This is an article from the July-August 1997 issue: The Southern Baptist “Transformation”

The Southern Baptists Restructure to Reach the Unreached Peoples

An Interview with Jerry Rankin, IMB President and Avery Willis, Senior Vice President for Overseas Operations

The Southern Baptists Restructure to Reach the Unreached Peoples

The largest Protestant denomination in the world, the Southern Baptist Convention, with over 15 million members, is going through a renaissance of mission strategy and structural change that is earthshaking in its magnitude. The Southern Baptists have been involved in missions for over 150 years, but recently the Foreign Mission Board, the mission arm of the denomination, changed its name and organization in the most significant restructuring in its history. This massive revitalization of overseas operations has significant implications not only for the Southern Baptists but for denominational and interdenominational mission organizations all over the world.

The new International Mission Board, as it is now called, is being reorganized with the goal of more effectively and rapidly reaching the Final Frontiers—the unreached peoples. Never before has so large a mission board reorganized itself with the purpose of reaching the unreached peoples.

The Southern Baptist mission board was created in the last century during the “Second Era of Modern Missions” when the focus was on geography and not on reaching ethnic groups or unreached peoples. The modern missions emphasis on crossing cultural and linguistic barriers to reach unreached peoples has necessitated a change in organization.

As this transition to a new organization and name takes place, we asked Jerry Rankin and Avery Willis of the new International Mission Board to give us their perspective on these massive changes.

MF: With 4,200 career missionaries on the field, the International Mission Board is the largest denominational mission agency. Briefly describe the significant reorganization that’s happening within the IMB.

Rankin: We have a tremendous force of dedicated, God-called missionaries who are serving effectively, but we believe we have been organized in a way that will not really stimulate the explosive growth we have the potential of seeing. We really need to become more focused than we have in the past on the harvest fields, on The Last Frontier, and on church growth.

We realize restructuring alone isn’t going to accomplish it. Our intention is to take the first step in liberating missionaries to fulfill their task, rather than having so much time and energy drained away in administration and internal organization.

Willis: We came to the conclusion that we cannot keep up with the activity of God, that God is moving in unprecedented ways, and that the IMB’s antiquated organizational structure and culture developed over 150 years cannot respond with flexibility and rapid deployment to meet the needs of this day.

The truth is that we have never started from scratch since 150 plus years ago. We’ve just grown and added and divided and reshuffled the organization. So we said, “Let’s see what we would do if we started all over again, looking at the world as we think God looks at the world,” and say, “How can we, as one organization, structure ourselves to be responsive and to move into the areas that missionaries have never gone before?”

MF: What are the key elements of the restructuring?

Willis: Number one, we erased the nine geographical lines that we had and started over. We ended up with 14 regions based on geography and affinity blocks or similar ways of response to the Gospel. This restructuring also positioned us for growth by lowering the number of IMB missionaries in each region from an average of between 400 to 600 down to approximately 300 to 350 missionaries.

The new paradigm is to choose “Regional Leaders” instead of Area Directors. The focus will be on leadership and strategy rather than on management and administration. These leaders will have an administrative associate and a strategy associate to help facilitate reaching all peoples. These leaders will help free up the missionaries to focus on strategy, teamwork, and accountability under the direction of the Spirit.

The point of this restructure is not reconfiguration, but revitalization. It is to fulfill the vision of taking the Gospel to every people and starting church planting movements among them that will bring glory to God.

Rankin: We trust that eliminating a lot of the emphasis on policies. procedures and administrative detail will free our missionaries for

the task of winning the lost and starting churches.

MF: About 10 years ago the IMB formed a division called Cooperative Services International which helped lead the agency into a greater focus on unreached groups. What have you learned from CSI that has informed your restructuring?

Willis: CSI has helped us focus on looking at the world the way God does—through people groups rather than geographical and political states. CSI also helped us form a profile for leadership. We feel like we need leaders to head the regional areas with a focus more on leadership and strategy than on management. So, we developed a 22-point profile of what those leaders would be like who would lead us into the kinds of changes in the new paradigm that we were looking for.

We’re giving special attention to the groups that are on the Joshua Project list. We’ve also learned a lot about the unreached people group methodology which is quite different from the residential missionary approach in an open environment. Another thing that we’ve learned is the importance of prayer preceding the work and out of that God communicating strategy and direction in the work.

MF: So, have you dissolved Cooperative Services International?

Rankin: CSI is not ceasing to exist. It has continued to grow and expand as that cutting edge part of our organization to reach The Last Frontier. As with other areas, we had to ask how much it could continue to grow until it began to lose its effectiveness. We are very strongly affirming CSI, but it will be configured in regional components rather than a global entity. Nothing will cease in terms of continuing to focus on those Last Frontier people groups.

Willis: We see that this methodology and approach will be used throughout the whole organization. In fact, there will be CSI components in regions that have unreached people groups in them that will continue to function much like they are now as well as trying to help all of our regions to use appropriate parts of the same methodology.

Any missionary can do what CSI is doing. The CSI methodology focuses on getting a witness out, working with Great Commission Christians, starting churches. All the ways CSI workers get to unreached peoples can actually be used with any group of people.

MF: How has the IMB’s heightened focus on mobilization developed?

Willis: Historically, we had left mobilization to the home staff except when the missionary spoke to groups during a furlough. But we have determined to be much more active in mobilization, especially in response to the American church that wants to be much more involved in personalized missions.

Our focus on mobilization has also resulted from our becoming a vision-driven organization. Our vision is to “lead Southern Baptists to be on mission with God to bring all the peoples of the world to saving faith in Jesus Christ.” The idea that we will lead Southern Baptists was somewhat controversial with our missionaries. They said, “No, no, no! You lead Southern Baptists. We don’t lead Southern Baptists.” We said, “No, you don’t understand. You, as missionaries, lead Southern Baptists. You’re the credible witness. And you must get involved in the mobilization process as well as in the implementation process.” Our larger mission statement also includes working together with other Great Commission Christians to reach all peoples.

The other thing happening in American churches is the desire for personalized contact and personalized involvement. This “hands-on generation” has exploded the number of Southern Baptist short-term volunteers in just the last two years from 10,000 to 15,000 annually. Also, many churches are saying, “We want to be involved with the unreached people groups targeted by the IMB. We want to send our people there. We want to pray for them. We want to help them.” And so, the Board has moved to say, “We believe the Great Commission was given not to the International Mission Board but to the churches and to Christians. We’re an agency to help facilitate the churches and Christians carrying out the Great Commission, rather than being the owner and possessor of the mission. We’re an implementor of that vision. And so, we want to say, “How can we work with the churches to facilitate the mission of the people of God to reach all peoples with the good news?”

Rankin: We as Southern Baptists have always taken pride in being a missions people, and yet we give less than 3 percent of our financial resources to global missions. We don’t have even one-tenth of one percent of our people going as missionaries. I see that trend beginning to change. God has brought us back to the fundamentals of our faith. We’re going through a restructuring of the denomination that streamlines it for fulfilling the Great Commission in our churches. I would envision a great growth and influx both in resources and personnel being called to missions.

In the five years, from 1959 to 1964, we actually tripled the number of missionaries under appointment. I believe that can happen again as God begins to capture the heart of His people and call them into missions. Our vision and desire is that we will all catch the passion for winning the whole world to Jesus Christ.

For more information on the ministry of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, you may call 1-804-219-1387 or access their Web site at

In Summary

What’s Changed?

In April the IMB trustees and administration agreed to these key changes to overseas operations.

  • Instead of 10 administrative areas, the world is divided into 14 smaller regions so that the work can grow without creating an unwieldy administrative load in each region.
  • Cooperative Services International, the FMB’s humanitarian arm that works in areas where traditional missionary methods are unwelcome, will be integrated into the 14 regions, with most having their own CSI-type unit. A new associate vice president for strategy coordination and mobilization will guide this integration.
  • Regional team leaders will be primarily responsible for strategy; administration will be delegated to other members of the regional team.
  • Regional leadership team members overseas and in Richmond will be missionaries who rotate in and out of the assignments, rather than being considered home office staff.

Why Change?

The IMB trustees approved a five-part rationale for reorganizing the overseas operations.

  • God is accelerating the redemption of all the lost people of the world. We are in the midst of the greatest mission opportunities in history. We must make whatever changes necessary to keep pace with what God is doing to complete the unfinished task.
  • At this unprecedented moment in Christian history, our missionary advance does not seem to be keeping pace with the opportunities or with what God is doing through others.
  • Our organization and culture must be flexible, responsive, change-oriented and innovative to meet the challenge of continuous rapid change.
  • To facilitate the ownership and responsibility of each missionary to maximize his or her potential and to fulfill his or her God-given call.
  • To provide administration and leadership that will function efficiently, eliminate overlap and create synergistic effectiveness.


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