For 164 years, the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention has focused on taking the gospel overseas.
But in May, the 16 million-member denomination's Great Commission Resurgence Task Force recommended removing restrictions on the IMB's missions work in the United States and Canada—long the territory of the convention's North American Mission Board (NAMB).
Southern Baptists will consider the proposal at their annual meeting June 15 and 16 in Orlando, Florida.
"When the Southern Baptist Convention was founded, the world was rather easily divided into 'home' and 'foreign' missions," the task force said in its report. "That world is gone. Now, with revolutions in transportation and the movement of peoples, the world has come to North America."
The task force called for allowing the IMB to use its skills and knowledge of foreign cultures and languages to develop strategies for sharing Jesus with "as many as 586 unreached and underserved peoples" in the United States.
Daniel Akin, a task force member, downplayed the notion that the proposal might pit the IMB and NAMB against each other—for funding or souls. There is no such thing as competition when it comes to sharing the gospel, he said.
"We talked to both the IMB and the NAMB leadership and trustees before we put this forward," Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, said of the proposal. "There was no pushback."
Mike Ebert, communications team leader for the NAMB, agreed, saying the change would "hasten an even closer partnership."
But some said the idea of simultaneous domestic ministry by the IMB and NAMB needed more thorough "vetting."
"I'm sure those kinds of relationships can be worked out," Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, told Baptist Press. "But once people come to America, they acclimate themselves more than we think they do."
Missions experts say the task force's recommendation reflects a recognition that the concept of evangelism (domestic) vs. missions (international) is outdated in a world of immigration, refugees, and diasporas.
"There is no biblical distinction between evangelism and missions, so with good motives, we are creating a distinction without a difference," said Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research president and missiologist in residence.
"The world has become 'borderless,'" said Sadiri Joy Tira, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization's senior associate for diasporas. Therefore, "what we do over there must be done over here at the same time."
Alejandro Mandes, director of Hispanic ministries for the Evangelical Free Church of America, said an estimated 11 million to 13 million undocumented immigrants live in the U.S.
"That is much larger than many countries we send missionaries to," Mandes said. "I would consider that a legitimate mission field—a gap."
A joint NAMB and LifeWay Research study released in March found that nearly 3,800 missionaries and church planters are working among first-generation immigrants in North America. Yet 25 percent of these 202 immigrant groups remain unreached.
The proposed sbc change does not indicate that the NAMB has failed to target immigrant or ethnic groups in its evangelistic efforts, Akin said.
In May alone, the NAMB hosted separate meetings of Korean and Romanian church leaders concerning how to reach the groups in North America.
Rather, Akin said, the idea is to take advantage of the expertise of IMB missionaries when they return to the United States on furloughs. "It would be ideal while they're here," he said, "for them to lead and be involved in ministry to the very people they have been trained to evangelize."
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Previous Christianity Today articles on the International Missions Board and missions include:
Out of Context | Debate over 'Camel method' probes limits of Muslim-focused evangelism. (March 23, 2010)
Tongues Tied | Southern Baptists bar new missions candidates from glossolalia. (February 1, 2006)
Southern Baptists: To Sign or Not to Sign? | Some Southern Baptist missionaries balk at revised statement. (February 22, 2002)
Southern Baptist pastor barred | IMB Trustee member had blogged his criticism of SBC for recent policy changes. (November 9, 2007)
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