You’re retiring next summer as president of IMB (International Mission Board). When you made the announcement to our trustees, I thought back to the days leading up to your election 16 years ago.
At the time, you were a missionary and mission administrator who’d been in Asia for 23 years. By your own admission, you were quite happy on the field where God had called you — and you weren’t all that excited about dealing with Southern Baptist bureaucracy and politics back home.
You said you felt “inadequate to the task.” You were reluctant to take on the gargantuan job of leading the largest evangelical missionary-sending agency during “a peak of controversy regarding control of leadership roles among Southern Baptist Convention entities.”
You weren’t the only one with doubts. The convention was still reeling from years of painful struggle over its theology and identity. Your distinguished predecessor, R. Keith Parks, had crossed swords with multiple critics while leading the mission board toward new strategies to reach the world with the Gospel.
I can’t speak for other folks, but some of us grizzled reporter types in the old IMB newsroom thought you were going to get taken apart limb from limb in the first year.
It didn’t quite turn out that way. I think we all underestimated you.
You’ve led us through some tough times, to be sure. You’ve taken your share of criticism — some of it fair, some of it misguided and wrong. I’ve grumbled myself a few times.
Today, though, I want to thank you for stepping up and taking the heat, even when it hurt. For spending countless nights away from home in dodgy airplanes and dingy Third World airports. For attending innumerable meetings. For preaching thousands of mission messages to churches at home. And for walking beside thousands of missionaries and Christian servants in some of the darkest places on earth.
More than that, thank you for being a disciplined and visionary leader from day one.
I’ve never heard you speak to an audience or congregation without using these three words: “a lost world.” Not once. I got tired of hearing it — until I realized it wasn’t a phrase but a consuming passion within you. The fact that so many millions of people have yet to hear the name of Jesus Christ actually breaks your heart. I want it to break mine.
By far the biggest challenges IMB missionaries and staff have faced during your tenure have involved not convention politics or economic difficulties but the “main thing”: How do we reach a lost world with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ? As a leader, you have never taken your eye off that all-important task, given to us by the Lord Himself in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations …”
All nations, not just the ones that are open, friendly or willing to grant missionary visas. And not just all “nations” as we understand them in the political sense, but all peoples — in all their staggering cultural, ethnic and linguistic variety. That is how God sees the world, and He wants all the peoples of the world to worship Him in spirit and truth.
The magnitude of that command led you to become not a denominational bureaucrat but a revolutionary. As a field missionary who started out in an earlier era, you first had to revolutionize your own thinking about missions. You embraced new strategies you once questioned and aggressively spread them throughout a global enterprise.
You declared that the International Mission Board would no longer talk about reaching the whole world while sending missionaries only to part of it. Rather, we would mobilize Southern Baptists and other Great Commission-minded Christians to do whatever it takes to plant churches among every unreached, unevangelized and unengaged people group.
In a day when people demand hands-on involvement, you declared we would move beyond simply sending missionaries. Instead, we would make local Southern Baptist churches — regardless of their size — full strategic partners in the task of global missions. That is their biblical role, after all, something often forgotten in the age of professional missions.
It’s not always easy working with a revolutionary — especially one who advocates continuous revolution in pursuit of a grand vision. You have initiated two major IMB reorganizations (the latest is still unfolding) and many smaller ones during your tenure. Missionary and staff assignments have changed and changed again. Strongly held beliefs about mission methods have been repeatedly challenged. Comfort zones have been abolished.
And you’re still pushing and prodding us to take the next step.
Has it been worth all the blood, sweat and tears? As an occasionally queasy rider on the “Rankin Express” for the past 16 years, I say yes.
A large, traditional mission board now embraces new and even experimental strategies to impact lostness. An organization once known for going it alone now aggressively pursues mission partners overseas and church partners at home. I’m not exactly objective, but in an era suspicious of all institutions, I honestly believe IMB is more relevant than ever to people who seriously want to reach the nations.
You helped get us to this point, Jerry. Where your continuous energy comes from, I don’t know. Deep prayer, I suspect, and powerful coffee.
Thank you for being passionate and not just talking about it. Thank you for taking spiritual warfare seriously. Thank you for being obsessed — in a holy way — with a lost world.
When a reporter asked about your legacy a few years back, you responded: “I would like to be able to say, ‘We can no longer identify a people group that doesn’t have access to the Gospel.’ To me, that’s the essence of what we’re about.”
We’re not there yet, Jerry. But we’re a lot closer than we were 16 years ago.