Key Terms

The IMB partners with churches to empower limitless missionary teams who are making disciples and multiplying churches among unreached peoples and places for the glory of God. This strategic aim includes and implies key terms and concepts that are not explicitly defined in the Baptist Faith and Message, the statement of belief with which we align our practices. Therefore, the purpose of this document is to provide biblically faithful and denominationally loyal definitions for terms and concepts that profoundly affect who we are, where we go, what we do, and how we train. We want a biblical understanding of these terms and concepts to be clearly articulated and consistently understood across the IMB so that we can wisely apply God’s Word in all of our work together. Doubtless, more terms and concepts will need to be defined in the days to come, but this document contains definitions of the following: gospel, evangelism, conversion, disciple, disciple making, calling, missionary, missionary team, unreached peoples and places, and church.

Click on one of the terms below to see more details about each key term or concept.

The gospel is the good news that the only true God,1 the just2 and gracious3 Creator of the universe,4 has looked upon hopelessly sinful men and women5 and has sent his Son,6 God in the flesh,7 to bear his wrath against sin through his substitutionary death on the cross8 and to show his power over sin and death through his resurrection from the grave9 so that everyone who turns from their sin10 and themselves11 and trusts in Jesus alone as Savior12 and Lord13 will be reconciled to God14 forever.15

  • The gospel is good news about God. It presupposes everything the Bible teaches about the only true God, and it is therefore unintelligible apart from biblical testimony to the character and activity of God. In particular, the gospel is rooted in the holiness of God and his righteous hatred against sin, and the love of God and his undeserved grace and mercy toward sinners. Biblically faithful gospel presentations are God-centered, with his nature and his actions at the heart of the message.
  • The problem the gospel addresses is humanity’s sinful rebellion against God and subsequent guilt and shame before God. Because God is holy and just, human rebellion rightly provokes his wrath and necessarily deserves eternal condemnation. While it is true that the gospel ministers to the consequences of sin in human life, biblically faithful gospel presentations identify the guilty rebellion of human sin as the root of our problem. Further, the gospel reveals the infinite severity of our problem, for an everlasting hell awaits every sinner who dies in this state of guilty rebellion against God.
  • The gospel centers around Jesus Christ. It is the good news that in Jesus, God the Son took on full humanity and became one of us while remaining fully God. It is the good news that in Jesus, the kingly rule of God has physically broken into human history. It is the good news that Jesus lived a life of perfect, sinless obedience–the life we have not lived–and then died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and to bear the wrath we deserve for our rebellion against God. Both in his life and in his death, Jesus traded places with us and served as our substitute. Further, the gospel is the good news that Jesus triumphed over sin and death in his glorious resurrection. It is the good news that he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father, and that even now he intercedes for his people. The gospel is the good news that Jesus will come again in glory, and that his kingdom will have no end. In order to be faithful to Scripture, then, gospel presentations are explicit about the identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and Son of God, and about his sinless life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection as the only hope of salvation for sinners.
  • The gospel is a call to repentance and faith. It is not just news; it is also a royal summons for traitors against God to lay down their rebellion and return to him through faith in Jesus. The gospel clearly declares that there is no other way for sinners to be saved, and it categorically denies that sinners can earn their salvation by anything they do themselves. Consequently, in order to be faithful to Scripture, gospel presentations challenge hearers to repent and believe the good news of Jesus, confessing him as Lord.
  • God grants amazing treasures to those who embrace the gospel. Their sins are forgiven, and they stand before God not only completely justified in his sight, but also clothed in the very righteousness of Christ. They have been reconciled to God. They have been adopted by God, and they are alive in Christ, having been born again by the Holy Spirit. They now possess the Holy Spirit as a down payment and foretaste of their inheritance in Christ. They are a part of the body of Christ, the church. They are kept by the power of God in salvation until they see him face to face. They will one day be free from sin as they live with God forever in infinite joy and glory. These treasures, and not earthly health or prosperity, are the true gifts of the gospel, and gospel presentations must be clear about this if they are to be faithful to Scripture.

1 Deuteronomy 4:35; Deuteronomy 4:39; Deuteronomy 6:4; 2 Samuel 7:22; Isaiah 44:6; John 17:3; 1 Timothy 1:17;1 Timothy 2:5.
2 Genesis 18:25; Proverbs 17:15.
3 Titus 2:11; Ephesians 2:8.
4 Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 43:15.
5 Romans 3:12; Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:1-3.
6 Luke 1:31-35; John 1:14; 3:16.
7 John 1:1-14; Hebrews 1:3.
8 Romans 3:21-26; 1 John 2:2.
9 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Revelation 1:17-18.
10 Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38.
11 Luke 9:23-24; Galatians 2:20.
12 Acts 2:36; John 3:16.
13 Romans 10:9-10; Philippians 2:9-11.
14 Romans 5:1, 9-11; Colossians 1:19-23.
15 Romans 6:23; Revelation 20:11-21:8.

Evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit16 with the aim of persuading people to repent and believe in Christ.17

  • Evangelism always means proclamation, and it always involves communicating the message of the gospel using language the lost can understand.
  • Evangelism is proclamation of the gospel. In order to be biblical evangelism, the full message of the holiness and love of God, the sinfulness of every human being, the atoning sacrifice and victorious resurrection of Jesus for our sins, and the necessity of repentance and faith, must be presented.
  • Evangelism is proclamation of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. We present the gospel message, but only the Holy Spirit can turn a person’s heart and mind toward Christ.
  • Evangelism has the aim of persuading people to repent and believe in Christ. Evangelism is more than mere presentation of the gospel; it is persuasion with the gospel. Evangelism necessarily includes a call for the hearer to repent of sin and believe in Christ.

16 Acts 1:8; 8:4; Acts 20:24; Romans 10:9-17.
17 Acts 16:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11.

Conversion is the divinely enabled personal response of individuals to the gospel18 in which they turn from their sin and themselves (repent)19 and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord (believe).20

  • Conversion is a divinely enabled response to the gospel. It is not something that fallen sinners can accomplish on their own. According to Scripture, unregenerate people are slaves to sin.21 They are unable to understand the things of God,22 unable to obey God or please God,23 and justly under his wrath.24 They are blinded to the gospel so that they cannot see it.25 They are not seeking God, but rather running away from him.26 They are dead in their sin.27 Apart from the gracious initiative of God, no one can be saved. Therefore, God-dependent prayer is an essential component of evangelism.
  • Conversion is a divinely enabled response of repentance and faith. The gracious work of God in conversion in no way minimizes or eliminates the necessity and responsibility of sinners to respond to the gospel call. Repentance involves turning away from sin and self. It marks a radical break from a life of rebellion against God.28 Faith involves not only believing that what the Bible teaches about Jesus is true, but also trusting in him alone for salvation while entrusting one’s life to him.29 Repentance and faith are not separate or disconnected actions, but rather two sides of the same response: turning away from a life of rebellion against God in repentance, and in the same act turning toward God through faith in Christ. Neither is complete or adequate without the other.
  • Conversion is a divinely enabled response to the gospel. Two particular implications of this reality are significant. First, the gospel must be proclaimed for anyone to be converted. No one can be saved apart from receiving, understanding, and believing the gospel.30 This makes the task of evangelism critically urgent.31 Second, the content of the message matters. It is absolutely essential that missionaries get the message right, especially in light of distortions of the gospel that are popular around the world. Any gospel message that denies or dilutes the full deity and humanity of Jesus, identifies the human problem as anything else or anything less than our sinful rebellion against God, does not major on the substitutionary death of Jesus and the reality of his bodily resurrection, or does not teach that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, is an unbiblical gospel which does not lead to biblical conversion.32
  • Conversion is radical. The Bible uses extreme language to describe it. Someone who has been converted has died to everything they used to be and received new life in Christ.33 They have, in fact, been crucified with Christ.34 They have been created all over again.35 They have been born again.36 Conversion to Christ is neither casual nor superficial.
  • Conversion is noticeable. While no believer attains perfection in this life, a converted person is a changed person. This is particularly evident in a Christian’s belief in the gospel,37 love for God’s people,38 and growth in holiness.39
  • Conversion is permanent. God never lets go of or loses anyone who has been truly converted.40 While it is true that some may profess faith for a time and then fall away, their very departure from the faith indicates that they were never truly converted.41 While God alone knows the condition of a person’s heart, it is neither biblical nor safe to assume that anyone who has denied the faith, whose life shows no evidence of regeneration, or who has voluntarily abandoned the fellowship of the body of Christ, has been converted, whatever they may have said or done in the past.

18 Acts 2:38; Acts 16:31.
19 Isaiah 45:22; Matthew 4:17; Luke 9:23-24; Acts 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:9.
20 Mark 1:14-15; John 1:12; Romans 10:9.
21 Romans 6:15-21
22 1 Corinthians 2:14
23 Romans 3:10-12; Romans 8:7
24 Romans 1:18-32; Ephesians 2:1-3
25 2 Corinthians 4:4
26 Romans 3:10-20
27 Ephesians 2:1-3
28 Mark 1:15; Luke 5:32, 13:3, 24:47; Acts2:38, 3:19, 11:18, 17:30, 20:21; 2 Corinthians 7:10; 2 Peter 3:9
29 Mark 1:15; John 1:12, 3:16-18, 11:25-27, 20:31; Acts 4:12, 16:31; Romans 1:16, 3:21-28, 4:1-8, 10:9-17; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 1:13-14; 1 John 5:1, 11-13
30 John 3:18, 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9-17; 1 John 5:11-13
31 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, 6:1-22
32 Galatians 1:6-9
33 Romans 6:1-11; Colossians 3:3-4
34 Galatians 2:20
35 2 Corinthians 5:17
36 John 3:1-8
37 Psalm 119; John 3:16-18; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 John 2:21-24; 4:1-6; 5:1-13
38 1 John 3:14-15; 4:20-21
39 1 John 2:4-5; 3:9-10
40 John 6:37-40; 10:27-30; Romans 8:31-39; Philippians 1:6; 1 Peter 1:3-5
41 1 John 2:19

Disciples are followers of Jesus.42 They have turned from their sin and trusted in Jesus as their Savior.43 They have died to themselves and surrendered their lives to him as Lord.44 Christ now lives in them, transforming everything about them from the inside out, resulting in six primary marks of a disciple. The first of these marks (a transformed heart) occurs at the point in time when a disciple places initial faith in Jesus. The rest of these marks are found in increasing measure as a disciple grows through faith in Jesus as a member of his body, the church.45

  • Transformed Heart: Disciples are spiritually regenerate—they have been forgiven of their sin and they are now indwelled by God’s Spirit.46 By supernatural grace through saving faith in Christ, disciples have been acquitted before God the Judge and adopted by God the Father.47 Such gracious regeneration has triggered a glorious transformation in every disciple of Jesus.48 Having been brought from death to life, disciples are new creations who now live as servants of the King and heirs of his kingdom.49 Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they grow in holiness as God gradually transforms them into the image of Christ from one degree of glory to another.50 Disciples hold fast to the sure hope of full and final future glorification with Christ.51
  • Transformed Mind: Disciples are biblically grounded—they believe what Jesus says.52 Disciples of Jesus trust the truth of Jesus and view the world around them through the lens of God’s Word.53 As disciples abide in Jesus, reading, hearing, studying, understanding, memorizing, and meditating on God’s Word, he molds their minds to become like his.54 They are continually being renewed in knowledge after the image of their Creator.55
  • Transformed Affections: Disciples are deeply satisfied—they desire what Jesus desires.56 Their pursuit of peace, joy, and life has led them to Jesus, who has not only saved them from their sin, but also satisfied their souls.57 Disciples, therefore, grow to participate in spiritual disciplines not out of a sense of duty, but out of a sense of delight: enjoying the exaltation of God in worship, craving communion with God in prayer, hungering for God’s Word more than daily food, confessing sins with grateful contrition, and loving God’s glory more than their own lives.58 Such love for God continually pushes out love for the things of this world.59 Disciples daily crucify the desires of the flesh as they bear the fruit of the Spirit and long for the return of the Son.60
  • Transformed Will: Disciples are humbly obedient—they do what Jesus commands.61 Disciples of Jesus do not merely hear the Word and so deceive themselves; they do what it says.62 Disciples see imperatives in the Scriptures as invitations from the Savior to experience the joy of active submission to Him.63 The more they walk according to God’s Word, the more Jesus conforms their ways to his will.64
  • Transformed Relationships: Disciples are sacrificially loving—they serve as Jesus serves.65 Having been reconciled to God through Christ, disciples continually work toward reconciliation with others in Christ: forgiving one another freely and serving one another selflessly.66 Disciples of Jesus join together as members of local churches where they love one another by laying down their lives for each other.67 Such sacrificial compassion extends beyond the local church as disciples care for their families, the global church, the lost, and the poor.68
  • Transformed Purpose: Disciples are missionally engaged—they make disciples who make disciples of all nations.69 Compelled by God’s grace, disciples are captivated by the Great Commission.70 Jesus has not only transformed their way of life; he has revolutionized their reason for living.71 Disciples live—and die—to share the gospel of Christ, to reproduce the life of Christ, to teach the Word of Christ, and to serve the world for Christ by praying for, giving to, and going to people around them and peoples around the world for the sake of God’s fame.72

42 Matthew 4:18-22.
43 Mark 1:15; Romans 10:9.
44 Luke 9:23-24; Galatians 2:20.
45 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 2:19-22; 4:4, 15-16; Colossians 1:18.
46 Ezekiel 36:25-27; John 3:1-8.
47 Romans 5:1-11; Galatians 4:4-7.
48 Titus 3:3-8.
49 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 8:16-17.
50 2 Corinthians 3:17-18.
51 Romans 8:18-39; Ephesians 1:11-14; 1 Peter 1:3-5; 1 John 3:1-3; 5:13.
52 John 15:7-11.
53 John 8:31-32; 2 Corinthians 10:5.
54 Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:16.
55 Colossians 3:1-10.
56 John 4:13-14.
57 Matthew 13:44; John 6:35; 10:10; Romans 5:1; Philippians 4:4.
58 Job 23:12; Psalm 42; 63:1-8; Matthew 4:4; 6:5-15; 22:37.
59 1 John 2:15-17.
60 Galatians 5:16-24; 1 Thessalonians 1:10.
61 John 14:15-21; 15:14-17; Matthew 28:19.
62 James 1:22-25.
63 Matthew 11:28-30.
64 Romans 12:1-2.
65 Mark 10:43-45; John 13:35.
66 Matthew 6:12-15; Romans 12:3-21; Ephesians 2:14-16.
67 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; 1 John 3:16-18.
68 Ephesians 5:22-6:4; Romans 9:1-5; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; James 2:14-17.
69 Matthew 28:18-20.
70 Luke 24:45-53; Acts 1:8.
71 Acts 20:22-24.
72 Psalm 67; 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; Revelation 7:9-10.

Disciple making is the Christ-commanded, Spirit-empowered duty of every disciple of Jesus to evangelize unbelievers, baptize believers, teach them the Word of Christ, and train them to obey Christ as members of his church who make disciples on mission to all nations.73

73 Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8

The call to salvation: First and foremost, calling is the gracious act of God by which he draws people to become disciples of Jesus and members of his church.74 The call to salvation comes through the proclamation of God’s Word in the power of God’s Spirit.75 Accompanying the call to salvation in Christ is a call to freedom,76 holiness,77 and suffering78 in Christ. The call to salvation forms the unshakeable foundation of a disciple’s primary identity now and forever.79

The call to mission: The call to salvation includes a call to mission, for every person who responds to God’s call as a disciple of Jesus receives Christ’s command to make disciples of Jesus.80 Disciple making is thus the God-given, Christ-enabled, Spirit-empowered duty of every disciple whatever his or her station, location, or vocation. In this way, every disciple plays an integral part in the eternal purpose of God to glorify his name through disciples made in every nation.81

The call to station: Christ calls disciples to specific stations in and through which they exalt him on mission. One such station is the family, where Christians are called to be faithful sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and mothers and fathers for the spread of God’s gospel and the display of God’s glory.82 Scripture also speaks of a divine call to singleness for the sake of mission, either for a period or for the entirety of one’s life in this world.83 Other calls to specific stations include Christ’s call to meaningful membership in his church84 and responsible citizenship in their community.85

The call to service: Finally, calling is the gracious act of God by which he directs disciples to make disciples in a certain way, at a certain time, among a certain people, in a certain location, or through a certain vocation.86 Calls to service may be fluid, operating at varying levels and open to varying assignments from God. What must be constant in a disciple’s life, however, is faithfulness to God’s call, no matter the cost, until God calls the disciple to different service.87 Calls to service are discerned and affirmed not just individually, but as a member of the church on mission in the world through Spirit-led, Word-driven, prayer-focused examination of a disciple’s desires, gifts, abilities, and opportunities.88

God’s calls to salvation, mission, station, and service bring strength and comfort for disciples to persevere in the middle of trial and trouble, doubt and discouragement, pressure and persecution.89

74 Isaiah 41:9-10; 43:1-2; Matthew 4:19; 9:13; Mark 2:14; Acts 2:39; Romans 8:28-30; 1 Corinthians 1:2, 26-27; Galatians 1:15; Ephesians 1:18; 4:1-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:7; 2 Thessalonians 1:1, 11-12; 2 Timothy 1:9; 2 Peter 1:3-11; Jude 1-2.
75 Acts 13:48-52; 16:14-15; Romans 10:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:14.
76 Galatians 5:13.
77 Romans 8:28-30; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 4:1-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:7.
78 Acts 9:16; Phil. 1:29-30; 3:8-11; 1 Pet. 2:20-21.
79 Phil. 3:14; 1 Pet. 2:9.
80 Mat. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8.
81 Ps. 67; Rev. 5:9-10.
82 Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Psalm 127; Proverbs 22:6, 15; Ephesians 5:22-33; 6:1-4; Colossians 3:18-21; 1 Timothy 5:8.
83 Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:17-35.
84 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:1-16.
85 Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17.
86 Mark 2:14; Acts 9:15-16; 13:2; 16:6-10; 20:22-24; Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 7:17;
Galatians 1:15-16; 1 Timothy 2:7.
87 Acts 18:9-11; 20:22-24.
88 Acts 11:22-26; 13:1-3; 15:2-4, 22-35.
89 Acts 9:15-16; 18:9-11; 20:22-24.

An IMB missionary is a disciple of Jesus set apart by the Holy Spirit, sent out from the church, and affirmed by the IMB to cross geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic barriers as part of a missionary team focused on making disciples and multiplying churches among unreached peoples and places.

  • “A disciple of Jesus set apart by the Holy Spirit, sent out from the church” – At the most basic level, a missionary is a “sent one” who goes out from the church in the power of the Spirit as a representative of Christ.90
  • “And affirmed by the IMB” – IMB establishes strategies and processes for mobilizing, assessing, affirming, training, supporting, and leading missionaries who serve as representatives of the IMB.
  • “To cross geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic barriers” – A missionary crosses one or more of these barriers for the spread of the gospel.91
  • “As part of a missionary team” – IMB missionaries serve on teams in which different people have different roles and responsibilities in the missionary task. See “Missionary Team” below.
  • “To make disciples and multiply churches” – The work of the missionary team involves evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and/or leadership training all aimed at seeing disciples made and churches multiplied.92
  • “Among unreached peoples and places” – Missionary teams plant churches and/or facilitate church planting among unreached peoples and places,93 entrust leaders of the church with responsibility for mission (i.e., equip them to shepherd the church and send out missionaries),94 and then move on to plant the church among other unreached peoples and places.95 See “Unreached Peoples and Places” below.

90 See the original apostles plus Paul in Mark 3:14; Luke 9:1-2; Matthew 10; Acts 9:15; 1 Corinthians 1:1. See also Barnabas in Acts 13:1-4; 14:4, 14; Andronicus and Junias in Romans 16:7; James in Galatians 1:19; and Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25.
91 Acts 13:4ff.; 22:21.
92 Mark 3:14; Luke 9:1-2; 24:27; Acts 8:4-8; 13:13-52; 14:1-23; Romans 15:17-23; 1 Corinthians 9:16; Galatians 1:15-16.
93 Romans 15:20-21; 1 Corinthians 3:6-11; 4:15; 2 Corinthians 10:13-16. See churches begun in Philippi (Acts 16:40), Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), Berea (Acts 17:12), Athens (Acts 17:34), Corinth (Acts 18:8–11), and Ephesus (Acts 19:10; 20:17).
94 Acts 14:21-23; 20:32; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-10.

In the New Testament, disciples on mission most often serve on teams in which different people have different roles and responsibilities.96 Beyond this biblical precedent, Scripture points to strong personal, practical, and pastoral reasons for disciples on mission not to serve in isolation from others.97 Even evangelistic reasons exist for disciples to exalt Christ in the context of Christian community.98 Consequently, we believe it best for IMB missionaries to serve on teams in which different people have different roles and responsibilities in the missionary task. A missionary team is an identifiable group of disciples who meet together regularly, care for each other selflessly, and partner with one another intentionally to make disciples and multiply churches among particular unreached peoples and/or places. Teams may be comprised of IMB missionaries, national believers, and/or other Great Commission partners. IMB provides multiple pathways through which missionaries may serve on one of these teams, each of which carries unique qualifications, involves various types of training, necessitates appropriate measures of accountability, and includes different levels of financial and/or other support from IMB.

97 Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Hebrews 10:24-25.
98 John 13:35; 17:20-23; Acts 2:42-47.

Unreached peoples and places are those among whom Christ is largely unknown and the church is relatively insufficient to make Christ known in its broader population without outside help.

In contemporary terminology, unreached peoples refer to ethnolinguistic groups in which the number of evangelical Christians is less than 2 percent. Though this definition is helpful in some ways, it is problematic in others, in particular because:

  • It arbitrarily identifies a 2 percent threshold as the determinant between “reached” and “unreached.” Missiologists have examined sociological data to determine the threshold at which a population segment can sufficiently spread its ideas to its broader population without outside assistance. However, sociologists (and consequently missiologists) have disagreed on what percentage of people constitutes that threshold. This reality, in addition to the absence of biblical prescription regarding such a threshold, renders attempts to identify a particular percentage of people as “unreached” or “reached” problematic, particularly if that percentage becomes the sole determinant in mission strategy. We believe it is valuable to identify the percentage of evangelicals among a particular people group or in a particular place, but we also couple that percentage with research regarding a number of other factors in order to accurately identify the state of the church and the access to the gospel among that people or in that place. Based upon all of this information, we then organize which missionaries we deploy where and what those missionaries do when they get there, letting the state of the church determine our strategy for mission.
  • It unnecessarily limits the “unreached” label to a particular people group. Research regarding people groups is necessary in light of Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations (of all the ethne), Christ’s promise that the gospel will be proclaimed as a testimony to all nations (to all the ethne) before the end comes, and the Bible’s guarantee that individuals from every tribe, language, people, and nation will one day be ransomed by God and represented in heaven.99 It is beneficial, then, to identify ethnolinguistic groups in the world and to track the spread of the gospel among them with the goal of reaching all of them. Furthermore, such research must inform mission strategy. However, we do not ignore the reality that when the New Testament records the spread of the gospel through the early church, biblical authors strongly focus on places, not only peoples. In Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary journeys, he primarily records the spread of the gospel from city to city and region to region, not people group to people group.100 Moreover, in Paul’s clear explanation of his passion to proclaim the gospel where Christ has not been named, he speaks in terms of distinct places, not of distinct people groups.101 This does not mean that biblical accounts neglect the mention (and even importance) of ethnic and cultural distinctions among Christian converts,102 but the earliest missionaries seem focused not just on spreading the gospel to unreached peoples, but also (and often even more so) to unreached places.

It is both biblical and helpful, then, to recognize the unreached in terms of both peoples and places, for both realities bear uniquely upon mission strategy.

  • Recognizing the unreached in terms of particular people groups has a unique bearing on disciple making. Ethnolinguistic barriers often hinder the spread of the gospel across people groups. Such barriers are necessary for missionaries to consider in evangelism and discipleship as they contextualize the gospel for their listeners. Missionaries must often learn a language in order to share the gospel, and they should always consider the ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious distinctions of their listeners when communicating the gospel to them and applying the gospel to their lives.
  • Recognizing the unreached in terms of places has a unique bearing on church planting. As previously noted, New Testament mission patterns put clear priority on planting churches in unreached places. As churches are planted in particular places, these churches are uniquely designed by God to include different people groups. The New Testament does not prioritize planting homogeneous churches comprised of single people groups. Across the New Testament, the gospel beckons (even requires) Christians to bridge ethnic barriers in the church.103 Therefore, we reject the notion that in places where multiple people groups exist, we should purposefully plant churches exclusively and perpetually comprised of one people group. Instead, we believe that in places where multiple people groups exist, we should plant churches that intentionally bridge ethnic barriers by evangelizing distinct people groups and incorporating them into the church. To be sure, language differences must be considered in church planting, for the ability to communicate with one another is critical to carrying out the core functions of the church. Further, even among people groups who may speak the same language, getting to multiple people groups in the same church can be a process which demands much patience and wisdom in disciple making. But it remains the end toward which we are working until the day when all the peoples gather as one people to give glory to God through Christ. 104

Our mission strategy, then, focuses on both unreached peoples and places. We deploy missionary teams to unreached places where Christ is largely unknown and the church is relatively insufficient to make Christ known in its broader population without outside help. We also deploy missionary teams to reached places with a significant population of unreached peoples. In addition, we deploy missionary teams to reached places with significant potential for reaching unreached peoples and places. Regardless of place, we proclaim the gospel to all people with an intentional focus on reaching different peoples and, to the extent to which it is linguistically possible, gathering them into churches together. In this way, we are resolutely focused on playing our part in seeing disciples made and churches multiplied in every place and among every people group in the world.

99 Matthew 28:19; 24:14; Revelation 5:9-10.
100 Acts 1:8; 8:1; 9:31; 11:19-21; 13-21.
101 Romans 15:18-24.
102 Acts 8:27; 10:1-2; 11:19-21; 16:48; 17:18.
103 Acts 14:21-23; 5:1-35; 1 Corinthians 8-10; Galatians 3:23-29; Ephesians 2:11-22.
104 Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 5:9-14; 7:9-12.

NOTE: The first paragraph below is a direct quotation from Baptist Faith and Message that explicitly defines church. The subsequent paragraphs and bullet points describe the implications of this definition for our work.

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by his laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by his Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord.105

We believe that every local church is autonomous under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of his inerrant word. This is as true overseas as it is in the United States. Some churches to which we relate overseas may make decisions in doctrine and practice which we would not choose. Nevertheless, we are accountable to God and to Southern Baptists for the foundation we lay when we plant churches, for the teaching we give when we train church leaders, and for the criteria we use when we count churches. In our church planting and teaching ministries, we will seek to lay a foundation of beliefs and practices that are consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message, although local churches overseas may express those beliefs and practices in different ways according to the needs of their cultural settings. Flowing from the definition of a church given above and from the Scriptures from which this definition is derived, we will observe the following guidelines in church planting, leadership training and statistical reporting.

  1. A church is intentional about being a church. Members think of themselves as a church. They are committed to one another and to God (associated by covenant) in pursuing all that Scripture requires of a church.
  2. A church has an identifiable membership of baptized believers in Jesus Christ.
  3. A church practices the baptism of believers only by immersing them in water.
  4. A church observes the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis.
  5. Under the authority of the local church and its leadership, members may be assigned to carry out the ordinances.
  6. A church submits to the inerrant word of God as the ultimate authority for all that it believes and does.
  7. A church meets regularly for worship, prayer, the study of God’s word, and fellowship. Members of the church minister to one another’s needs, hold each other accountable, and exercise church discipline as needed. Members encourage one another and build each other up in holiness, maturity in Christ, and love.
  8. A church embraces its responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission, both locally and globally, from the beginning of its existence as a church.
  9. A church is autonomous and self-governing under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of his Word.
  10. A church has identifiable leaders, who are scrutinized and set apart according to the qualifications set forth in Scripture. A church recognizes two Biblical offices of church leadership: pastors/elders/overseers and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

Based upon these guidelines, we identify twelve characteristics of healthy churches: biblical evangelism, biblical discipleship, biblical membership, biblical leadership, biblical teaching and preaching, biblical ordinances, biblical worship, biblical prayer, biblical fellowship, biblical accountability and discipline, biblical giving, and biblical mission.

As we make disciples among unreached peoples and places, and these disciples gather together in groups, we work intentionally to bring these groups to the point where they identify as a church (an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ; governed by his laws; exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by his Word; and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth). As disciples thus identify themselves as a church, we intentionally work with them toward becoming healthy churches with all of the characteristics above through patient teaching, training, prayer, and guidance. Our goal in the missionary task is healthy church formation.106

Finally, as IMB missionaries plant churches around the world, we prioritize meaningful personal membership in local churches. IMB missionaries are sent out as members from local churches in North America, and IMB missionaries serve as members of local churches on the field. Knowing that we need the church even as we plant the church, IMB missionaries actively participate on the field as members of local churches which align as much as theologically, ecclesiologically, and missiologically possible with the churches we are planting. Such local church participation may be in a church we are planting or have planted. IMB missionaries work to model healthy church membership in our lives as we plant healthy churches among the nations.

105 Matthew 16:15-19; 18:15-20; Acts 2:41-42,47; 5:11-14; 6:3-6; 13:1-3; 14:23,27; 15:1-30; 16:5; 20:28; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 3:16; 5:4-5; 7:17; 9:13-14; 12; Ephesians 1:22-23;
2:19-22; 3:8-11,21; 5:22-32; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:18; 1 Timothy 2:9-14; 3:1-15; 4:14; Hebrews 11:39-40; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Revelation 2-3; 21:2-3.
106 Acts 14:21-23; Titus.