By David Roach
NASHVILLE (BP) — Decreases in the number of baptisms and new churches reported by International Mission Board missionaries during the past decade reflect changes in data-reporting methods and missions strategy, not a lack of evangelistic ministry.
That’s the conclusion of a March 21 IMB news release issued in response to observations that overseas baptisms for 2015 are at their lowest level since 1969 — 54,762, according to the IMB’s 2016 Ministry Report to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, down from a high of 609,968 reported for 2007.
IMB President David Platt said questions about the entity’s 2016 report “are good and valid.” He stressed the SBC’s international missions entity is “absolutely committed to practically accurate, biblically faithful reporting to the SBC.”
Among the factors IMB leaders cited to account for the decreases:
— A halt to the practice of reporting baptisms performed by partner conventions and other ministries “in which IMB personnel were less directly involved.”
— A shift toward work among unreached people groups, which yields fewer visible results initially.
— An inability to report some 2015 statistics because “visa denials and family circumstances” prohibited IMB missionaries from collecting on-the-ground data related to several “large movements of national believers.”
Executive Committee President Frank S. Page told Baptist Press in written comments, “We rejoice at all evangelistic efforts everywhere. At the same time, this office has been encouraging the IMB to evaluate its reporting system to bring greater focus to the work directly empowered through our Cooperative Program gifts. We are grateful to Dr. Platt and his staff for moving in this direction. While the numbers may initially look negative and some may focus on the apparent decline, the reality is we are seeing a clearer picture of the impact our missionaries are making and I am deeply grateful for that.”
Among those to note the decreases was Will Hall, editor of Louisiana’s Baptist Message newsjournal. In a March 18 news story, Hall said the 2016 “baptism figure represents the lowest level reported in 46 years.” Hall also noted a decrease in “new churches” reported by the IMB from 13,824 in 2014 to 3,842 in 2015, according to the Ministry Report.
Some explanation of the decrease was included in the Ministry Report, which was posted online in February at www.sbc.net/cp/ministryreports/ and emailed to EC members, Baptist state convention executive directors, Baptist state paper editors and SBC entity leaders. Decreases in new churches between 2012 and 2013 and again between 2014 and 2015 each was “due to one large CPM [church planting movement] no longer reported,” according to question 22 of 25 in the report — an observation Hall noted.
Not commented on in Hall’s report was a response to a subsequent question in the Ministry Report that states, “IMB is committed to seeing indigenous movements within every people group and urban center engaged with church planting teams. As teams reach the point where a movement is occurring, they hand off their work to capable indigenous leaders and move on to an unreached people group that needs a team to begin work.
“When teams move on, IMB no longer counts statistics from their former work, and these are no longer reported in the annual statistical report,” the IMB stated.
“The years of 2012 and 2015 were characterized by such transitions as IMB missionaries responded to the needs of unreached people groups in hard places. With this said, IMB missionaries planted 3,842 churches last year, and the number of Baptist churches in people groups and urban segments grew to 41,172,” the report stated.
In addition, annotations in SBC Annuals appear to reflect two separate changes in data reporting methods since 2009, a fact to which Hall alluded. In 2011, the IMB stated, “Beginning with this report [on 2010 statistics], figures reported are for work related to IMB personnel only, and no longer include reports related to partner conventions and unions.”
Accordingly, reported baptisms decreased from 506,019 for 2009 to 360,876 for 2010.
In 2014, the IMB noted on its report for 2013, “Major movements that are self-sustaining and require only occasional guidance and assistance from IMB personnel have been removed from the statistics this reporting year, which results in some statistics being somewhat different from earlier reporting periods.”
Accordingly, the number of baptisms reported declined from 266,451 for 2012 to 114,571 for 2013.
Platt said “complications” and apparent “discrepancies” in IMB statistics demonstrate “that we need to reevaluate our current methods for collecting data from the field.”
“This is one of many reasons why months ago we began a process of reevaluating the quantitative and qualitative measures of our work around the world,” Platt said. “This process of reevaluating is focused on defining terms, minimizing inconsistencies, increasing accountability and ensuring accuracy in our reporting. We look forward to completion of this process with a view toward consistent implementation of it in the future.”
One reality unquestionably reflected in IMB statistical reports, Platt said, is that “every single day God is using Southern Baptist church members who have been sent to the nations to lead people to Christ, to make disciples, to plant churches, to train pastors and to train missionaries.”
Page noted, “We continue to pray for our International Mission Board and its president, Dr. David Platt. We pray that the days ahead will see far more baptisms, far more church plants and far more missionaries on the field to spread the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ with all who have not yet heard. It remains my heart’s desire that every man, woman, boy and girl on the face of the earth will get to hear the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
See the complete IMB news release below.
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.
IMB reiterates commitment to biblically faithful reporting
By IMB Staff
RICHMOND, Va. — The International Mission Board, along with other SBC entities which receive Cooperative Program funds, recently submitted an annual ministry report to the SBC Executive Committee. IMB’s report has provoked questions regarding how the mission agency’s personnel collects numbers and how the current report relates to previous years’ numbers, but IMB leaders welcome the opportunity to share plans for consistency in future reports.
“These questions are good and valid,” IMB president David Platt said in response to questions raised about IMB’s most recent report, particularly related to baptisms and new churches. “IMB leaders are absolutely committed to practically accurate, biblically faithful reporting to the SBC.”
Throughout IMB’s history, various approaches to missions have been employed and various standards for reporting have been used. In some eras, the majority of IMB missionaries have worked in areas more reached by the Gospel, which inevitably meant more established churches were spreading the Gospel, resulting in greater numbers reported by IMB. In contrast, most IMB missionaries today live and work in high-security locations where there is little Gospel access and fewer established churches spreading the Gospel, which has led to smaller numbers reported by IMB.
In addition, IMB missionaries previously included numbers from partner conventions and unions, as well as work in which IMB personnel were less directly involved, in annual reporting. However, in recent years IMB decided to no longer include such numbers. Such factors create differentiations (and even declines) in numbers.
Various differentiations in numbers are due in part to the complex nature of reporting numbers for IMB work. IMB personnel are commissioned around the world not only to proclaim the Gospel; baptize new believers; gather them together into churches; and train leaders from those churches — but also to equip national believers to do all of the above. As national believers are equipped by IMB missionaries, they begin making disciples and planting churches in ways that are increasingly difficult to track and report accurately.
“There comes a time when the work is led more by the national believers than the IMB missionaries, and the numbers become less and less ‘ours’ to report,” Platt said. “This is actually success for IMB missionaries, for we are always working toward raising up national believers to join in the missionary task with us. However, such success ironically leads to a reduction in numbers to report, for the work now belongs more to national believers than it does to IMB missionaries.”
In such situations, IMB missionaries have freedom to move on and start work in a new place, where the numbers they report will almost always be smaller because their new work will almost always be slower at the start.
Challenges and complexities in reporting are further compounded when factoring in circumstances in working with national believers. To accurately report numbers, IMB missionaries must remain closely connected to national believers. This connection requires deep relational knowledge, language competency and cultural understanding. However, if for governmental or medical reasons IMB missionaries become less connected to national believers, the missionaries are less able to report accurate numbers; as a result, they refrain from reporting them, even if it means the IMB, therefore, reports a lesser number of baptisms and churches planted than is actually the case.
This is part of the reason for the decline in numbers from 2014 to 2015, for certain IMB missionaries connected to large movements of national believers were kept stateside due to visa denials and family circumstances, the specific details of which the IMB cannot comment on due to security concerns. In these situations, the missionaries did not believe it to be responsible to report numbers that they could not personally verify on the ground. These IMB missionaries were confident that people were continuing to come to Christ and churches were continuing to multiply, but because they were limited in their ability to measure that multiplication, they chose not to report specific numbers.
Such complexities provide a clear reminder that IMB missionaries work in areas where governments, religious organizations and social structures directly oppose Gospel work, making the collection of data regarding new believers and churches not only difficult, but even dangerous at times. Reporting numbers of new believers, baptisms and new churches can cause risk both for the ministry taking place in certain areas and for the lives of IMB missionaries and the national believers with whom they work.
Biblically faithful reports
“Even in light of all of the various complications in reporting numbers from the field, a sudden discrepancy in numbers from 2014 to 2015, in addition to similar discrepancies in previous years, demonstrates that we need to reevaluate our current methods for collecting data from the field,” Platt said.
“This is one of many reasons why months ago we began a process of reevaluating the quantitative and qualitative measures of our work around the world. This process of reevaluation is focused on defining terms, minimizing inconsistencies, increasing accountability and ensuring accuracy in our reporting. We look forward to completion of this process with a view toward consistent implementation of it in the future.”
IMB leadership has focused on establishing clear definitions for “evangelism” and “conversion,” and what IMB personnel report as “disciples” and “churches.” IMB leaders want Southern Baptists to know that when the IMB says a person has been baptized or a church has been planted, they can be confident that these numbers are not only practically accurate, but also biblically faithful, particularly in line with the current Baptist Faith and Message.
“Southern Baptists can be sure that the nearly 4,000 missionaries sent out from Southern Baptist churches and serving with the IMB are working hard in the power of the Holy Spirit to see disciples made and churches multiplied among the nations,” Platt said. “The entire IMB family asks for continued prayer that God, in His grace and for His glory, might use the faithful work of IMB missionaries to bear everlasting fruit all over the world.”
In the video greeting to IMB’s 2016 ministry report (available at SBC.net), Platt said he hopes the report is a reflection of the people who have come to Christ, the churches that have been planted and the leaders who have been trained as a result of Southern Baptists’ faithful giving, praying and going.
“To see God’s provision through churches and through the entire Southern Baptist Convention ecosystem has been nothing short of amazing to watch,” Platt said. “It’s nothing short of breathtaking to see well over $250 million dollars given from churches with the express purpose of getting the Gospel to people who have never heard it.
“I want Southern Baptists to know it’s happening, even amidst some of the challenges we have walked through in order to get to a healthier place financially and a sustainable position for the future. Amidst it all, God has been working around the world through your praying, and through your giving, and through your going and through your sending.”
“Every single day God is using Southern Baptist church members who have been sent to the nations to lead people to Christ, to make disciples, to plant churches, to train pastors and to train missionaries,” Platt said, noting the 2016 report is a picture of what lies ahead as these believers and churches are multiplied for the glory of God.