There is often a feeling among trustees of the International Mission Board that they have been given the "plum" assignment in the Southern Baptist Convention. To many trustees, the IMB appointment is more valuable than personal ministry, as evidenced by the request of one Oklahoma IMB trustee in 2005 that I recommend him to pastor search committees in Oklahoma only, lest he lose his coveted position on the IMB. With at least six all expense paid trips a year, and with one international trip per trustee last year (2008), the eight years trustees serve at the IMB amount to nearly 50 weeks of all expense travel. By the time IMB adds rental cars, airfare, hotel costs, food reimbursement and other costs associated with convening eighty-nine trustees from around the nation for bi-monthly trustee meetings, the costs are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
The waste associated with such an archaic system of oversight caused me and a handful of other trustees to advocate the reduction of trustees meetings to two a year; the first would be in January and held in Richmond and the second would be in June in conjuction with the Southern Baptist Convention. I further argued that the "commissioning" service for each missionary should be held at missionary's "home" church, and that the "selection" of qualified Southern Baptist applicants should be up to the professional missiologists at the IMB who are paid to interview, train, and support missionaries across the Convention. It would cost a great deal less to fly a Candidate Consultant to the missionaries home church for an appointment service than to fly every missionary and his or her respective family to locations around the United States for joint commissioning services that are held in conjuction with "trustee" meetings.
As one might imagine, such proposals did not get far when I served as a trustee. I could compare the reaction of trustee leaders to such proposals to Gracie's reaction, our great dane, when we gave her a bone from the steak restaurant where we ate on my birthday, only to try to get it back from her when we feared she would soil our living room carpet as she gnawed on the bone. As one could imagine, once the bone has been given and tasted, the attempt to get it back becomes very trying and territorial. Trustees opposed to such a radical reduction in trustee meetings and numbers argued against it by spiritualizing, as is the Southern Baptist habit, by saying: "We have such a HUGE ministry at the IMB that we have to constantly meet to provide proper oversight." I propose in this post that "numbers" game at the IMB, like it is at most Southern Baptist institutions, is a very hollow system that lacks integrity.
In order to justify such large expenditures for both IMB mission work and large trustee oversight (well over $300 million dollars a year), there has been some increasing pressure on Southern Baptist missionaries to post extraordinary numbers. Flowing straight from Richmond, and then filtering down through IMB supervisors, SBC missionary personnel on the field are pressured to report ever increasing numbers of "new" church starts, and "baptisms" on the SBC Annual Statistical Report. I don't fault our missionary personnel. They are doing excellent work. I fault the system that we Southern Baptists have created that puts more emphasis on "numbering" than faithfulness, and more emphasis on "statistics" than actual "people." For example, in the Fast Facts posted on the International Mission Board web site, one reads that 5,551 missionaries were responsible, either directly or indirectly, for 25,497new church starts in 2007, and 609,968 baptisms. These statistics are gathered by the supervisors of our missionary field staff, turned into Richmond, Virginia headquarters, and are first revealed to IMB trustees at the trustee meeting prior to the Southern Baptist Convention - to a chorus of "amens" and "hallelujahs" and much self-congragulatory backslapping.
The Problem With the Numbers
Think about those numbers. Any of us who have actually planted a church, like we did Emanuela Baptista here in Enid, understand the extraordinary amount of time, money and energy needed to plant a single church. Every single missionary unit for the IMB would have had to have planted an average of FIVE new churches in 2007 to reach the 25,497 new church starts. Further, Gordon Fort, IMB Vice-President of Overseas Operations for the IMB, has reported on his blog that Southern Baptists have planted over 130,000 churches overseas in the last 10 years. I want everyone to pause and consider this statement. We have been in existence in the United States as a Convention for 163 years and we have approximately 45,000 churches in the United States. 130,000 churches is a mind-boggling number, and frankly, I would like to see the print out that verifies the number. In other words, in our day of computer technology, it ought to be easy for a trustee ask questions like "Where do these churches exist?", "How many people attend?", "Who pastors them?", "How many are still in existence?" etc . . .
The problem is, those answers are not available. You see, all that IMB field missionary personnel have to do is simply say they started a church, and it is recorded as a "new" church start. Or, sometimes, as reported to me by several field missionaries, they report on some excellent Bible study groups they have started, and "presto" - several new churches are born and wind up being reported by their supervisors on the Annual Statistical Report. Or, as has happened in various regions, statistics are given about "new" church starts that have nothing to do with SBC personnel; they have been started by indigenous people groups that have absolutely no connection with SBC personnel in the area. I have had missionary personnel from different regions in the world write me with concerns about the reporting process and ask "When is somebody going to challenge the numbers?"
Again, I am not faulting our missionary personnel. They are doing an excellent job in their respective ministries. In the past year I have been to China, Singapore, India, and communicated with people in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and South America. Our missionaries are called, committed Southern Baptists who deserve our support. The fault lies with the system we have constructed that puts such an ungodly emphasis on numbers. We Southern Baptists do such great job of puffing ourselves up, that I sometimes wonder when somebody is going to stand up and shout, "Hey, the king is naked!"
Take the baptism number for 2007 as an example - 609,968. For our missionaries to be involved in that number of baptisms - either directly or indirectly - would require each and every missionary to know the names of 120 people baptized in 2007 under their care. Our church, which averages 1500 in attendance, baptized a little less than 100 people in 2007. I was not directly involved in the conversion of all those baptized in 2007, but I can sure provide for you a list of names, tell you where they are in terms of their walk with Christ, and how they are involved in Christian ministry. I have asked some of our SBC missionary personnel to give me the names of those baptized under their care as reported on the Annual Statistical Report - only to be given a blank stare by many. It seems there is no record of either the names of those baptized or churches they attend. The baptism number is simply that - a number.
The SBC and Inflated Numbers
The baptism number reminds me of the number 16 million. This is the exaggerated number most often given by SBC denominational leaders regarding the number of Southern Baptists in the United States. When I came to Emmanuel nearly seventeen years ago we had 3,800 people on roll and about 700 in attendance. I told the church my goal was to lower the membership and raise the attendance. Seventeen years later we have reduced membership to 2400 and doubled average attendance. We didn't half-hazardly purge the rolls. We made personal visits, wrote personal letters, and sought to identify every single person affiliated with our church. Every number tells a story, and we are not pastors worth our salt if we can't tell you the story of the person represented by the number. Our church is a stronger church because the shepherds know the sheep by name and are uninterested in boasting about membership. Unfortunately, the temptation for us as a Convention is to continue to exaggerate our numbers so we can have "political" influence in Washington. When Richard Land walks into a Senator's office, it helps to be able to say, "I represent the largest protestant denomination in the country." When we are more focused on curryig man's favor than we are simply resting in God's favor, we might find ourselves uniquely powerless in terms of Kingdom advancement.
It's not easy to have integrity in numbers. But for our Convention to redefine herself, we would be wise to begin within. I realize a large problem with integrity in numbers resides within the local church, but as long as our denominational agencies continue to put such an inordinate emphasis on "statistics," there is little incentive for the local Southern Baptist pastor to report his membership as declining in 2009.
It's time that people like Jerry Rankin and Morris Chapman display the character of leadership I know them both to have and correct a growing problem within our Southern Baptist Convention. Nobody likes the numbers going down during their watch, but it is far worse to have one's legacy tempered by future historians who can do math.
In His Grace,