Christianity is fueled by ambition.
Paul once said, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:20a). This apostolic ambition has been present in each generation.
I think Easter is to blame. God is not dead. The Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is on the loose and is our present help. The Spirit of Jesus calls, forms and sends the church to join God in making God known.
Andrew Murray once wrote, “The Spirit has come down from Heaven to be the Spirit of missions, to inspire and empower Christ’s disciples to witness for him to the uttermost parts of the earth. It is still the Holy Ghost who is in charge of all mission work.”
Sensing the “Spirit of mission’s” presence has been a major part of my own spiritual formation.
I took the Royal Ambassador pledge when I was a boy and learned how the message of Christ was carried around the world through the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
I put coins in plastic rice bowls to fight world hunger and listened to furloughed and retired missionaries tell stories and share pictures.
I ate exotic dishes in the fellowship hall and tried to sing songs in languages I did not know.
At Christmas, Lottie Moon was as present as Santa Claus.
I was schooled in cooperative denominational missions, and I would soon learn new ways of engaging the world.
When I was a sophomore in college, one of the young men that had grown up in our church came back home and shared about his work in the former Soviet Union.
He asked me to spend part of my summer break helping with a church planting effort in Russia with East West Ministries, and I received a crash course in faith missions, sending agencies, fundraising and the like.
I was introduced to new heroes like Hudson Taylor, Gladys Aylward and the China Inland Mission, and I learned about denominational groups, like the Foursquare Church, which encouraged missionaries as they raised operational funds needed for their assignments.
Denominational cooperation and faith missions were the two basic ways churches and individual Christians lived out their apostolic ambition, but I notice a trend emerging that is clouding these distinctions.
The world is flatter and smaller. We are more connected than we have ever been, and I have seen an explosion of short-term missions.
I am the pastor of First Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. One of the largest categories of classification in Baylor University’s ministry guidance program is students preparing for missions.
A third of the students at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary want to serve in missions.
These young men and women have experienced the world firsthand and want to return to give their best.
I pastor some of these young people, and I believe our congregations are facing a crisis.
How do we help get them to the people and places God is calling them when the pathways I learned about as a child are not what they once were?
Local congregations are taking a more direct role in missionary sending. They are being asked to by their sons and daughters. Short-term missions are morphing into long-term engagement.
Networks like Kinexxus are coming alongside churches to facilitate engagement; denominations, conventions and fellowships are making some moves to respond to these trends.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is commissioning missionaries funded directly by congregations and individual contributors.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas has a modest church-sending initiative that partners with churches that send directly.
I believe we will see more of this in the future as cooperative groups reassert legitimacy.
This is being driven by concrete economic factors and genuine mission energy. Large cooperative groups must learn to reprioritize global missions to recapture the hearts of emerging generations.
David Horner addressed this in his book, “When Missions Shapes the Mission: You and Your Church Can Reach the World.”
He boldly said, “If a new congregation with no history of denominational connectedness or a young pastor with no denominational loyalty asks sound management questions, it is bound to come to their attention that a passion for missions may not be served best by the current formula for distributing the dollars entrusted to the denomination’s agenda. Across the land, churches are looking for better ways to leverage their missions giving.”
This is a strong word and I believe he is correct. Denominations, fellowships and conventions can positively renew by addressing ministry sprawl, refocusing and creatively partnering with congregations in building new pathways for missions.
The local church is again becoming the center of apostolic ambition. The groups that see this and adjust will save themselves.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles on church trends. An article by Javier Elizondo on trends among Hispanic Baptist congregations will appear tomorrow. Lee Spitzer’s article on church trends in “the Garden State” is available here.