Editor’s Journal: NAMB: A new era begins?
With the recent election of Kevin Ezell as president of the North America Mission Board (NAMB), a new era of change is certain to come for an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention that has seldom known calm waters. Since its formation at the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, the Home Mission Board (as it was once known) has stumbled its way through history never quite knowing its place among the myriad (and ever-growing) SBC structures of ministry.
Initially, the Home Mission Board provided ministers in areas where gospel preaching was non-existent. The Board’s vision was to plant healthy congregations so that North America would rise in gospel strength on the solid foundation of healthy churches. Most domestic mission activity was centered in major metropolitan areas of the United States by other denominations, but America’s South soon became a harbinger for Baptists who found strength and momentum through cooperation among local churches. The establishment of state conventions prior to the formal establishment of the SBC immediately proved problematic for the HMB.
The division of labor among Baptist associations, state conventions and this new national agency charged with similar (if not identical) responsibilities as other Baptist cooperative elements brought tension. At times, the strain reached such a level that Southern Baptists across the nation demanded that the areas of overlap be eliminated between the HMB, state conventions and associations.
In 1882, a vigorous debate commenced regarding the issue of the HMB’s very survival. Many pastors found it confusing (and downright irritating) when representatives from associations, state conventions and now another Baptist missions agency, continuously came to them requesting the same level of participation and monetary support around what many saw as identical goals. In 1910, a proposal was actually made that the SBC’s Foreign Mission Board and Home Mission Board be merged so as to minimize confusion and limit direct fundraising appeals.
Even after the establishment of the Cooperative Program in 1925 (a funding mechanism specifically designed to limit the amount of direct solicitation in local churches), the HMB still did not fare well. Over the years, the agency became a large repository of denominational programs. Oklahoma’s William G. Tanner served as president from 1977-1986, and often expressed frustration at the lack of a “coherent” vision for the Board. Under his leadership, the HMB almost doubled the size of its staff, restructured is organization and greatly multiplied its national programs.
By the late 1970s the HMB’s responsibility included church extension, language missions, missions education, mass evangelism, Christian social ministries, minority church relations, the SBC’s Mission Service Corps, rural-urban missions, chaplaincy missions, metropolitan area research and focus cities, church loans, interfaith witness, apologetics, refugee resettlement assistance, an urban training cooperative (UTC) and Assistance for Churches in Transitional Communities (PACT).
Following the passage of the Covenant for a New Century by Convention messengers in 1997, the North American Mission Board was born, restructured yet again and streamlined to become focused on church planting, evangelism, coordinating one of the largest civilian disaster relief agencies in the world and the former radio and television ministry of the wider SBC. Two stormy presidencies has left the agency floundering once again as to its ultimate role in service to local SBC churches.
At issue currently is how this national agency will interface with state conventions given the fact that cooperative agreements (written contracts between state conventions and NAMB for ministry cooperatively executed) will be phased out over the next seven years. NAMB will soon operate as a free-standing agency without direct ministry partnership with state conventions. Of course, NAMB may seek to partner with state conventions, but only as it sees fit to do so.
This has caused no small amount of angst among many who fear such an arrangement spells the end of the Cooperative Program and smaller state conventions in pioneer areas of the United States. This is fueled in large part because of the extraordinary familiarity with the current system of ministry operations. Legitimate skepticism exists for any future model—especially any new plan that even hints of a renewed competition between SBC agencies and state conventions.
Complicating the issue is the entire economic culture in which the SBC ministry structure exists. In the words of economist Joseph Schumpeter, a certain “creative destruction” is now surfacing in every economic sector in America—religious non-profits included. Long standing American institutions such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns can literally disappear overnight. Internet based companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter can appear out of nowhere and supplant even the strongest institutions and corporations. In like manner, local churches are now able to create for themselves a network of ministry partners and raise monetary support without the once critical requirement of denominational services.
The great dilemma for the SBC following the passage of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force’s recommendations is how this will be accomplished in an era of resource reallocation by local churches. The existing model of cooperative giving need not be abandoned. Yet, NAMB must work to instill a new creative passion that will recreate the agency in ways that respond to the needs of local churches and push money and authority back to them without requiring ultimate decisions be made at the top of a corporate-like structure.
Traditional bureaus of ministry service and maintenance might give way to something like temporary project teams that come together to solve particular problems or develop a new strategy and immediately disband. NAMB could become less programmatic and more resourceful given the economic realities and giving patterns of local churches. Innovation and adaptability are the new requirements for any agency—religious or otherwise —for survival.
Words of warning come from Timothy Tennent in his new magisterial work, Invitation to Christian Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century. Tennent asserts that Christendom has collapsed—even in North America. For Southern Baptists, this means that a prevailing “Southern” or “Christian” culture where the Bible and the Church was once highly esteemed no longer exists. With this collapse he believes “the structures built on its paradigms are no longer viable.” He believes that missological study and strategy must be quickly reunited with the realities on the mission field of North America where Christianity is no longer the dominant worldview. Tennet’s stinging observation and remedy: “We don’t know how to think about missions without ourselves being at the center (including sending structures, personnel, money and strategic planning).”
The great comfort and assurance for all involved during this era of unprecedented change for the SBC is that ultimately, the Church of Jesus Christ will move forward by the power of the One who said that He would build His church and the gates of Hell would not be able to prevail against her.
In the words of John Bunyan, “the holy war” which the Church fights is both initiated and finished by Jesus Christ—the victor against the power of the Evil One. The abiding challenge for Southern Baptists—can consensus be achieved for a new vision at NAMB? The answer to that question will shape the direction of the agency and set the course for either a NAMB renewal or a NAMB funeral.