FIRST-PERSON: Our man in Alpharetta
Our North American board is perceived in a very different way by most Southern Baptists than our international board. IMB has the romance of unimagined lands inhabited by people who've never heard the name of Christ. Many don't know what to picture when they think of NAMB -- maybe disaster relief. State convention workers know a bit more. NAMB's partnership with state conventions is a big part of their work, even state conventions that do not receive a large percentage of their funding from NAMB. For a large state convention, even 5 or 10 percent is a million bucks or more. Those who serve the denominational structures built by our churches know NAMB and have watched closely the drama of the past few years. By now you've read a little about Kevin Ezell and have hopefully gleaned a bit more about what NAMB does. Here are a few important things I believe NAMB's new president should bring to his office.
-- A focus on lostness. Maybe nothing original here. We talk about it a lot these days. But realizing the shocking degree of unbelief in some cities, states and regions outside the South should move our missionary focus in a more drastic way. There is no question of abandoning work in a state like Texas, where at least 50 percent of our residents are lost. But we must recognize that this percentage of lostness is higher, 95 percent or more, in some other states, and without the accompanying presence of millions of evangelicals as we have in our own state. It was this very reality that provided some of the impetus for the forming of a new state convention in Texas back in 1998. Our awareness of this great need is one reason that the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention keeps a lower percentage of CP gifts for in-state ministries than any other state convention. America is generally more lost than even Texas.
-- Earnest advocacy for North American missions. Others are called to bang the drum for missions outside the U.S. I also know that the distinction between there and here is not so easy to see as it once was. But a leader who will relentlessly impress upon our people the need to reach the Northeast, Midwest and West for Christ will help Southern Baptists take a more thorough view of the Great Commission. Our IMB president, when he appears, will grab onto his piece of the load and enthusiastically draw people toward other nations in giving, going and praying. Great, that's his job. We're not shocked to find that most people in Armenia aren't Christians. I look forward to a day when our people also know as well and care as deeply that most people in Boston and Fargo are just as mindless of the Gospel.
-- A heart to champion the Cooperative Program. This is partly "dancing with the one that brung you." NAMB depends on the Cooperative Program and has fewer plans and efforts to tap other revenue streams than does IMB. If they merely develop other streams they will not do as well as the IMB. We know that more hearts and imaginations are lit up by ministry in Uganda than by that in Sheboygan, Wis. Until an adequately funded strategic plan to reach less romantic locales in the U.S. is in place, we'll fall further behind in nearly all of the U.S. Currently, the Cooperative Program is the adequate funding mechanism. In fact, the business and financial plan of the Southern Baptist Convention requires all our entities that receive CP money to work within and not around cooperative giving. It is self-interest, collegiality, constituent responsiveness, and forward-thinking to sincerely work to prosper the CP. As president, Ezell will and should work first to ensure that his agency is effective and focused, but not at the expense of the SBC's overall ministry. NAMB will not prosper without either a resurgent Cooperative Program or a new plan that is nearly identical. To my knowledge that new plan does not exist.
-- A plan and a will to encourage and win over leaders in pioneer state conventions. Some of these guys have been a little spooked by recent discussions related to their work. I understand that. Several conventions do not collect enough money in state to pay for any state staff member. Even the strongest of our northern and western conventions would find themselves seriously hobbled by the loss of funding currently provided through NAMB. These state convention leaders are as committed to their locations, people and ministries as anyone anywhere in the world. The rough and tumble debate regarding the Great Commission Resurgence has often left them reasonably doubting the good intentions of their stronger southern brethren. They need to hear a plan and believe in NAMB's future intent to reach pioneer states in partnership with the state or regional conventions. I don't believe it has to be the same plan currently in place but it does need to be a plan based on knowledge recently gleaned from those working in these mission fields. Remember, NAMB's best reason for existing is to provide a thorough strategy for reaching all corners of America with the Gospel -- especially those places without a strong Southern Baptist presence or heritage.
-- An infectious vision that will draw strong state conventions into NAMB's national strategy. Our oldest, largest, most affluent state conventions also have leaders who look at the changes likely coming from NAMB with some anxiety. A few are already responding to this anxiety by preparing to re-sort their budgets so it looks like more money is leaving the state without that actually happening. Convention leaders are important to our missionary work in all locations. They are also men and women who came to their roles with the intent of helping churches address the Great Commission. Ignoring their valid concerns or handing down edicts from Georgia would be suicidal, but it would also be wrong. Many state convention leaders will join in the pursuit of a compelling vision to reach North America. Others may come along as that compelling vision captures the imagination of the churches that make up the state conventions. NAMB's job, particularly Kevin Ezell's job, is to develop and winsomely articulate that vision.
I could easily name a hundred men and women who also have a punch list for NAMB's new president. He has a long string of brain-numbing meetings in his future. I pray God's great wisdom for him as he sorts through all the requests, demands, pleas, agendas and marvelous ideas great and small. May the Lord grant him the vision to establish appropriate priorities from the massive input he'll receive.
The Southern Baptist Convention needs the North American Mission Board. Our state convention needs NAMB also, and not as a cash cow. A North American mission strategy that rides off in 42 (one for each state/regional convention) directions at once can accomplish some incredible things. We've seen it happen now and then. If those 42 directions are coordinated by an agency tasked with looking at the entire nation, we'll do more, and we might just reach America for Christ.
Gary Ledbetter is editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, on the Web at texanonline.net.