Budget woes on the mission field? Wall Street Journal has the intriguing story

When giant corporations or major industries downsize, what better newspaper to report the news than The Wall Street Journal?

But cutbacks at the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board?

OK, I was a little surprised — pleasantly — to see the Journal delve into that important religion story.

The byline on the story belongs to Tamara Audi, who describes herself this way on her Twitter profile:

L.A.-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal, covering news in the West, and religion all over the place.

Audi does a nice job with this relatively concise — at about 825 words — report. I'm going to need to pay more attention to her byline.

Three keys that make this story work:

1. Real people.

Starting at the very top, the Journal puts a face on the news by focusing on a real missionary couple:

Peter and Jennie Stillman felt a divine calling to preach the gospel abroad. So the Southern Baptist couple left Texas with their three young daughters 25 years ago and became missionaries in Southeast Asia.

Now, the Stillmans are responding to a new call: early retirement. They are among hundreds of Southern Baptist missionaries working abroad who are being summoned home in a move to slash costs, after years of spending to support missionary work around the world led to budget problems.

“There’s definitely a sense of this being premature, but definitely a sense, too, of sovereign direction from God,” said Mr. Stillman, 59 years old.

2. Solid news peg.

After presenting a close-up view of the Stillmans, the Journal backs up and explains where their situation fits in the larger picture:

The International Mission Board, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention with 4,800 missionaries and 450 support staff, plans to cut 600 to 800 people from its workforce, a 15% reduction. It is starting by offering voluntary early retirement to veteran missionaries.

Since 2010, the organization has spent $210 million more than it has taken in, officials said. Last year, it had a $21 million shortfall.

3. Relevant trend.

Now that we know the who (missionaries like the Stillmans) and the what (cutbacks at the International Mission Board), the obvious question is: Why?

The Journal delivers once again:

The cuts to the program, considered America’s flagship evangelical missionary organization, underscore a fundamental change in mission work as the church becomes more global and the tradition of lifetime assignments for Christian missionaries sent “from the West to the rest” declines.

“There are seismic shifts happening in the nature of missions,” said Jim Ramsay, vice president of the Mission Society, an organization with Methodist roots based in Norcross, Ga. “Our role is changing, and our dominance is changing.”

I better stop copying and pasting and leave you something to read when you click the link.

Just a couple of other real quick notes about the story: Audi references questions about whether Americans still need to send missionaries abroad given the growth of Christianity internationally. That made me wonder if any mainstream media organization has covered what seems to be an emerging trend: Missionaries from the Global South and elsewhere coming to the U.S. — amid the "Rise of the Nones" — to proselytize here. For The Christian Chronicle, I recently profiled an Iraqi convert to Christianity who is serving as a missionary to Dearborn, Mich., the epicenter of Arab life in America.

Meanwhile, the Journal characterizes the International Mission Board's president, David Platt, as "a charismatic 37-year-old minister." I assume (and I know the danger of that) that adjective refers to the Baptist minister "having charisma." But I tend to associate "charismatic" with Pentecostals and not Southern Baptists. The Religion Newswriters Association's Religion Stylebook has this entry:

charismatic Christianity
A form of Christianity that emphasizes supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues and healing. Branches of mainline Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches have absorbed charismatic teachings. See Pentecostalism.

Unless Platt is a Baptist leader who speaks in tongues, a better word choice might have been helpful there.

But I'm nitpicking (that's why they pay me the big bucks, right?).

Overall, kudos to the Journal for this excellent, quick-hit trend piece. Check it out.


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