NASHVILLE (BP) – Decreases in the number of baptisms and new churches reported by International Mission Board missionaries during the past decade reflect changes in data-reporting methods and missions strategy, not a lack of evangelistic ministry.
That’s the conclusion of a March 21 IMB news release issued in response to observations that overseas baptisms for 2015 are at their lowest level since 1969 – 54,762, according to the IMB’s 2016 Ministry Report to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, down from a high of 609,968 reported for 2007.
IMB President David Platt said questions about the entity’s 2016 report “are good and valid.” He stressed the SBC’s international missions entity is “absolutely committed to practically accurate, biblically faithful reporting to the SBC.”
Among the factors IMB leaders cited to account for the decreases:
• A halt to the practice of reporting baptisms performed by partner conventions and other ministries “in which IMB personnel were less directly involved.”
• A shift toward work among unreached people groups, which yields fewer visible results initially.
• An inability to report some 2015 statistics because “visa denials and family circumstances” prohibited IMB missionaries from collecting on-the-ground data related to several “large movements of national believers.”
Executive Committee President Frank S. Page told Baptist Press in written comments, “We rejoice at all evangelistic efforts everywhere. At the same time, this office has been encouraging the IMB to evaluate its reporting system to bring greater focus to the work directly empowered through our Cooperative Program gifts. We are grateful to Dr. Platt and his staff for moving in this direction. While the numbers may initially look negative and some may focus on the apparent decline, the reality is we are seeing a clearer picture of the impact our missionaries are making and I am deeply grateful for that.”
Among those to note the decreases was Will Hall, editor of Louisiana’s Baptist Message newsjournal. In a March 18 news story, Hall said the 2016 “baptism figure represents the lowest level reported in 46 years.” Hall also noted a decrease in “new churches” reported by the IMB from 13,824 in 2014 to 3,842 in 2015, according to the Ministry Report.
Some explanation of the decrease was included in the Ministry Report, which was posted online in February at www.sbc.net/cp/ministryreports/ and emailed to EC members, Baptist state convention executive directors, Baptist state paper editors and SBC entity leaders. Decreases in new churches between 2012 and 2013 and again between 2014 and 2015 each was “due to one large CPM [church planting movement] no longer reported,” according to question 22 of 25 in the report – an observation Hall noted.
Not commented on in Hall’s report was a response to a subsequent question in the Ministry Report that states, “IMB is committed to seeing indigenous movements within every people group and urban center engaged with church planting teams. As teams reach the point where a movement is occurring, they hand off their work to capable indigenous leaders and move on to an unreached people group that needs a team to begin work.
“When teams move on, IMB no longer counts statistics from their former work, and these are no longer reported in the annual statistical report,” the IMB stated.
“The years of 2012 and 2015 were characterized by such transitions as IMB missionaries responded to the needs of unreached people groups in hard places. With this said, IMB missionaries planted 3,842 churches last year, and the number of Baptist churches in people groups and urban segments grew to 41,172,” the report stated.
In addition, annotations in SBC Annuals appear to reflect two separate changes in data reporting methods since 2009, a fact to which Hall alluded. In 2011, the IMB stated, “Beginning with this report [on 2010 statistics], figures reported are for work related to IMB personnel only, and no longer include reports related to partner conventions and unions.”
Accordingly, reported baptisms decreased from 506,019 for 2009 to 360,876 for 2010.
In 2014, the IMB noted on its report for 2013, “Major movements that are self-sustaining and require only occasional guidance and assistance from IMB personnel have been removed from the statistics this reporting year, which results in some statistics being somewhat different from earlier reporting periods.”
Accordingly, the number of baptisms reported declined from 266,451 for 2012 to 114,571 for 2013.
Platt said “complications” and apparent “discrepancies” in IMB statistics demonstrate “that we need to reevaluate our current methods for collecting data from the field.”
“This is one of many reasons why months ago we began a process of reevaluating the quantitative and qualitative measures of our work around the world,” Platt said. “This process of reevaluating is focused on defining terms, minimizing inconsistencies, increasing accountability and ensuring accuracy in our reporting. We look forward to completion of this process with a view toward consistent implementation of it in the future.”
One reality unquestionably reflected in IMB statistical reports, Platt said, is that “every single day God is using Southern Baptist church members who have been sent to the nations to lead people to Christ, to make disciples, to plant churches, to train pastors and to train missionaries.”
Page noted, “We continue to pray for our International Mission Board and its president, Dr. David Platt. We pray that the days ahead will see far more baptisms, far more church plants and far more missionaries on the field to spread the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ with all who have not yet heard. It remains my heart’s desire that every man, woman, boy and girl on the face of the earth will get to hear the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”