Good Foundations at the IMB

At the 2018 SBC annual meeting in Dallas, many Southern Baptists received a copy of the new IMB document, Foundations, at the IMB exhibit area. The document’s stated purpose is “to answer foundational questions of who we are and what we do with implications for how we live and work around the world” (4). Thus, all IMB missionaries in all contexts will be unified around these principles, which are biblical and align with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We wish to affirm some important statements in this document.

The core missionary task is “entry, evangelism, disciple-making, healthy church formation, leadership development, and strategically planned exit” (75). The Great Commission calls for both evangelism and discipleship, and we are delighted to see the emphasis on both components. All IMB missionaries must engage in both activities (20), which are described as being tied together (83). Notice the emphasis on Scripture in discipleship: “The Word of God is essential to discipleship. . . . Carefully-crafted and community-tested Bible stories are useful resources and can be developed far more quickly than a Bible translation. They often lay a foundation for Bible translation. While Bible story sets are useful tools, they do not replace the Bible” (84). We like the emphasis on translation: “If an appropriate translation of the Bible is not available, which is often the case among unreached people groups, Scripture translation becomes an urgent priority” (84).

We also affirm healthy church formation: “Rapid multiplication is biblically possible, but is not biblically promised. The gospel will spread at different rates in our work around the world” (90-91). This statement will remove unnecessary guilt from missionaries who serve well but do not see rapid multiplication. The document continues, “As mentioned earlier, our primary aim in church planting is healthy churches that multiply, and we do not sacrifice or delay introducing any characteristics of a healthy church for the sake of rapid reproduction” (91). One implication of this foundational statement is that missionaries should not advocate the use of unqualified people as leaders for the sake of rapid reproduction.

One of the 12 characteristics of a healthy church listed in Foundations is biblical leadership (62). The pastors/elders/overseers “must be examples of faithful discipleship, and they must hold firmly to sound doctrine. They must be gifted by God to teach” (62). The teaching “consists of the exposition and application of Scripture” (62). The document explains, “The pastor/elder/overseer must know the Bible and he must know doctrine. He must know both well enough to teach them accurately and to discern and refute false teaching” (95). Thus, spiritual children, who are “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14), should not serve as pastors/elders/overseers.

Theological education for these leaders, however, does not require formal seminary training: “The Bible never mentions academic credentials as necessary for service in church leadership” (97). Rather, the type of theological education necessary in a particular context may be different from the typical seminary experience in America (97). In many cases, however, overseas seminaries are valuable: “Seminaries exert significant influence in existing churches and denominations. Where seminaries exist, we need to invest in their theological and spiritual health” (98).

We affirm the de-emphasis on the 2 percent standard for unreached groups: “In contemporary missiology, a people group is considered unreached if the number of evangelical Christians is fewer than 2 percent. Though this definition is helpful in some ways, it is problematic in others” (69). The definition is problematic practically: “Missiologists have examined sociological data to determine the threshold at which a movement within a people group can continue to grow without outside assistance. However, sociologists (and consequently missiologists) have disagreed on what percentage of people constitutes that threshold” (69). The definition is also problematic biblically: “In Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary journeys, he primarily records the spread of the gospel from city to city and region to region, not people group to people group. . . . It is both biblical and helpful, then, to recognize the unreached in terms of both peoples and places, for both realities bear uniquely upon mission strategy” (70). We affirm the wisdom of this dual emphasis, which flies against prevailing missiological winds.

Also flying against prevailing missiological winds is the document’s emphasis on biblical contextualization: “We commend what is popularly known as C3 contextualization, in which the church worships and teaches in the local language and adapts to the local culture in matters generally regarded as not having religious significance. . . . We reject C5 contextualization, or what is commonly called Insider Movement approaches, as profoundly unbiblical” (92). Unfortunately, many missiologists in America advocate Insider Movement methodology in overseas mission endeavors. Foundations completely forbids such methodology: “We will not ever seek to establish the church inside any other religious system, nor teach that any other religion, its founders or prophets, or its books, are in any way from God. . . . We will never teach or encourage any believer in Jesus to remain inside any other religion or continue its practices after conversion to Christ” (92). The document further describes the limits of contextualization: “We contextualize the gospel message to make it clear, not to make it comfortable or acceptable in a non-Christian context” (81).

Finally, we affirm the emphasis on sola Scriptura: “The Bible is sufficient. . . . In particular, in the great work of global evangelization, we do not need any source other than the Bible to shape and determine our strategies. Information from other sources may assist our labors, and God often calls on us to use wisdom in making decisions, but the Bible alone is sufficient to direct our work” (31). Rather than misusing Scripture to justify plans made without it, Foundations demands the opposite course of action: “We do not devise our own plans and then seek support for them in Scripture. Rather, we go to the Bible to learn what it teaches us to do, and we do that” (31). Amen!

Carl Bradford, Instructor in Evangelism
Keith Eitel, Dean of the Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions, Professor of Missions and Director of the World Missions Center
Tony Maalouf, Distinguished Professor of World Christian and Middle Eastern Studies
John Massey, Associate Professor of Missions and Associate Dean for Master’s Programs
Mike Morris, Associate Professor of Missions, Associate Dean of Applied Ministry and Mentorship, and Ida M. Bottoms Chair of Missions
Matt Queen, Associate Professor of Evangelism, L.R. Scarborough Chair of Evangelism (“Chair of Fire”), and Associate Director for Doctoral Programs, Roy Fish School
Daniel Sanchez, Distinguished professor of Missions
Dean Sieberhagen, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, Director of the Masters in Islamic Studies Program, and Vernon D. Jeannete Davidson Chair of Missions