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International Baptists Dispute Overseas Baptism Claims

Southern Baptist Convention reports of overseas baptisms overstate the impact of foreign missionaries in global evangelism, said international Baptist leaders contacted by EthicsDaily.com.

“Last year Southern Baptists were responsible for 600,000 baptisms overseas and the start of over 21,000 churches, from a force of about 5,400 international missionaries,” SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman told Baptist Press in early December.

Tony Cupit, director of evangelism and education for the Baptist World Alliance, said those numbers “convey a very false picture.”

“Few missionaries actually do the baptizing,” Cupit said in an e-mail response to EthicsDaily.com.

“Countless pastors all over the world who would never see an IMB missionary are preaching, pastoring and baptizing new believers,” Cupit said.

Statements by Southern Baptist leaders giving the SBC International Mission Board credit for increased baptisms, he said, “simply dismiss that indisputable fact.”

Ademola Ishola, general secretary of 2.1-million-member Nigerian Baptist Convention, said most overseas baptisms are performed by indigenous pastors, missionaries and church planters.

“The church throughout the world is growing, praise God, but to glibly claim that this is because of IMB missionaries is misleading and unfair to national leaders and pastors all over the globe,” Cupit said.

Duke McCall, one of a group of retired SBC agency heads who recently declared themselves “advocates” for the BWA, said Chapman should clarify that converts claimed were reached not entirely by international missionaries but rather by national churches and their missionaries, some which do not claim any connection to Southern Baptists.

“The IMB is a great mission force, which does not need this kind of misrepresentation,” said McCall, a former seminary president and the last Southern Baptist to serve as BWA president.

In a story criticizing fund-raising in SBC churches by the Baptist World Alliance, Chapman contrasted Southern Baptist missions with American Baptist Churches and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, both BWA members, which he said “field only small numbers of missionaries.”

Chapman went on to criticize a BWA leader’s call 18 months ago for a new international mission society for Baptists from the Third World who feel called to missionary service but lack resources as an attempt to undermine Southern Baptists’ missions.

The IMB reported in November that “Southern Baptist missionaries and their overseas Baptist partners engaged 163 people groups for the first time during 2003.”

“International Mission Board workers also reported that 607,132 believers were baptized, a net increase of 97,973 (19.2 percent),” said a story carried by Baptist Press. “Just last year the number of baptisms passed 500,000 for the first time.”

The report didn’t say how those numbers were compiled.

“In the past, I believe Southern Baptists in reports from the Foreign Mission Board (now IMB) counted the baptisms of the Baptist conventions and unions overseas with which we were in partnership,” said John Merritt, a former Southern Baptist missionary who has written a book titled The Betrayal of Southern Baptist Missionaries.

“Now that the Southern Baptist Convention has separated itself from the Baptist World Alliance and from many Baptist conventions and unions overseas with which we were formerly partners, does the IMB continue to report baptisms from those Baptist bodies?” asked Merritt, former general secretary of the European Baptist Convention and a missionary for 34 years.

“I cannot recall anyone contacting our office for baptismal statistics and for what purpose,” Ishola said.

Baptist work in Nigeria began when the first Southern Baptist missionary arrived in 1850. Today the convention numbers more than 7,000 churches, according to compiled statistics of BWA member bodies. A smaller convention also in Nigeria, the Mambilla Baptist Convention, counts another 205 congregations and 20,000 members.

Cupit said while the IMB may have historical relationships with national conventions, that doesn’t entitle any missionary agency to claim that baptisms take place because of its missionaries.

“The mission activity is the mission of God,” Cupit said. “It is not the missionary labors of individual expatriate staff of the IMB that is the crucial agency. It is the Holy Spirit who brings blessing, not any particular missionary or missionary society.”

Worldwide, 210 BWA member bodies report a combined membership of more than 31 million. That doesn’t include the Southern Baptist Convention, which claims 16 million members but withdrew from the BWA this summer.

“God is at work, and he is giving us the privilege of joining him in astounding ways,” International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin said in 2001.

Rankin said exponential growth in baptism numbers was a fairly recent development, and for years Southern Baptists were satisfied with incremental increases. An IMB news release touted recent statistics as “just one example of how God is blessing Southern Baptist work overseas.”

Ishola said IMB missionaries provide logistical support to Nigerian Baptists in some areas but that that the agency’s cluster of missionary fields runs a “parallel organization apart from the national conventions—at least in Nigeria.”

Ishola said he appreciates work that IMB personnel perform with certain people groups in his country. Some missionaries go out of their way to team up with national leaders, he said, but IMB missionaries aren’t assigned to places the national convention considers crucial to its mission effort.

Cupit said simple mathematics reveal how misleading the IMB baptism claims are. Half of IMB missionaries are women, who are unlikely to be baptizing, he said. A quarter are in orientation or language training at any given time. Many missionaries are involved in administration, education and medicine and not full-time evangelism.

“The actual number that may be baptizing is quite a small percentage,” Cupit said. “In that light, each of these would have to be doing little else but baptizing, and that is not happening.”

Cupit said it is time that Southern Baptists recognized and conceded that “the mission is God’s and that it is the national churches through dedicated and very able pastors and other leaders who are instrumental, under God, in seeing the growth in fellowship, service and numbers that excites us all.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.