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David Platt's formidable task


I have always been a proponent of international missions and world evangelization. When I was growing up as a Royal Ambassador, M. Theron Rankin was the executive secretary of the Foreign Mission Board (1945-1953). His greatest challenge was “expanding our witness in a world that was suffering in the aftermath of global conflict.”

Baker James Cauthen succeeded Rankin in 1954 and over his 25 years of service the foreign mission force tripled and the FMB established the Missionary Associate and Journeyman programs.

Keith Parks served from 1980 to 1992 and introduced the concept of unreached people groups with less than 20% Christian population. He also introduced the strategy of non-residential missionaries, a non-traditional missionary approach that focused on the world’s least evangelized peoples, and the International Service Corps.

In 1993 Jerry A. Rankin was installed as the 10th president of the Foreign Mission Board. During Rankin’s tenure the entity’s name was changed to the International Mission Board and celebrated its 150th anniversary. He led Southern Baptists to focus not so much on the nations of the world as on specific groups of people with a common ethnicity and culture, particularly those in the 10/40 window – the area of the world between latitudes 10 degrees and 40 degrees north of the equator where 4.4 billion people live – the vast majority of whom do not know Christ.

When Tom Elliff became president in 2011 he brought a wealth of experience as a pastor, missionary, and denominational leader to the role. Elliff emphasized the importance of “each local church” taking greater ownership in the task of global discipleship

New President David Platt is a bright, passionate, articulate man of God. And having come from the pastorate rather than the mission field may bring an objectivity that will be richly blessed of the Lord. But he also has some formidable challenges ahead as he begins to formulate his vision for reaching our world for Christ.

First, the apparent emphasis of the International Mission Board in recent years has been on “unreached people groups.” The IMB website indicates that there are 11, 235 people groups in the world today. Some have suggested that there may be as many as 40,000 distinct people groups.

Robin Hadaway, former missionary to North Africa and South America and Professor of Missions at Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City – writing in the Southwestern Journal of Theology – explains, “Most mission agencies have diverted or reassigned their personnel from the majority populations in most countries in order to concentrate on … unreached peoples.”

Hadaway explains that the old sociological axiom that a people group with less than 20% Christian population should be considered unreached has been drastically altered in recent years. He states, “Two-percent evangelical believers has become the new statistical bench mark for the IMB and most other mission agencies.”

John David Massey, former missionary to South East Asia and Associate Professor of Missions at Southwestern Seminary – writing in the same Journal of Theology – noted, “Rankin led the IMB away from fields deemed reached, according to the two-percent evangelical standard, to the 10-40 window where some countries did not permit an overt missionary presence.”

Hadaway added, “If the twenty-percent designation was somewhat arbitrary, then two percent is astoundingly so… When the minority falls below ten percent, the minority opinion has no measureable effect on the majority.”

Hadaway’s conclusion is borne out by a reputable research group, the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center, that stated, “When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority.”

“... there is not a more important man in the world than the president of the International Mission Board, because of his potential to touch so many lives for good and for God.”

Paige Patterson, president
Southwestern Seminary

The second issue Hadaway addresses is this: Should we concentrate on responsive peoples, where the harvest is ripe, or on the places where the Gospel seed has not yet been sown? There are scriptural admonitions for both views.

Paul exclaimed, “And thus, I aspired to preach the Gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation” (Rom. 15:20).

But Jesus said to His disciples, “The harvest is plenteous, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). Hadaway explains, “The harvest mandate is one that seems to be neglected today

Thirdly, some SBC leaders have acknowledged that the IMB’s strategic move away from involvement in theological education was a critical error. Massey expressed concern over the lack of theological training provided on the mission field. He declares, “Our churches are under attack by cults and false teaching.” He cited one seminary president in Southeast Asia, who said, “We are losing 10,000 churches a year to the cults and charismatics.”

Massey indicates that the plaintive cry of national pastors from all over the world is for the IMB to assist in training their pastors so that churches can be strengthened and established on a firm biblical foundation.

The present church planting emphasis, based on II Timothy 2:2, includes doing it speedily. The goal in church planting is to gather a handful of people who are willing to gather another handful of people and teach those gathered how to train others to gather more. This concept of multiple house churches of no more than 20 people is that these churches are to be produced in rapid succession.

While Massey has questions about the current church planting strategy, he agrees that we should plant churches with the intention of reproducing, but contends that a Church Planting Movement (CPM) is a God-thing.

The key training tool for these house church leaders is Training for Trainers (T4T). This training tool consists of six basic evangelism and discipleship lessons. Massey explains that “T4T” lacks a robust articulation of the New Testament church or what constitutes church leadership and that it falls short as a replacement for theological education. New believers are encouraged to be new pastors of these micro churches because speed and rapidity of movement is the primary value.

So, Platt faces some daunting challenges.

• Will he change the current sociological axiom that determines what really constitutes an unreached people group?

• Will he continue to focus on the “unreached” people groups or will he also send a significant number of missionaries to the fields that are white unto harvest?

• Will he utilize some modern delivery system of education to provide more comprehensive theological training to national pastors and church leaders?

• Will he re-evaluate the CPM strategy to determine whether he wants to focus on a more deliberate, discipleship-focused church planting model or continue to emphasize the “time wrinkling process” that facilitates a rapid Church Planting Movement?

Upon Platt’s selection as president of the IMB, Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson issued a statement entitled “10 Things That We Owe Dr. David Platt.” Let me share number 4: “Recognition that there is not a more important man in the world than the president of the International Mission Board, because of his potential to touch so many lives for good and for God. Therefore, we must pray God’s intervention in and superintendence over every thought that crosses David Platt’s mind.”

The full texts of the Hadaway and Massey articles can be read in the Southwestern Journal of Theology (SWJT)