Re-prioritizing the Task tagged:

Re-prioritizing the Task

Posted by in Baptist Life, Church & Missions

In 1983, Robertson McQuilken published an article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly entitled “Looking at the Task Six Ways.” His article, together with all of the back issues of EMQ, is available online with a paid subscription to EMQ, a publication I highly recommend to anyone seriously interested in cross-cultural missions and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. McQuilken’s article highlights six different factors that play into any effort to determine strategic allocation of financial and human resources in international missions: total number of lost people, rate of responsiveness, the proportion of unreached compared with the proportion of evangelicals, North American missionary force as a proportion of the total population, accessibility (or the freedom for missionary entrance and freedom to evangelize), and the presence of unreached people groups.

Back in the late 80’s, when I was praying and seeking God’s will for my future ministry, McQuilken’s article made a significant impact on my life. Among the different examples he used, Spain was one country he identified as a relatively high priority for the allocation of missionary resources. Although, it did not rank at the top in any of the six factors considered in isolation, when you took all six factors together, the total package wound up placing Spain close to the top of the list.

Since that time, however, several things have changed. Areas of the world that were previously considered closed to missionary service have opened up. Some areas of the world have become more receptive to the gospel, and others less so. There has been an increased emphasis on evangelizing unreached people groups, rather than entire countries or geographical regions. And, there has been an increased emphasis on the strategic role and responsibility of believers from outside the West in cross-cultural and international missions. While places like Spain still have great spiritual needs, and are, in my opinion, still very valid targets for missionary focus, other places (and people groups) that previously may not have ranked so high in overall priority have risen in regard to the relative rank they might occupy in a new list of comparative priority for allocation of resources.

Some might question this entire approach to missionary resource allocation. As some have rightly observed, the need is not the call. Does not the Lord of the Harvest Himself call out and send workers into the Harvest in the time and the manner He sovereignly chooses? Isn’t it best just to leave this sort of thing to Him?

Certainly, there is an important sense in which this is the case. However, the same Lord who told us to pray for workers for the Harvest, and who sent us, as His disciples, into the world, just as the Father had sent Him, also gifted us with the ability to think strategically, and to use our brains, as we seek to be good stewards of the “talents” He has placed into our hands. And, while part of this stewardship involves becoming better listeners to the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit, another part involves using the left side of our brain in order to be the best stewards we can possibly be of the gifts with which He has entrusted us.

In addition to the factors that McQuilken lists, another important factor to keep in mind, when choosing how and where to spend our “talents” is what Rick Warren calls our spiritual S.H.A.P.E. (Spiritual gifts, Heart for ministry, Abilities, Personality, and Experiences). As individuals, we each have the responsibility to study the state of the world, and meditate on our own spiritual S.H.A.P.E. in order to determine living where in the world, and doing specifically what, we can most effectively carry out our particular role in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Normally, we apply this to ourselves as individuals. However, as local churches, Christian ministries, and denominations (such as the SBC), we have the same responsibility.

God Himself is the Lord of the Harvest, and as the owner of the cattle on a thousand hills, the resources at His disposal are unlimited. Nevertheless, He has commended to each of us, as His servants—and as local churches, Christian ministries, and denominations—a limited amount of resources. Just as in the parable Jesus told, to some He gives ten, to some five, and to some just one “talent.” But we are each required to be the best stewards possible of the “talents” He leaves in our hands.

In all this, it is important to remember that none of us is responsible, all by him/herself for the entire Harvest. God is the Lord of the Harvest, and He calls and sends His workers from all parts of the world, and from every sector of the Body of Christ, in order to fulfill the Great Commission in all the world. As the motto of the Lausanne Movement boldly proclaims: “The Whole Church taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.”

With respect to an organization as large and diverse as the Southern Baptist Convention, however, there are, without a doubt, many places in the world, and many aspects of Great Commission ministry, for which the Lord of the Harvest has commended into our hands a relatively large amount of “talents.” We are collectively responsible for making the most strategic contribution we can for reaching our own Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. But how do we best determine the amount of “talents” we should collectively use toward the making of disciples in each area of the world, and in each aspect of the work?

As I understand it, a good part of the work of the GCR Task Force is that of re-prioritizing the task. Using a model such as McQuilken’s six factors, I believe we as Southern Baptists have good warrant for strategically reallocating the resources we are dedicating to Great Commission work. There are areas of the world with greater comparative need, greater comparative response, and less comparative resources currently dedicated toward seeing the Great Commission fulfilled there than many areas in which we are currently dedicating a comparatively larger portion of our “talents.”

At the same time, in the interest of good stewardship, we have the responsibility not only to work hard, but also to work smart. International Mission Board researchers and strategists have come to the conclusion that, in many contexts of the world, the smartest way to work is through facilitating church planting movements that are easily reproducible. At the same time, we are learning that one size does not always fit all. NAMB and other agencies and ministries that work in the U.S. have their work cut out for them in the days ahead in this regard.

Additionally, I believe, we must ask ourselves what is our spiritual S.H.A.P.E. as an organization. Could it be God has uniquely gifted us, as Southern Baptists, to make certain contributions in certain places in the world, and do certain types of ministry, and gifted other sectors of the Body of Christ to make other contributions in other places and with other types of ministry? At each stage along the path, I believe this is a question we must continually revisit, and ask ourselves if circumstances have changed that make the answer different than what it may have been under other circumstances.

During times of re-prioritization, there is always the risk that some of those whose work and ministry has previously been regarded as relatively high priority, but now not quite so much, feel denigrated or unappreciated. In recent years, in the IMB, personnel requests, as well as requests for special project funds, are ranked in order of strategic priority. As a result, at times, those whose positions and projects are not ranked as highly as others tend to feel invalidated. In the SBC at large, we could draw this out and apply it at other levels. Those in relatively “unreached” areas seem to be more highly valued than those in areas not quite so “unreached.” Those working in the U.S. seem to be a step down in the totem pole of priority in resource allocation compared to those working overseas, those working in “traditional work states” a step down from those working in “new work states,” those working in support ministries a step down from those working in cutting edge church planting, etc.

However, the results of a recent Lifeway study on the value Southern Baptists place on the Cooperative Program and various allocation options, were, according to Baptist Press writer Bob Rodgers, “counterintuitive.” Instead of an overwhelming agreement that, as Southern Baptists, we need to direct a greater proportion of our resources to international missions, it appears a majority would favor keeping proportions as they are now, or even keeping an even greater proportion for state conventions, the NAMB, the Executive Committee, and the ERLC.

I am not sure what is driving this mindset, but I have pretty good hunch. My theory is we tend, as humans, to value highest that which is closest to us, that which we know best. I do it. You do it. We all do it. I believe that is one of the reasons short-term mission trips have become so popular. They provide a way for more and more of the folks in our churches to have hands-on experience in missions. They also help them to see up close what before had only been a distant reality we read about in Commission Magazine. It is also the reason why many individuals and churches prefer to give directly to other mission causes instead of through the Cooperative Program. It is more personalized.

In all of this, there must be a proper balance. Each of us, as individuals, must continue to seek, before the Lord, His call for our life and ministry. But, as circumstances change, we must be willing to let Him redirect our paths. As local churches, we must do the same thing. While the basic task of making disciples remains the same down through the ages, particular approaches to ministry may need to change in order to adapt to circumstances that are not the same as they were 20 or 30 years ago. As associations, state conventions, entities and agencies of the SBC, we must each also do the same. Some ministries, which may still be very valid and strategic, may not be quite as high a priority as other ministries. However, we must, at the same time, be careful to respect the call and ministry of others at each of the different levels. In the Body of Christ, everybody is somebody. There are no second-class saints or second-class ministries.

Dealing with this situation is not always easy. It takes a lot of maturity. It would be a lot easier if we just left it up to each individual to “hear from the Lord” and choose his/her own area of ministry, and just encouraged people to give more, so we could fund it all. But a sober look at reality tells us that the resource pool we have to work from is more and more limited, and we must use the brains God gave us to determine priorities and allocate these resources accordingly.

All in all, there are certain values that define us as Southern Baptists that are sometimes in tension with each other, but which we must keep in proper balance:

• Autonomy: We must grant each believer, each local congregation, and each entity and ministry organization the freedom to hear God’s leading for him/her/itself, and follow where they understand Him to lead.
• Solidarity: We must recognize that, even though we are each individually responsible for hearing God’s voice, we are in this thing together, and working together we can accomplish more than we can working apart.
• Wise Stewardship: We must be willing to look at how we apportion the resources God places in our hands, seeking to prioritize them in a way that is most likely to accomplish most effectively the overall task He has given us.
 Christian Unity: We must remind ourselves we are only one sub-section of the overall Body of Christ, and within the Body each member has its role to fulfill that should contribute to the growth and health of the rest of the Body.

Personally, I believe the GCR Task Force has done a good job of trying to keep all these different factors in balance and recommend a way forward for us as Southern Baptists in the days ahead. Because of this, I plan on voting in favor of their recommendations at the upcoming convention in Orlando. At the same time, I am sure we have many more decisions before us, as a convention, and as individuals, churches, and ministry organizations, in the years ahead. May God give us the grace to continue to do our best to be the best stewards possible with the “talents” He sees fit to entrust into our hands.

*For a very poignant look at priorities in the world today, take a look at the video on the right side of the screen entitled “Tears of the Saints”