In August 2015 the leaders of the Southern Baptists, America’s largest Protestant denomination, announced that their world wide missionary activity, the International Mission Board, would need to cut 800 employees, after spending a total of $210 million more than it had received since 2010. Last August there were about 4,800 missionaries and 450 staff.
Now the number of missionaries stands at about 3,800 and there are about 300 staffers, said International Mission Board spokeswoman Julie McGowan. In addition to remaining the largest missionary-sending organization of its kind in the world, the current full-time payed foreign missionaries staff will be augmented by lay Southern Baptists, ranging from students to retirees who spend time overseas.
Of course, other Protestant Churches have additional thousands of missionaries, and the Mormon newspaper Deseret News (August 2013); states that there are now more than 75,000 Mormon missionaries in the field worldwide.
The decline in Baptist missionaries is due to financial limitations and not to a growing belief among Baptists in the need for religious pluralism. Southern Baptists have seen a decline in membership, dropping from 16.3 million in 2003 to just under 15.5 million in 2016. With the money saved by the reduction of full time foreign missionaries, the Baptists will likely expand their efforts to convert Jews and Muslims in the U.S.
Even though missionary groups spend many thousands of dollars for each Jew or Muslim they convert, the Baptists did not give up seeking to convert Muslims and Jews because they believe that “there is no salvation outside the church”. Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam do not have a long tradition of thousands of full time, professional missionaries whose primary function is seeking converts from other religions.
Judaism lacks a strong missionary impulse because Judaism like Islam is a pluralistic religion. Islam is more universalistic in its outreach efforts than Judaism, but both religions deny the traditional Christian claim that “there is no salvation outside the Church’.
Judaism teaches that the Jewish way is right for Jews; and those non-Jews who want to join the Jewish Community. But Judaism also teaches that good and kind people in other monotheistic religions, who follow the teachings of their own religion, also have a place in the world to come.
As the Qur’an says, “ To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race [compete] to [be] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ. (5:48)
According to Jewish teachings, correct behavior in society is more important for all human beings than correct beliefs about God, although for Jews and Muslims correct beliefs about God are also vital. Thus, while Jews welcome non-Jews to join our community, we do not have a urgent motive to ‘enlighten’ or ‘save’ them.
So why do so many people raised as Christians become Jews or Muslims. I think many of the reasons outsiders find Islam and Judaism to be attractive are very similar. First and foremost, many people who grew up in a Christian church, cannot understand or believe in a Divine trinity; or in the doctrine of original sin.
They are attracted to Jewish and Muslim concepts of God’s unity; and the basic goodness of human beings created in God’s image.
Others are drawn to the warmth of Jewish and Muslim extended family life, and the importance of being part of a traditional religious community.
I myself believe that Muhammad was a prophet of Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Jews of his day; although he was 1,200 years ahead of his time. The same was true for Jesus, 2,000 years ago, who said plainly:
“Do not think that I came to abolish Torah Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from Torah Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17)
For those people who believe in one God, but cannot fit into a Trinitarian church, and for those people who do not need, or want, statues and pictures of God; the Mosque and the Synagogue are the right place to worship.
Islam offers its believers: a world wide, multinational monotheistic community, yet all praying in one language and facing the same place.
Judaism offers those who belong to it: a monotheistic community with a 3,500 year long tradition of overcoming national adversity, and adjusting to international cultural change, yet all praying in one language and facing the same place.