Denominational resources: North American Mission Board (SBC)

The North American Mission Board is the home outreach for the Southern Baptist Convention. You would rightly expect the largest Protestant denomination to do this well, and have ample resources. Since they’re more than a hundred times our size, they can work on a scale, and with a track record we cannot.

But I think what we can (and must) learn from the Southern Baptists is how to get over ourselves. It wasn’t all that long ago when the Southern Baptists were a geographically limited, nearly all-white denomination. By deliberately overcoming the color line and the Mason-Dixon line, they’ve been able to grow dramatically. “Southern Baptist” is now a (rightly) theological, not sociological, moniker; there’s a lesson there, though I’m not quite sure how it might apply to us.

The written word can be a liar, and not match reality. But the written word can also be a prophet, and shape reality towards the righteous. So when I look to the print resources of the NAMB (as with any group I’m describing; which is why I can seem so hard on other Unitarian Universalists) I see what can be perhaps more than is.

What do we learn from the NAMB? Evangelism is about compassion and incorporation. The “West tot he rest” notion of missions is not there; the NAMB isn’t about Southern whites converting the heathen. “Euro-Americans” are placed in a row with the other ethnic groups slated for mission, with working points on how to reach “them.” I don’t think that we have a verbal culture in Unitarian Universalism where whites are (yet) “them.” Whites are “us” and “we” have a problem with not having enough of “them,” who are members of other ethnic groups. In other words, we need to watch out language, and that means more than making sure the requisite number of African-Americans show up in photo coverage of General Assembly. Until we have a handle on reaching light-skinned Americans of European descent, how can we trust that we’re not pandering in our hetero-ethnic outreach? Evangelism is about compassion and incorporation.

The NAMB also encourages us to look at missions in an optimistic way. We need to loose the “we’ve got 0.08% of market share” rhetoric. It used to be 0.1% and either way it makes us sound like contamination. (“Unitarian Universalists are found at 800 parts per million.”) I like what NAMB does. This is from their church planting site:

By December 2000, Southern Baptists will have approximately 50,000 congregations. This re-presents a church for every 5,700 people in the United States and one church for every 227,000 people in Canada. If the North American population stopped growing today, at our current baptismal rate it would take close to 500 years for Southern Baptists to reach everyone.

I know that will cause some of my readers to get the chills. But what I get from that is “OK, Southern Baptists, there isn’t enough room for everyone: time to get to work.” This work of compassion and incorporation (even if it isn’t in a way I particularly like) assumes that there needs to be a place at the table for you and me, and they haven’t achieved that yet. They’re not only setting up the banquet table, but making sure there are enough chairs, and then going out to find the guests.

But contrast, Unitarian Universalists by-and-large have backed ourselves into a gnostic notion that you somehow become one of us (what, by magic?) and then find your “true home” in the fellowship of Unitarian Universalism, often by trial and error. How many times have I heard “I wish I found this church twenty years ago”? I sued to think it was a credit to the persistence of the seeker; now I see it as a failure of hospitality on our part. Still, I am encouraged when I hear others (not just Christians) express a similar frustration. We can change.

There is roughly one Unitarian Universalist congregation for every 290,000 Americans. Go get more folding chairs. We need to form many more churches.

Now, for the resources at the site above. When you get to brass tacks, I’m sorry to say that the resources are either old and of dubious usefulness or are particular to NAMB programs. Some of the “are you a church planter?” material are good for self-analysis, and the multicultural resources, as mentioned above, can and might inspire parallel action. But once you have gotten the challenge from the NAMB, you really can more on to richer resources.

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