Some have expressed concern over the large decline in baptisms and new church starts reported earlier this year by the International Mission Board. Overseas baptisms dropped from 190,957 in 2014 to 54,762 in 2015 while new church plants fell from 13,824 to 3, 842 over the same period. The IMB countered that the declines were due to changes in reporting procedures and the removal of one large church planting movement that could no longer be verified. As a former IMB missionary and administrator, I would like to provide some historical perspective.
Soon after the Foreign Mission Board’s formation in 1845 the first missionaries reported statistics in many categories, including baptisms, new churches, and total churches. Statistics were sent from each country where missionaries served.
In these early days all the statistics were “ours” in every sense of the word. Missionaries preached, baptized, started, and pastored churches until a national pastor could be educated and trained. Furthermore, missionaries founded seminaries, associations, state conventions, and national Baptist conventions, mirroring the denominational structure back home. As national conventions were started these statistics were also included because the missionaries were directly involved in these entities. Even WMU, Brotherhood, Sunday Schools, Publishing Houses, and Training Unions were formed overseas and statistics collected on them.
When the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 their first order of business was to create two mission boards: the Foreign Mission Board and the Home Mission Board, precursors of the present day International Mission Board (IMB) and North American Mission Board (NAMB). When Southern Baptists had missionaries in only a few countries, data collection was rather simple.
Beginning of overseas administration
The FMB began with the appointment of one missionary to China that first year. Nigeria was added as a new field before the Civil War and Italy shortly thereafter. Brazil (1880), Mexico (1881), Japan (1889), and Argentina (1903) followed. By 1922 the FMB supported missionaries in 18 countries. Each mission sent statistics directly to Richmond, based upon what the missionaries accomplished through the Lord’s help.
In 1936 with more than 500 missionaries on the field and only eight staff members in Richmond, the new FMB executive secretary (president) created the first overseas missionary administrative structure. Statistical, logistical, and personnel increases demanded greater field supervision. The Board responded by designating three regional secretaries for the Orient, Latin America, and Europe, Africa, and the Near East. By 1970, as the missionary force continued to grow, there were seven administrative areas that were later expanded into ten. As Southern Baptist mission work prospered these ten administrative areas reported the statistics. The data was uniform and largely reliable because it came from Baptist conventions or associations founded by missionaries who worked directly with them.
In 1985 FMB President Keith Parks founded Cooperative Services International (CSI) as a new vehicle to penetrate limited-access countries with the Gospel. CSI became the 11th administrative area during the early 1990s and began reporting its own statistics to the board in a separate category marked “other.” My family and I were part of CSI in those early days, stationed alone in a closed North African country.
We faithfully reported our new baptisms, new churches, and preaching points. Our statistics, however, were not part of a Baptist convention, although I impressed upon my new Muslim converts that we were Baptists and our churches were Baptist as well. By the end of the Parks era in 1992, the FMB had work among 29 Unreached People Groups (UPG’s) in countries that did not allow official missionaries. In 1997 the FMB internally absorbed CSI into the larger organization. Simultaneously, the 11 areas were reorganized and expanded to 14 with the “area director” name changed to “regional leader.”
For the first time UPG numbers were mixed with Baptist convention statistics within the 14 administrative regions. In other words, where the pre-1997 structure compiled statistics in the traditional manner – counting Baptist baptisms and churches – the new arrangement blended the categories, merging both convention and UPG statistics. While the missions in the historic Baptist work countries continued to report as they had since 1845, missionaries from the disbanded CSI area added the UPG statistics to the regional totals that had previously been reported in “other” category. As missionaries in both the historic mission and UPG fields depended more and more on national partners for data collection, discerning which UPG’s were being accurately counted and which were being estimated became more and more difficult.
Recording data from dangerous areas
Part of the problem resides in the nature of missions in the limited access world. UPG’s live in extremely secure and persecuted parts of the world where reporting is difficult and dangerous. In my assignment in North Africa in the 1990s, a foreigner had to have a security police permit to leave the country’s Capitol. In addition, there were checkpoints along the road every 100 kilometers. This required relying on national partners for gathering statistical reports.
Two years ago all covert missionaries had to leave my former country of service. Although my nationals are Baptists and I am fairly confident of their statistics, their work is no longer counted because the numbers cannot be independently verified. That scenario is being played out all over the world as the IMB seeks to accurately report its data.
Collecting statistics is challenging even under the most ideal circumstances. Even many SBC churches in the USA do not fill out the statistical form sent to every church by the research division of Lifeway Christian Resources. How much more challenging is it in countries that lack a tradition of statistics collection? I served as one of the 14 regional leaders in eastern South America and approved my region’s statistical report each year. FMB/IMB statistics gathering was very decentralized for security reasons.
Each region (now affinity group) controlled the collection and reporting of statistics. Our regional research consultant received statistical information from our 14 field (now cluster) leaders who had collected the information from our 300 missionaries who had in turn obtained it from our Baptist Convention partners in the countries of Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Some of the national believers understood why the Americans needed these figures. Most did not. When the ten FMB administrative areas were infused with the new statistics from the UPG’s of CSI in 1997, some of these numbers deserved further scrutiny.
A right reset
In 2009 the IMB discontinued reporting data from Baptist conventions founded by SBC missionaries generations ago. There was some justification for the former practice because FMB missionaries birthed these Baptist conventions and in some since they were still “ours,” at least sentimentally. Nonetheless, the decision to not count these conventions is a good one. Continuing to count mature Baptist conventions in countries like Brazil, Nigeria, Romania, and India would be similar to British Baptists claiming Southern Baptists because they founded the precursor of the SBC generations ago.
Similarly, over the last seven years the IMB has been reevaluating the UPG data from the limited access countries to insure those statistics were both accurate and reflected the direct work or influence of current SBC missionaries. Such due diligence has resulted in a reduction and, in some cases, the elimination of the numbers from some large church planting movements that could not be verified. Over the last several years the IMB has transitioned to only reporting those numbers directly associated with IMB personnel who are also able to authenticate them.
It is worth noting that for the first 100 years of its existence (1845-1945) the FMB elected a succession of five prominent pastors to lead the Board. From 1945 until 2014 five former missionaries successively filled the position. A year-and-a-half ago the International Mission Board, chaired by trustee John Eadie of Missouri, returned to its former leadership model and selected another prominent pastor as their president. In addition to the recent IMB strategy, financial and personnel resets, I applaud President David Platt’s recalibration of the IMB’s statistics and his desire to report only those activities missionaries directly influence on the field. Although this has resulted in a drop in IMB statistics, this reset has been right, necessary, and courageous.
*An earlier version of this story mistakenly listed the IMB’s 2014 baptisms at 109,997 instead of 190,957.
Robin Hadaway is professor of missions and dean of students at Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City, MO.