Thursday, November 29, 2012

Converge: A History Lesson with Significance for Today

While visiting Shiloh Hills Fellowship in Spokane two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fellowship with Bud Malmsten, a retired pastor with Converge Worldwide. Bud's grandfather had actually been a founding member of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis in 1871. His father Rev. H. Wyman Malmsten (memorial) served with distinction on the staff of Bethel University. Bud helped me to understand the rich heritage of Converge Worldwide (aka the Baptist General Conference, formerly the Swedish Baptists).

First Swedish Baptist Seattle, now a parking lot.
Bud regaled me with many stories about his family, ministry and the history of Converge, but one of these tales stood out in my mind. He shared how, prior to the second World War, the Swedish Baptists sent their missionaries overseas under the leadership of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society of the Northern Baptist Convention.

At the time it was becoming common for smaller ethnic Baptist denominations to formally join the Northern Baptists (now known as the American Baptist Churches USA) or work in close partnership with them when it came to missions. In fact, according to Bud, the Swedish Baptists were very close to merging with the Northern Baptists as the Danish and Norwegian Baptists had for the most part already done. Wikipedia says, "Swedish Baptists had maintained an alliance with the American Baptist Publication Society, American Baptist home and foreign missions... Some Swedish Baptists expected to merge with that body."

That was until the 1940's when a major schism in the Northern Baptist Convention occurred. Concerned with the growing influence of liberal criticism of the bible, a movement began within the denomination to make sure that any missionaries being sent out with the ABFMS were consistent on their understandings of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The disagreement over liberal theology eventually tore the denomination apart, and in 1943 a new denomination was founded called the Conservative Baptist Association.

According to Bud, this split had a profound effect on the Swedish Baptists. Different voices within the denomination suggested merging with the American Baptists or one of the splinter groups. However, at an annual meeting, Bud's own grandfather Wyman Malmsten promoted a vision for what he thought might help set a new direction for the denomination. The idea was called "52 by 52."

With the Northern Baptist Convention coming apart at the seams, the Baptist General Conference had begun sending their own missionaries in 1944. At the time the number was very small, but the feeling was that if there were a significant number of foreign missionaries being supported by the BGC, then that would warrant their continuation as an independent and separate denomination. Wyman was instrumental in putting forth the vision of sending fifty-two missionaries by 1952 (which happened to be the centennial anniversary of the founding of the denomination). This would be the litmus test of their resolve to trust God and be faithful to the Great Commission.

The number seemed outrageous at the time that it was first proposed, but by 1950 they had already sent out more than fifty-two missionaries! Wyman's calculated gamble paid off and the denomination rallied around their missionaries. The missionaries sent out became the glue that held the denomination together. Wikipedia's less sensational version corroborates the story, "The conservative Swedish Baptists pulled back from growing liberalism of the Northern Baptists, and in 1944 formed their own Board of Foreign Missions. This moved them toward independent existence, which they have maintained to the present."

In a book published by the denomination entitled, "Fifteen eventful years: A survey of the Baptist General Conference of America: 1945-1960" it says:

In June, 1944, the Swedish Baptist General Conference took one of the most momentous steps in its history... it adopted a series of resolutions which led ultimately to the creation of an independent Board of Foreign Missions. Until that time the official missionary program of the denomination had been carried on largely through the agencies of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. The year 1944 holds special importance for Conference Baptists, for it marks the beginning of an independent program of foreign missionary endeavor. 
The significance of this step in the history of the Conference was very great indeed. The decision represented a new-found confidence in the future of the denomination and a determination to discover a distinctive role for Conference Baptists within American Christianity and in the world mission of the church... the new foreign work had special importance as a rallying point for Conference Baptists, and the launching of the new program contributed immeasurably to the change from pessimism about the future of the denomination to optimism. (p. 63)
Two quite different kinds of motivation lay behind the decision to create an independent foreign mission society. Some leaders were motivated primarily by a concern for the theological integrity of the Conference missionary participation. Some others were motivated primarily by a concern to promote denominational unity and loyalty through a vigorous world-wide outreach. The reasons for the Advance were summarized in an official publication of the Board of Foreign Missions in 1950:  
Two reasons for this new action were: First, our churches wanted to be sure they were supporting only missionaries who were true to the Word of God and who were under the direction of a board that was faithful to the Bible; second, since God had kept our churches together as a Conference fellowship, showing us that He had continued work for us to do, we were convinced that we must accept as our own the obligation of going with the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. (p. 70-71)
In 1945 a six-year plan for the development of the new work was adopted. The plan called for the appointment of at least three missionary families and one single worker each year. It was hoped that by 1952, the year of the denominational centennial, there would be fifty-two Conference missionaries under appointment.
... Five mission fields were opened in the first six years: China in 1945, the North Bank of Assam, India, in 1946, Japan in 1948, the Philippine Islands in 1949, and Ethiopia in 1950.  (p.72)

I already liked many things about Converge Worldwide, but learning this history has made me even more excited to serve as one of their missionaries. After establishing the separate mission board in 1944, they opened up five new fields in 1948--one of these was Japan. Next year will be the sixty-fifth year of Converge missions in Japan! This is a denomination with a serious commitment to missions, and one that has made missions part of its DNA. It is also a reminder that as I visit different churches I am serving to link them together with other churches in the body of Christ as we work together to advance the Kingdom of God!

1 comment:

Joel Wright said...

Great story, full of interesting details. From my own years as a missionary with Converge in Brazil, I learned that in the late 1800's - early 1900's Swedish Baptists were already sending missionaries to China (Carl Vingren, also former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist MN), Eric Alfred Nelson (Apostle of the Amazon, Brazil, joining support under Southern Baptists), Gunnar Vingren & Daniel Berg (eventual founders of large Assembly of God, Brazil)...Indeed, God has annointed many, a stream that has a domino effect until today and beyond. - Joel Wright