Change at the Cutting Edge

The only constant, they say, is change.

I sometimes tell pastors, “There are only three Baptists in the entire world who enjoy change — and none of them are members of your church!”

And yet, change we must. Everything around us is morphing at a pace we can hardly track.

Churches would do well to note what is happening on the international missionary front.

An article from the president of one of our denomination’s mission boards just arrived. International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin is informing Southern Baptists, his constituents, of impending changes in the way the missionaries who serve with and under him will be doing missions.

I was a member of the board of trustees of the IMB (when it was called the Foreign Mission Board) thirty years ago. The board itself was birthed in 1845 when Baptists in this country divided for a multitude of reasons. Over the decades, the leaders had changed their methodology numerous times. During my four year tenure from 1976 to 1980, I saw them go through another radical change.

During the quarter-century the board was led by former China missionary Baker James Cauthen — that would be 1954-1979 — the emphasis was on career missionaries going oversees to devote their lives to one mission field. But the times were a-changing in the 1970s. People in our churches wanted to be involved in hands-on missions and not just pay others to travel across the world and do it for them.

When Keith Parks succeeded Dr. Cauthen, one of his first acts was to notify the mission fields that volunteers would now be welcome for short-term projects. This meant a great deal of time and effort (and expense, too, no doubt) would thereafter be devoted to planning for the arrival and ministry of the volunteers, for welcoming them and overseeing their work. It was — you’ll pardon the expression — a paradigm shift. (I promised myself never to use that overworked word!)

Dr. Jerry Rankin, the veteran President of the IMB (he succeeded Keith Parks), writes that the mission agency made a radical change in 1997 in order to deal with the realities of the world as it was then. That included the situation with Russia (after the breakup of the Soviet Union) and the former satellite nations as well as the new technological advances.

From 1997 to the present, the harvest has been remarkable. Annual baptisms on the mission fields increased from 350,000 to more than 550,000. New churches increased from 4,200 to nearly 27,000. “Hundreds of unreached people groups were engaged with the Gospel, and partnership with other Great Commission Christians resulted in explosive impact on a lost world.”

But now, Dr. Rankin says, we must change again. “The world in which we live and do missions today is not the world of 1997.”

For an old geezer like me—uh oh…I seem to remember that Dr. Rankin and I are about the same age…so maybe that dodge won’t work anymore — 1997 was last week. The changes we made then should just now be kicking in, right?

Apparently not. Change is arriving at warp speed today.

Most of the IMB changes, we read, involve the inner structure of the organization and will be evident only to the missionaries and staff. “Among the most significant changes is the elimination of constraints that once confided missionaries’ work to 11 geographic regions, freeing them to pursue the lost regardless of their location.”


“Instead of regions, missionary teams will be divided among more than 60 ‘clusters,'” which we’re told are “multiple missionary teams” which are assembled based on either geography or a common focus.

How would you like to work at the IMB? Glorious, right? Serving with God’s chosen, His finest, doing the best work on the planet?

Not so fast. It’s hard work.

Imagine having to coordinate the visa, housing, transportation, medical, and financial needs of more than 5,500 SBC missionaries across the world. They live and work in 24 time zones in more than 100 countries, and together with their family members, total some 9,000 individuals.

Until now, this work was done out of the IMB’s 11 regional offices. Soon, four overseas “support centers” will assume responsibility. These four centers will be positioned somewhere in Europe, in South America, in Africa, and in SE Asia, based on such factors as transportation, communication, banking, security, and the cost of living. The IMB in Richmond will, as it has always done, oversee the work.

The idea, Dr. Rankin says, is to free up missionaries to do more ministry and less administration, to be better stewards of the Lord’s resources, and to take care of the missionaries better.

Now, fast forward a dozen years. Dr. Rankin’s successor will be putting out a communiqu

4 thoughts on “Change at the Cutting Edge

  1. Change … interesting that you should bring up this topic. Sunday, change smacked a number of us in the face when our much beloved Music Minister and his lovely wife announced they were leaving our fellowship after 22 years of service to return to their home region to be closer to elderly Mothers and other family members.

    God will provide and we will all be better for it but the “in the midst” part isn’t easy.

  2. the methods and meansof carrying the Gospel change, but not the message of Salvation by blood and power. May we ever proclaim Salvation is by grace through the God-given gifts of faith and


  3. Great article and comments! Constant change is here to stay. its hard for all. the only person who likes change is a wet baby and they cry about it.

    We all must be challenged about our methods. How do we reach more people. IMB is leading the way by constantly looking at How can we do this better.

    Good insight. thank you for your ministry .

  4. Thanks for the article. I’m going to share this with my people. I want them to see that change is not only a part of our personal life but life in the kingdom.

    I also thank Joseph Tillery for his “insight” on wet babies…I’m going to steal, I mean borrow, that line; I hope it

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