A Conversation with the President of the North American Mission Board
In addition to our weekly blog pieces, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 9 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. Since these pieces represent some of our best work, we want to give them greater circulation. So, starting this semester, our blog will post a new piece each Wednesday as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “The Great Commission,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the last of ten installments.
As I began to work through the theme of the Great Commission, I felt daunted by how little I knew. I wanted to talk with an expert on mission work, someone who interprets the Great Commission professionally, and learn from his or her expertise.
To this end, I reached out to Dr. Kevin Ezell, a former Southern Baptist minister who is now the President of the North American Mission Board. NAMB supports over 5,600 missionaries who serve the United States, Canada, and several countries in Central America through disaster relief and starting (or, in Evangelical shorthand, “planting”) new churches. We discussed his work, millennials, missions giving, and the problem with American compassion. I hope you can learn as much from Dr. Ezell in these pages as I did interviewing him.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
Titus Wills: You serve as the President of the North American Mission Board. If you could, say a few words about NAMB’s mission goals.
Dr. Kevin Ezell: We want to see every church “on mission,” or actively participating in mission work. Of the 46,000 or so churches we partner with, the overwhelming majority would not be considered on mission, and our goal is to come alongside pastors and help them get their churches there. For example, most churches believe in church planting, but aren’t involved in it. Most churches believe in providing relief to people in unfortunate circumstances, but aren’t involved in it. <span=”pullquote”>We have too many churches where people think the right things but don’t necessarily pay their dues.
TW: And what is your role in getting more churches on mission?
KE: We have two channels through which we try to engage pastors and churches. One is to extend our network through church planting. Our goal there is to help current churches plant 1,200 new churches per year. The other is to send relief through compassion ministries: we have a ministry to human trafficking victims, we have a ministry to foster kids, one for disaster relief, we have immigrant and refugee ministries—the list goes on. So those are the two main ways we try to get churches engaged. And, especially on the relief side, we try get them engaged locally where they are by looking out for the needs of people in the shadows and, more largely, how they can engage in ministries all over North America. My job is to cast vision for pastors and basically give them the right tools for missions. I always say that our role is to be E-Harmony for mission work. You tell us what you want and we’ll connect you with a missionary or a mission organization that meets those criteria.
TW: When in your life did you realize that missions were something you felt a specific calling for?
KE: I’ve always had a heart for ministry. I’ve always had a heart for planting churches and looking outside myself. With this job, one opportunity led to another. I never really wanted to leave the local church, but because of my church-planting experience and my desire to make some administrative changes that made NAMB more efficient with the money people sacrificially give us, I decided to take up this role.
TW: At my home church, I’ve observed that most of the missionaries we support and send out are young people. Many (if not most) full-time missionaries are young. Has that been your general experience with NAMB?
KE: Yes. The overwhelming majority of our missionaries are young. Something like 75 percent of the missionaries we support are under the age of 35.
TW: It is expected in the LDS Church that a young person will spend at least a year, maybe more, on the mission field before they settle down and begin to start a family. What lessons could Christians learn from them, and from other religions that do proselytizing?
KE: They do a very good job of instilling a sense of loyalty. Once you go serve on the mission field, you feel loyal to the church that sent you, often for the rest of your life. We don’t expect or ask for as much from our young people. They have mobilized their next generation in a way that we largely haven’t. We don’t do nearly as well in leadership development—like I said before, we have some great young people, but we don’t train them to step up for their faith like other religions do. We need to do a better job of purposefully preparing our next generation of leaders.
TW: Do you think the American church shows a proper amount of compassion for unsaved people both at home and abroad?
KE: Some churches definitely “get it,” but I’m convinced that the majority of churches do not fully comprehend the needs in their local communities, let alone in the world. The Department of Family Services put out a statistic recently that said there are 400,000 American kids in foster care, and secular programs are more than willing to partner with churches where they are. What’s really sad is that, in most counties, there are more churches than foster kids, and if congregations had just one family apiece willing to adopt, we could completely meet the need, but we don’t have even one willing family per church. So you have these government agencies doing what churches could very easily do, and that’s sad. It’s right here in our communities. In Atlanta, where I live, people might not understand the human trafficking issue, and we’re one of the top five cities in North America for human trafficking. <span=”pullquote”>Sometimes we live in a bubble where everything’s fine in our circles, so we think everything is fine everywhere.
TW: Before you took the job you have now at NAMB, you were the pastor of a church in Louisville, Kentucky. How did you work in that role to get your congregants out of that bubble?
KE: When I pastored, I would always take our leaders to Guatemala. They might have seen poverty on TV in a commercial for a nonprofit, but if you can’t smell it, touch it, give hugs to people who are afflicted by it, you just won’t be impacted the same way. And sometimes I would have to take my leaders to Guatemala and get them to see the homeless there to want to make a difference for homeless people in Louisville. When they came back, they started a ministry for local homeless kids that’s still going today. Now my job is to help pastors of congregations like that one to do similar things in their churches.
TW: Let’s talk a little about how that works practically. How does NAMB partner with local churches, like the one you used to pastor, to fulfill the Great Commission?
KE: We look at ourselves as gas and churches as fire. We try to identify where God is working and throw gas on the fire. If we see churches trying to get a little involved in church planting or compassion ministry, we try to help them do it in a bigger way and have more of an influence. But even if they’re not doing anything, our job is to come alongside them and help them learn what to do and how to do it.
TW: How do church budgets work and how does missions money tie into a church’s budget?
KE: Every church is different, but most churches would set aside a certain percentage for missions. That’s where, I think, we’ve really gotten off track: churches have gradually gone to where they spend more and more money looking inwardly on themselves and less and less money looking outwardly on missions. What happens is that the more money they have, the less they are going to invest in any ministry in the community, and their influence gets lessened in a significant way. And we’ve seen that the churches who focus outwardly have more influence in their communities and have a greater impact for the gospel.
TW: So charitable giving from churchgoers is something NAMB needs to function. Where I grew up, we talked a lot about the concept of tithing—the giving of ten percent of your income to your local place of worship—that religious Jews observed in the Old Testament. In your opinion, how does that concept inform giving in the modern American church?
KE: You mentioned that tithing is something they really only talked about in the Old Testament, but I think it’s still important. We have to remember that there is nowhere in the New Testament where God’s grace causes us to do less. In every case, because of grace, we are called to do more. Ten percent was a minimum in Jewish law, but I would think that the fact that God has saved us from our sins would cause us to want to do more than the bare minimum for Him. The more churches are willing to give, in terms of money and people, the more God will be willing to bless them. I have run into many people and many churches where they gave away more for church planting and relief work, and then God brought them more than they had before they gave. But most churches don’t see that. They just don’t have a vision for what can happen when they’re willing to give more.
TW: And that’s especially relevant to planting churches, because you need to have a base of folks who are committed attendees before you can reach out to the community effectively.
KE: Absolutely. And we typically just send our leftovers to start new churches. But in Mark, [This account, which Dr. Ezell paraphrases is from Mark 12:28–33. ] when Jesus was asked by a scribe what the greatest commandment was, He gave two answers: “Love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, mind and strength;” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” For me at NAMB, I have to help our churches see how they can love their neighbors as themselves. If we truly love others as ourselves, we are going to look at the churches we plant and value their needs as equal to our needs. There are sixteen kids a day entering foster care in each of our counties, and they all have absolutely nowhere to go. If we really loved those kids like we loved our own, I think we’d be a little more willing to care for them. And until we really truly love people like we love ourselves, we cannot be all that God wants us to be.
Remember in Matthew [Here Dr. Ezell gives a loose paraphrase of Matthew 25:31–46.] when Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the goats? He says to the sheep, “When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink; when I was naked, you clothed me.” And the sheep are like, “We don’t remember doing any of that for you,” and He says, “When you did it for the less fortunate, you do it for me.” And then He turns to the goats, the ones who didn’t make the cut, and He says, “When I was hungry, you didn’t give me anything to eat. When I was thirsty, you didn’t give me anything to drink.” So that was Jesus’ litmus test for if people really got it or not. You can say you’re a believer, but you really have to focus on this: “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” And I believe He’s saying that the way you prove that love is by loving your neighbor as yourself. I don’t mean to go into a sermon but that is the crux of the challenge that we have here. We fund ourselves and keep all the best people in our own churches. We love ourselves pretty well, but we don’t love others as ourselves.
TW: Let’s say, hypothetically, that we are willing to love others with our giving. If people in Christian churches gave more, how would local church missions budgets be affected? What effect would that increased giving have on NAMB as a whole?
KE: Wow, for NAMB, that would be huge. We get about half of our money from a once-a-year thing called the Andy Armstrong Easter Offering. If our churches just increased that single offering by just 10 percent at each church, you’re talking hundreds, no, thousands, more missionaries. And you’re talking about churches giving a little more, but we have some churches that don’t give at all. We have 15,000 churches that we’re technically partnered with who have no record of ever giving anything to missions. That’s a third of our partner churches. It’s absurd, especially when the church itself was founded on missions, on going out and making disciples. I believe that if a church goes two years without giving a single dollar to missions or baptizing a single person, we should cut them loose.
TW: A church that ignores the Great Commission like that isn’t even a church.
KE: That’s right. They’re just dead weight giving the rest of us a bad name.
TW: We obviously can’t dig into people’s psyches, but why do you think so many American churchgoers have reservations about giving?
KE: It’s “what have you done for me lately?” What value do you add? And I think that’s legitimate. If we can’t show that NAMB adds value to the life of their church, there are a lot of places they can give to. Six years ago, we decided to cut 50 percent of our travel and 70 percent of our staff, not because we couldn’t afford them, but because we want to do the very best we can with what they’ve sent us. They’d rather buy a goat and two chickens to send to Africa than give to their local church because they think the goat and chickens will be more valuable.
TW: And how often do you think people don’t give at all? What can NAMB do to convince more people to give charitably?
KE: I think we just have to show them the need. It’s interesting how much more this younger generation wants to touch and feel what they’re giving to. People want to meet the missionaries or FaceTime them. But once they actually see the need, they give. If they can point out a need, like relief for victims Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Matthew, they’ll text and give $10 from their phone. The days of envelopes and checkbooks are pretty far gone. We have a service now where we can send mass texts: “there’s major flooding in Louisiana. Follow these steps and you can give to help us with relief,” and we’ll get back $150,000 just by sending out a text message. And the money we save by doing that so easily can go right into the pockets of families who need it. It’s a completely different world now; we just have to adjust to it.
TW: We’ve talked a lot about how the way missions happen is changing, and that the goals and demographics of those who serve are changing as well. Things will definitely keep changing as time goes by. So, imagine it’s 2027. How do you want to see churches and missionaries working towards the Great Commission 10 years from now?
KE: I think the majority of our missionaries will be bi-vocational. Our biggest efforts in 10 to 15 years will be to get engineers, attorneys, teachers—people from every profession, really—to become white-collar, bi-vocational ministers. One of our best church-planters right now works as an internal medicine doctor on weekdays. Another guy is a full-time schoolteacher in Long Island who also plants churches. As time goes by, we will be able to have more missionaries serving Christ through their secular careers and helping build up Christianity when they’re not working. There’s a lot more there for us to accomplish.
Titus Willis (CC ’18) is an English major aspiring to one day venture into law and politics. He hopes to see continued growth in every aspect of Columbia Crown & Cross as it reaches students with love, truth, and life.
Dr. Kevin Ezell serves as the President of the North American Mission Board, which works to reach North America through evangelism and church planting. He lives with his wife and six children in Alpharetta, Georgia. You can check out his writings online at NAMB’s Whatever It Takes blog, or on Twitter at @kevezell