Re-thinking mission for a global church

In many ways, CBF global missions stands at a crossroads.

Editors Note: Steven Porter, announced today as CBF's new global missions coordinator, unpacked his missiological views in this piece submitted to ABPnews/Herald. We welcome the opportunity to publish it.

By D. Steven Porter

In September 1931, a 15-member Commission on Appraisal set sail from New York harbor bound for Bombay. Funded by industrialist John D. Rockefeller and chaired by the Harvard philosopher William E. Hocking, the ecumenical commission worked under the auspices of the Layman’s Foreign Mission Inquiry and would spend nearly a year investigating the state of Protestant Christian missions in South and East Asia. Upon their return to the States, the commissioners published a report, Re-Thinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years (1932). The scathing and — to many missionaries — hurtful account reflected the heavy editorial hand of Professor Hocking, who authored half of the chapters and revised the rest. The commission purported to offer a “scientific” appraisal of Christian missions during a season of both diminishing donations and increasing awareness of other religions. 

Eighty years later, we Cooperative Baptists also live in a day of diminishing financial support for missions — at least, in terms of our centralized offering to support long-term field personnel. Likewise, we daily encounter religious diversity on a scale our counterparts in the 1930s could not have imagined. Despite the troubling theological pluralism of Hocking’s commission, the attempt to re-think missions was then and remains now a worthy endeavor. And there is no better time than the present for CBF to pursue such vital work.  

In many ways, CBF global missions stands at a crossroads. Thanks to the 2012 Task Force, the Fellowship has more effective leadership structures than at any time in its history. Our new Governing Board and Executive Coordinator have had a year to build rapport and momentum. An independent Nominating Committee will fill the remaining slots on the Missions Council this summer. And following a long and challenging interim — for which Jim Smith and the Global Missions staff deserve our heartfelt thanks — my appointment as the new Coordinator of Global Missions concludes a movement-wide transition process that easily could have written the end of the CBF story rather than the beginning of its next chapter.   

But not only have the structures of CBF changed, the world around us has changed in at least three ways critical to our missionary efforts.

First, as scholars have noted for some time, Christianity has experienced a massive “southward shift.” The church has entered a global era in which the majority of her members no longer reside in the West. Indeed, since the mid 1980s the demographic center of Christianity has been closer to Lagos, Nigeria, than Rome, Canterbury, or Colorado Springs.

Next, the way in which our congregations think about and engage in mission has changed. Whatever you make of recent conversations on the missional and emerging church, they have prompted many of us to view the local church differently — often in missionary terms. And for better or worse, short-term mission trips have become a defining feature of the American landscape with enormous implications for mission funding. 

Finally, our communities have changed. We live in an increasingly post-Christian society marked by cultural and religious pluralism. Although a large majority of Americans continue to identify as Christian, awareness of America’s diversity rises with every Pew Research poll, including the projection that persons of color may comprise a majority of the population by 2050. 

In short, if Christianity has turned from the West to the South, mission from denominational boards to local congregations, and America from a white majority to a rainbow coalition, then maybe it’s time for CBF to re-think its 20th century mission structure. While we should celebrate what God has accomplished through the Fellowship, our attempts to straddle the expanding gap between a previous generation’s trusted mission model — which centered on a professional missionary corps — and the evolving missionary identity, initiative, and investment of local churches in a global era have not succeeded. The old structures, which once served so well, no longer adequately support churches “as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.” Thus, as CBF has asked fundamental questions of the movement’s structure and governance over the past two years, so too must we ask hard questions of its global missions enterprise. 

I appreciated David Gushee’s recent call for CBF to embrace “authoritative leadership,” but I do not view my appointment as warrant to impose a missiological agenda on churches. Such an effort would undermine what it means to be a fellowship. Moreover, Baptist convictions about what it means to be church — to gather as congregations beholden to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Scriptures, and the holy orders of a common priesthood — constrain me. I genuinely hope I never scheme to get “buy-in” from CBF congregations; rather, the vision for our common witness to God’s good news in Jesus Christ must emerge from our conversations with God and one another. Here, I believe the basic insight of the Cooperative Program still obtains: we can accomplish far more together than apart. Surely that is part of what it means to be a fellowship. So my leadership will begin with listening — to field personnel and staff, to partners, and foremost to congregations. 

It’s also important to remember that we aren’t starting from scratch. There is wisdom in the room already. From asset-based community development approaches like Together for Hope to the largely untapped resources of mission communities and the Baptist World Alliance, Cooperative Baptists have much to commend to each other and to our neighbors. But the changing world described above invites us to re-think our mission enterprise in ways that strategically narrow our focus, deepen our capacity and stretch our faith.  

In the days ahead, I invite you to join this conversation in the firm conviction that “the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world — just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.” (Colossians 1:6)  May the Triune God find Cooperative Baptists faithful in this task and in the larger work of witness.    

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.