When it comes to the lost, retiring IMB missionaries see faces, not statistics


The International Mission Board’s newest missionary emeriti have heard the statistics of lostness. According to recent global research data, 4.6 billion people, or 59%, in the world remain unreached with the gospel.

For the missionaries retiring from full-time IMB service, those statistics remain sobering, but lostness isn’t about the newest data. It’s about the faces that come to mind when they look back on the years they faithfully lived and witnessed among the unreached. Reaching the lost is about the transformation they know is possible when people hear and respond to the best news in the world.

It’s about Mehluli, who planned to rob a missionary the first time he saw him. But Mehluli listened to stories of Jesus instead, and in time, chose to follow Him.

The staggering statistics look like Ety, who as a young girl hid in a back room of her home and listened to a missionary tell the story of Jesus to her father. Her father rejected the gospel. Ety accepted it. She is now ministering beside her husband who is a pastor among some of the world’s least-reached people groups.

Things like this happen when the Lord is moving.

The 45 missionaries who gathered for IMB’s annual Celebration of Emeriti have many stories to share. Their experiences range from the humorous to the absurd to the powerful. Though they represent more than 40 countries, they had this in common: they have seen God move among the lost. They know how transforming it can be for someone to receive a Bible, hear a prayer in Jesus’ name or attend their first worship service. They’ve seen the tears of new believers. They’ve had their hearts broken by those who hear and choose not to believe.

This year’s emeriti gathered last week near Richmond, Va., during the same week that IMB observed its 178th anniversary. The time seemed appropriate to reflect on their years spent on the mission field, consider the logistics of entering retirement and plan for their next chapter of service to the Lord. One thing they don’t plan to do is stop their commitment to missions.

Among the participants were George and Geraldine Smith, who served 21 years in Uganda. Many Southern Baptists prayed for George who had a life-threatening battle with COVID-19. Believers rejoiced when God chose to heal George and restore him to mission service. George, who turned 71 during the event, works part-time for IMB’s mobilization department and has two upcoming trips this year back to Uganda.

Andy and Cindy Kennedy also attended. The Kennedys served 25 years in Brazil, Germany and back to Brazil. Andy was IMB’s last missionary pilot. In retirement, he plans to continue bi-vocational missions work. He will teach Bible training courses with Brazilians online and is considering new opportunities in the pilot’s cockpit.

The event concluded with a service of celebration that was live-streamed. IMB staff, local churches and friends and family of the emeriti attended. Missionaries shared briefly from the stage, thanking Southern Baptists for their support and encouraging them to pray that more will answer God’s call to reach the nations.

Doug shared a praise report he received that morning. Among one ethnic minority people group, believers were fearful of sharing Christ with Muslims. The morning’s message came from missionaries serving their first term. The new worker saw believers boldly sharing their faith with Muslims in a city park. God is moving.

Kyle grew up on the mission field and wore his father’s shirt to the celebration, honoring his parents’ legacy. Quoting his father’s faithful charge to churches he encouraged those listening, “Tell the story. Tell the story. Tell the story.”

As they complete their time of career service with the IMB, they ask others to consider the call. They know what it means for one more missionary to be sent. They know it means a church now stands on a mountain, where the people had previously not known the name of Jesus. It means that an Iranian who had no access to the gospel leads a church today.

Charlie Seelen from Japan shared from the stage, “Pray that the Land of the Rising Sun will become the Land of the Risen Son.” He knows what can happen when the gospel is faithfully shared.

These missionaries don’t just see startling statistics. They see the faces. They see the possibilities. They see the power of the Risen Son.