IMB missionary urges MBC to think missiologically
JEFFERSON CITY – In the last two years, Acts 1:8 has been a major theme of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). According to Jim Slack, Baptists could have no more biblical nor historically appropriate theme at this time in their history.
A man of many hats, James Slack is an ethnographer, missiologist, growth analyst and field assessments consultant for the International Mission Board (IMB). He has been with the Board for 11 years and previously served 25 years as a missionary in the Philippines. He addressed the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) executive board staff Jan. 3 during their annual staff retreat.
“Acts 1:8 has less to do with the actual or symbolic geographical implications related to ‘Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost’ than to it’s link with the Great Commission’s ‘panta ta ethne’ (‘stranger in thy house’ or ‘stranger in thy midst’) focus,” Slack said. “Thus, ‘panta ta ethne’ remains a priority in each of those geographic settings. Luke 24, Matthew 28 and Acts 2 present Jesus as placing the ‘seeing’ and ‘engaging’ of the ‘panta ta ethne’ (ethnic engagement in one’s heart language) foremost in the life of every believer.”
Historically, Baptists represented a very small slice of the American religious profile. In 1780, they made up less than 10 percent of Protestants. However, as the country expanded, the denomination expanded with it. By 1950, Baptists were the most common.
“Baptists were uniquely fitted for the frontier,” he said. “The basic reason is that Baptist theology and polity fitted them better in the frontier than any other denomination of churches.”
For example, each local church was autonomous and was congregational in polity, as opposed to a Catholic church which could not exist independently. Laymen, often uneducated, were encouraged to plant churches in homes, barns or school rooms if no Baptist work existed as they traveled west. Apart from a commitment to biblical authority, the “rules” for a Baptist church were fairly loose.
“Those autonomous capacities were a big help,” Slack said. “No land, no education, no problem. Whatever fit there fit.”
But, he warned, just as those characteristics of the denomination helped Baptists flourish up into the 20th century, straying away from those concepts could spell doom.
“I’m convinced that if we lose those ideals, the future of Baptists in America will be decline,” Slack said. “The frontier isn’t gone, it’s just not geographical anymore. Now, it’s an ethnic and social frontier.”
According to Slack, reaching those frontiers means changing how we think about ministry.
“We’re still trying to reach the Anglos and every day they represent a smaller and smaller percentage of the population,” he said.
In other words, Baptist need to begin approaching missions in their backyards the way they’ve been approaching missions over seas: by focusing on the “panta ta ethne.” Obviously, what works in reaching the lost and planting churches in China probably won’t work in Argentina. Less obviously, Slack said that what works in Appalachia may not work in Missouri.
“Immigration is forcing us to address lost people in America as different people groups. Our programs and plans are designed for a very homogenous population. But the lost out there are very heterogeneous. Generic is no longer a characteristic in USA, even among Anglos.”
One key suggestion Slack offered the MBC staff is to take the time to research who is in our communities and how best to reach them.
“You must arm your churches as researchers,” he said. “Have we taken the time to identify the ‘strange’ in our midst and the ‘strangers’ (ethne/ethnics) at our door in our Jerusalem?”