One-on-One with the International Mission Board’s Executive Vice President
Editor's note: The following is an interview with 9Marks and Sebastian Traeger, the executive vice president of the International Missions Board.
9M: Am I right in saying the International Missions Board (IMB) is the biggest missions organization in the world?
ST: While I can’t definitively say whether the IMB is the largest missions sending agency in the world, it’s certainly safe to say we are among the largest. Our size and experience gives us the opportunity to influence and serve churches and other missions agencies.
9M: The way you fund people for overseas missions, therefore, has lessons for everyone. And you have made a number of announcements lately that you guys are going to change the way you do things. Can you describe for a non-IMB audience some of the measures you have recently announced? Help the person who has not been tuned into this story to get caught up.
ST: In short, while the IMB has an unbelievably generous support base through the partnership of Southern Baptists across the country through the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, we have been spending more than we bring in through those ways, and we were faced with the reality that we must reduce the number of our personnel for the sake of short-term financial responsibility and long-term organizational stability. So, in September, we announced a Voluntary Retirement Incentive in an effort to reduce our total number of personnel. In November, we announced that, based on projections, we would reach the stated goal of at least 600 people accepting the Voluntary Retirement Incentive.
All of the talk of reducing personnel has left many to wonder if we ever intend to grow the number of missionaries we send. The answer to that question is a prayerful and emphatic “Yes!” The announcements you reference in your question relate to our desire to grow the number of pathways we send missionaries through. We want to keep doing what we’ve been doing for 170 years—sending full-time church planters to unreached people and places. In fact, it’s our prayer that we can grow the number of full-time church planters we send. In addition, we want to create as many pathways—think ‘possibilities’—as possible for Southern Baptists to serve on cross-cultural church planting teams. If we are going to enable doctors, teachers, accountants, salespeople, fitness instructors, students, and retirees to go, we recognize this necessitates we consider how to open up the pipeline for more and different types of people to join in the task.
9M: I assume that you had both circumstantial and philosophical reasons for making these announcements. Is that correct? What were they ?
ST: Yes, that is correct.
Circumstantially, the financial picture I laid out is certainly a part of the reason. Another circumstantial reason is the rapidly changing global marketplace we live in. We have historically unprecedented access to the nations through the global marketplace. There are likely thousands of Southern Baptists living and working around the globe. Many are equipped and eager to take part in cross-cultural church planting if there is a way for them to be involved. Many others are willing to look for work globally if given the opportunity. These marketplace circumstances are leading us to explore ways to see how God may use these marketplace Christians.
Philosophically, we believe the task of global missions is given to every follower of Christ. We certainly affirm that God sets apart some to uniquely lead efforts in cross-cultural church planting, and we have no plans or desires to shift our focus away from training and sending those types of people. However, we see many others who do not have a clear way to be involved in a task they biblically desire to be involved in. Therefore, he question of how best to involve all Christians in the global missions task is one worth our time, energy and resources
In light of these and many other reasons, we have recently announced a pilot project we are working on called the Global Cities Initiative (GCI). In addition to our ongoing missions work all over the globe, we are focusing on 5 megacities in an attempt to answer two questions: 1) Can we successfully integrate students, professionals and retirees into cross-cultural missions teams? 2) Can we have comprehensive city strategies to account for various people groups represented within a complex megacity? Right now, we have men serving in each of the five cities as “City Leaders.” These men are working to lay the relational and strategic foundation for the teams that will be forming in the days ahead. In addition, we also have a number of students, professionals and retirees in the US exploring what it would look like to join these teams, and we have ‘city guides’ for each city to help people consider options for them—all of which you can learn more about at imb.org/cities.
9M: What is your own role at the IMB?
My title is the Executive Vice President. Essentially, this means that I work closely with our president, David Platt, and other key leaders at the IMB. David casts vision and I lead our efforts in translating that to strategy and implementation. Additionally, much of my time is spent on the health of the organization—from our Support Services to our Training to our Mobilization and to our Global Engagement. I am constantly asking, “How can we best steward the people and resources the Lord has entrusted to us for the sake of His global glory?”
9M: One of the key distinctives of the IMB is its reliance on the Cooperative Program for funding missionaries. The Cooperative Program has allowed missionaries to be missionaries instead of being fundraisers, because the IMB fully funds them. With the different pathways you are discussing, I assume that means funding may change as well. Is it fair to assume that IMB missionaries in the future will need to go from church to church to raise money?
ST: No, it does not mean that. The Cooperative Program is an unbelievable blessing to the IMB and all Southern Baptists. We encourage more churches to give more dollars to the Cooperative Program! When you step back and look at the SBC ecosystem, it is truly breathtaking. We praise God for the cooperative efforts of Southern Baptist churches and count it a privilege to partner together for the sake of gospel advance. So, to be clear, we are not making any changes to how our current missions force is supported.
As I’ve stated, we are exploring additional pathways to expand the number of people who can join missionary teams, and, we’re expecting that some of these people will be funded by the companies they’re working for!
One thing to note is that while the bulk of our missionaries are funded through the IMB directly, we do have a number of churches participating in sending missionaries directly through an IMB program called GC2. These churches fund the missionary themselves and continue to actively support the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. The bottom line is that we want to send many more with the good news of Christ and will continue to pray about and evaluate how best to do so.
9M: It sounds like sending churches will have a larger role to play. Can you elaborate on that?
ST: The task of missions belongs to the church. The IMB exists to equip and support churches as they send missionaries. We do not want to replace the church in sending missionaries – but be partners in the truest sense of that word. I could give a variety of examples of how we are seeking to strengthen our partnerships with churches, but let me give one to start.
Our training team, under the leadership of Zane Pratt, is developing a 6-month Discipleship Course. This course will be a prerequisite for any future IMB missionary. The prospective missionary will be required to walk through this discipleship course with a church leader from their sending church. It is through initiatives like this that we hope to serve and equip our partner churches as we come alongside them in the process of sending members of their churches to the nations.
9M: What criticisms have you received for this new strategy?
ST: The single biggest criticism is that many simply think it won’t work to incorporate those who do not have deep language and culture skills. “If these mobilized Christians are working jobs or taking classes full-time, how can they ever meaningfully be involved in cross-cultural church planting?”
On some level, this is a question all Christians in all cultures face. We are all called to meaningfully engage the lost in the midst of the other assignments that God gives us (e.g. our jobs, families, civic duties, etc.). While we recognize there are significant challenges represented by learning new cultures, it is our hope that kingdom-minded professionals who are intentionally pursuing vocation in cross-cultural contexts and being integrated into IMB missions teams will see fruit as they are intentional in sharing Christ with those they come in contact with.
And so the Global Cities Initiative is a pilot in which we are working even now to integrate a small number of students, professionals and retirees into missionary teams so we can prayerful and actively see how fruitful this approach is.
We have announced a plan to pilot this integration of mobilized Christians in our strategy in 5 global cities. The project is called the Global Cities Initiative. It is our hope to see a small number of Christians mobilized to these cities under the peer leadership of some of our current, fully-funded missionaries. Once in place, we are praying that God will answer the above question and many others we have so that we can see healthy churches planted and reproduced throughout hundreds of similar cities across the world.
9M: What risks do you see in your new strategy?
ST: The biggest risk is distraction. That’s not the biggest risk for the sake our the IMB’s reputation or David Platt’s reputation or my reputation. That’s the biggest risk because the stakes are so high. At last count, there are over 6,700 people groups in the world with little or no access to the saving name of Jesus. The risk of distraction is that even more will die without the good news of life in Christ. This is what is driving us to pursue new means of sending—our hearts break to know that billions around the world have still not heard the good news of the gospel.
9M: Are there any decisions yet to be made about the IMB's strategy in years to come? In other words, should we expect more announcements, and, if so, about what?
ST: We don’t have any big announcements up our sleeves that we’re hiding – so no plans for a big announcement. But we absolutely want to communicate well and keep churches updated consistently and frequently on what the IMB is doing. To that end, David already led one virtual live-stream that was open to anyone in the SBC to learn more about IMB, ask questions and learn how they can partner to take the gospel to the nations and we plan to provide more forums like that in the days ahead.
9M: If everything goes as you hope, what will we see looking at the IMB five years from now?
ST: My prayer is that we will see a dramatically enlarged and engaged missions force comprised of teams made of church planters as well as students, professionals, and retirees. It is also my prayer that we will have increased partnerships with local churches—partnerships that equip churches to lead people to see God’s heart for the nations. We also are praying that local churches would own global mission, and that internationalization efforts would grow where national believers and churches are themselves taking ownership of the mission in their own cultures. May God grant an enlarged mission force that will take the gospel to global cities, extreme places, and everywhere in between for the glory of God among all peoples.