Compiled by B&R
NASHVILLE — “How did this happen?” Wanda S. Lee asked herself.
“Beyond what words can say … we’re grieving,” the executive director of the Woman’s Missionary Union, the Southern Baptist Convention’s missions education auxiliary, said of the imminent downsizing of 600-800 missionaries and staff members in a multi-million-dollar shortfall confronting the International Mission Board.
Lee, who was among Baptist leaders addressing the SBC Executive Committee during its Sept. 21-22 meeting, pointed to the insight of Annie Armstrong, the first corresponding secretary of the auxiliary in 1888. Missions education first entails a study of God’s Word, Lee said in recounting Armstrong’s insight.
Then comes a study of the mission field. Then prayer. Then sacrificial giving for the advance of the gospel.
“We study God’s Word,” Lee said. “We’ve been a good denomination in that. We’re a people of prayer, and we’re getting better at that. And we’re pretty good at giving.”
But, Lee said, many Southern Baptist churches have abandoned what Armstrong identified as the “driving force” between studying God’s Word and “how much we pray and how much we give.”
“We can lament the churches that haven’t given, we can lament many things,” Lee said. “But one thing we have failed to do in our churches is to embrace the missions assignment of helping our children and our youth understand God’s field.”
When there’s “no understanding of the depth of lostness, there’s no passion to give,” Lee said.
Lee observed that when a church tilts toward entertaining their children and youth, or abandons Wednesday night activities in deference to local soccer leagues, “we have let that overshadow the priority as a Christian church leader of equipping the next generation for missions.”
“We sacrificed our adults of today 20 years ago,” Lee said. “We sacrificed them when we said, ‘Well, I guess we can’t have RAs (Royal Ambassadors for boys) and GAs (Girls in Action) because kids have got to go play soccer.
“I faced that as a pastor’s wife and a mother. … And now we’re living with an adult church that doesn’t know why they give. They don’t give sacrificially because they don’t know the field. They don’t know the depth of lostness.
“… We have a job to do,” Lee said. “We can’t lose another generation. … We have to do what Annie said years ago. We have to teach them God’s Word. We have to help them see all of God’s world — the way He loves (people) and the way He desires for them to come to Him.
“And when we feel that depth of conviction, we will pray like we’ve never prayed before … we will give sacrificially.”
Vickie Anderson, executive director of Tennessee Woman’s Missionary Union, agreed with Lee, noting that she has seen the decline of missions education in Tennessee.
“We have people who don’t have that passion for missions that gives them the reason and knowledge to want to give and to have a heart for missions,” Anderson said.
She cited several factors, noting the decline actually began with youth. Youth missions programs began to go away as churches hired youth ministers who used the traditional night reserved for missions education (Wednesday) for general youth activities and events.
Anderson also observed that many churches “have cut back on the time” allotted to Wednesday and Sunday night activities.
Churches are now having to choose between discipleship, music, and missions education programs and ministries, she said.
“It’s a challenge for the churches to fit them all in,” Anderson added.
Other factors for the decline include not as many families attending church on Wednesday nights and other non-Southern Baptist programs such as Awana, she suggested.
While noting Awana and other programs have positive merits, they do not have the Southern Baptist missions educational element, Anderson said.
The element provided through WMU curriculum is wholistic, Anderson continued.
Children who enter GAs or RAs in the first grade and continue through the sixth grade will have learned about International Mission Board and North American Mission Board missionaries and they will learn about the Cooperative Program, she added.
Anderson is optimistic that it is not too late to reverse the trend, but noted it needs to start soon and that it must start with today’s children and preschoolers.
“We need to give them a strong foundation and passion for missions,” she stressed.
“There is still a future for RAs and GAs and their future is ultimately the future of Southern Baptist missions,” Anderson said.
In the meantime, Lee said WMU will “stand with our missionaries, we’re going to support them, we’re committed to being the best partner with IMB we can be.”
WMU will be fulfilling one of its key roles in Southern Baptist life — helping returning missionaries find housing. And they will need to be alerted to employment possibilities. Re-entry retreats will be needed for their youth, Lee said.
“But we can’t go through this again,” Lee said.
“So come, go with us. Quit entertaining your children and your young people.
“Drive them to study God’s Word. Expose them to the field for the depth of understanding that will commit their lives to service and prayer, and their money will follow,” Lee exhorted.
— This article includes reporting by Art Toalston of Baptist Press and B&R Editor Lonnie Wilkey