IMB: Decreased baptisms and church starts due to record-keeping changes

Mark Busby, a Southern Baptist missionary to Japan, baptizes Shinichi Saito in 2011. (IMB File Photo/Baptist Press)

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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, IMB leaders insisted.

A news story in the Louisiana Baptist Message reported overseas baptisms reported by the IMB declined 71 percent in 2015, falling to the lowest recorded levels in 46 years. The IMB counted 54,762 baptisms in 2015, contrasted with 190,957 baptisms the year before. The last time the mission board reported overseas baptisms lower than the 2015 totals was 1969, when 50,003 baptisms were recorded. Similarly, the number of new churches declined 72 percent, from 13,824 in 2014 to 3,842 last year.

IMB President David Platt said questions about the agency’s 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.”

IMB leaders cited several factors 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.”

“There comes a time when the work is led more by the national believers than the IMB missionaries, and the numbers become less and less ‘ours’ to report,” Platt said. “This is actually success for IMB missionaries, for we are always working toward raising up national believers to join in the missionary task with us. However, such success ironically leads to a reduction in numbers to report, for the work now belongs more to national believers than it does to IMB missionaries.”

  • 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.”

“In these situations, the missionaries did not believe it to be responsible to report numbers that they could not personally verify on the ground,” according to a statement released by the mission board. “These IMB missionaries were confident that people were continuing to come to Christ and churches were continuing to multiply, but because they were limited in their ability to measure that multiplication, they chose not to report specific numbers.”

Transfer to indigenous Christians

The IMB report to the SBC Executive Committee charts a sharp four-year downturn. Baptisms fell by 211,689 since 2012, and the number of new churches declined 20,231 during the same period.

However, the board’s report explained both the declines were due primarily to a transfer of responsibility from IMB personnel to indigenous Christians in 2012 and 2015, while IMB missionaries moved on to work among unreached people groups, where progress is slower.

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“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,” the report stated. “When teams move on, IMB no longer counts statistics from their former work, and these are no longer reported in the annual statistical report.”

Need to re-evaluate data collection

“Complications” and apparent “discrepancies” in IMB statistics demonstrate “that we need to re-evaluate our current methods for collecting data from the field,” Platt said.

“This is one of many reasons why months ago we began a process of re-evaluating the quantitative and qualitative measures of our work around the world,” he continued. “This process of re-evaluating 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.”

Frank Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, expressed appreciation to IMB leaders for their commitment to accurate reporting.

“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,” Page said.

“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.”

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.

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