USA (MNN/IMB) — After 17 years as the Southern Baptist International Mission Board president — and 23 more on the mission field — Jerry Rankin will be stepping down as president of the 164-year-old organization.
It was a different time in 1993 when Rankin became the IMB's 10th elected president. The internet was just getting started, terrorism was still seen as something that happened overseas, a gallon of gas in the United States averaged $1.16, and Twitter and Facebook didn't exist.
In the mid to late '90s, Rankin and the organization grappled with new ways to get the Gospel into tougher, more restricted places. Though the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union had opened mission opportunities years before, more and more countries were beginning to deny missionaries access.
"Keith Parks [Rankin's predecessor] had initiated some very creative approaches … to send missionary personnel into restricted countries and people groups, and initiate nonresidential missionary strategies where people could not actually live among the people they were targeting," Rankin says.
"But that had not really gained traction to have a significant impact on our global strategy … and literally one-third of the world did not have access to the Gospel. We were still in a paradigm of basically sending missionaries where missionaries were welcome and could serve."
Out of this challenge emerged New Directions, a strategy that focused less on individual countries and more on getting the Gospel to all peoples around the globe.
In 1993, when Rankin began his tenure as president, the organization saw nearly 4,000 missionaries and their Baptist partners help start more than 2,000 churches in 142 countries. In 2008, more than 5,500 IMB missionaries helped plant nearly 27,000 churches and engage 101 new people groups for a total of 1,190 engaged people groups.
With that progress, Rankin and the IMB also have seen their share of challenges and heartache.
In the wake of 9/11, the IMB lost eight missionaries to both random and targeted Muslim extremist attacks. Bill Koehn, Kathy Gariety and Martha Myers were killed Dec. 30, 2002, by a gunman at Jibla Baptist Hospital in Yemen. Bill Hyde died when a terrorist's bomb exploded in a Philippines airport March 4, 2003. David McDonnall, Larry and Jean Elliott and Karen Watson lost their lives March 15, 2004, when insurgents attacked their vehicle in the Middle East.
"Interestingly, it didn't deter the interest in missionary service," he says. "With each incident, we had a prolific spike of applications of people willing to give their lives, which I think was an amazing factor."
With more than 5,000 missionaries and all its resources, the IMB will never have enough missionaries to reach the whole world, Rankin says.
Rankin has often said he hopes his presidency will not be judged for the accomplishments of the organization under his leadership but for how the organization is poised for the future.
In the past two years, the IMB entered another major reorganization designed to help streamline administrative work, create more cost-effective and focused approaches to fulfilling the Great Commission, and reach people groups that have little or no access to the Gospel.
"I believe God has blessed Southern Baptists," Rankin says. "We stand on the verge of unprecedented opportunities to complete the task of engaging every nation, people and language with the Gospel."