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Ezell: We must redefine success for churches

Mike Ebert/NAMB

INDIANAPOLIS – Kevin Ezell told trustees of the North American Mission Board that he is determined to help pastors and laypeople redefine what success looks like for their churches.

“Success cannot be defined based on how many people a church keeps,” Ezell told trustees gathered for their Feb. 5 meeting. “We must help them redefine success based on how many a church sends. Churches are designed to be sending agencies.”

As Ezell addressed the entity’s leaders, winds blew 7 inches of newly fallen snow through the streets of Indianapolis, as if to vividly illustrate that the city differs greatly from the South where Southern Baptists are so strong. Since becoming NAMB’s president in September of 2010, Ezell has repeatedly challenged South-based churches and leaders to put more money and focus on the hard-to-reach, under-served areas of North America.

Indianapolis, which is the fastest growing city North of the Mason-Dixon line, has only one Southern Baptist church in its entire downtown area. Ezell said it will take new thinking and a new scorecard for churches to turn that around.

“I want to encourage churches to begin to tally as they plant churches, what those churches actually run on a Sunday,” said Ezell. He said Atlanta pastor Bryant Wright recently told him attendance at his Johnson Ferry Baptist Church was flat in 2013, “But when they calculated the number of people they had sent out to other states and other countries and the attendance that was happening at those churches, it was incredible what their attendance was compared to 10 years ago.

“When you invest to that degree, it hurts. When you send out your best it takes months and sometimes years to recover,” Ezell said.

In other trustee business:

NAMB Chief Financial Officer Carlos Ferrer said Cooperative Program revenues are 8 percent off budget and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® revenues off 2 percent so far this year but he anticipates both offerings will improve in the months ahead. In 2013 giving to NAMB’s Annie Armstrong Offering totaled $57 million, slightly off from the 2012 total of $57.2 million.

Trustees approved a modification of NAMB’s first ministry assignment to allow NAMB to cooperate with the International Mission Board to plant churches outside of U.S. and Canadian borders in certain, limited circumstances. This would give NAMB the potential for planting churches near American military bases abroad that would serve U.S. service men and women. The change still must meet with SBC Executive Committee approval before being voted on by messengers at an upcoming meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Trustees heard regional reports including word that Canada saw 33 church plants in 2013 compared with 19 in 2012. In the West Region, Alaska reported 19 church plants after averaging five or fewer each year over the last decade. In the South, a new funding model will allow NAMB to shift several million more dollars to non-South regions beginning in 2016.

Ezell told trustees in the fall NAMB will release a new resource tentatively titled Life On Mission. The book will help churches become more missionally focused and help individuals discover how their lives can be on mission. The book will include an evangelist tract and mobile app component that will help churches train members to share the gospel.

Ezell said NAMB’s next Send North America Conference, which takes place Aug. 3-4, 2015, in Nashville, will be designed to include laypeople who want to learn new ways to make their lives more missional.

In addition, NAMB is expanding its ethnic church planting focus. Korean, Chinese, Hispanic and Native American groups each have NAMB-funded National Church Planting Catalysts (CPC) focused on starting churches for their groups. Additional CPCs will work to start churches for the deaf and for members of the military. Another CPC has been given the task of starting missional communities in each of NAMB’s 32 Send North America cities. These communities will focus on evangelism and spiritual development with the goal of someday becoming church plants.

Turning to the 1,000 SBC churches that die or otherwise disappear from SBC rolls each year, Ezell shared about NAMB’s legacy church planting efforts.

“Literally millions upon millions of dollars of buildings a year are being vacated,” he said. “It’s the perfect opportunity to pass the baton of what once was to what can be. And we must walk them there. It’s very difficult and it takes a good bit of trust and time.”

Ezell highlighted recent reports that after three years, SBC churches planted in 2010 have a 91 percent survival rate and continue to gain in membership, attendance, baptism rates and missions giving.

“We have to do everything possible to come alongside these very courageous missionaries who are pushing back darkness,” he said. “To do that we have to do everything possible to change the conversation to help churches define success in not how many they keep, but how many they send out. That’s why we did not chose the name ‘Keep North America,’ we chose the name ‘Send North America.’”