seem even more extravagant. The IMB provides little information about how its statistics are compiled, but it seems evident that the process must include results from national Baptist bodies in countries where the IMB works, even if its own personnel had nothing to do with their work.

I learned years ago that the IMB’s reticence to be specfic about its claims is often veiled in claims of security needs. The IMB has quite a few missionaries in countries where they are not welcome, and declines to talk specifics lest the presence of those missionaries be revealed.

It’s not a secret, for example, that the IMB has many related personnel in China. In years past, I have heard reports of such exponential growth in the underground church there that if they were true, Christianity would be the dominant religion by now.

Burleson expresses both kindness and support for the IMB leadership and its missionaries, but decries a convention mindset that puts an inordinate amount of emphasis on numbers, one reflected in the SBC’s own determination to continue claiming 16 million members, which no one regards as realistic.

It’s a sad fact of life that numbers reported by many Baptist organizations (and not just Southern Baptist) must be taken with a large grain of salt.

In reviewing the blogs, the most striking thing to me was a bit of insider information that Burleson pointed out: the IMB builds and maintains its support by cultivating intense loyalty in its trustees, and does that in part through travel perks. The IMB has 89 trustees, each of whom gets all-expense paid trips to six meetings each year, and according to Burleson, each trustee was allowed one expense-paid overseas trip to visit missionaries in 2008. Since most trustees serve for eight years, that amounts to about 50 all-expense paid trips. Altogether, that could add up to an annual expense of well over half a million dollars. Before Burleson was booted from business sessions at the board, he recommended reducing the number of meetings, but his common sense got a cold shoulder.

Whether it’s the IMB or any other mission sending organization, integrity is important. I believe the missionary enterprise is important and worth supporting. In doing so, however, those who send their hard-earned dollars to support missionaries should have confidence that their money is wisely spent, and that the reports they hear are truthful.

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