Keeping our commitments

Talking about tough financial times has become like talking about the weather, clichéd and often idle. Everyone knows it’s hot in August but we still say it; everyone knows that our economy has taken some hits in the last 10 years and that those hits have hit home with nearly everyone, but we still say it. The only appropriate response is to nod solemnly. This background noise about the economy causes a little unease as churches plot budget projections for the next year, as state conventions plan ministries based on a guess of how the churches will do, and as SBC agencies make commitments to project the ministry of Southern Baptists around the world.

And yet some things haven’t changed. Americans (including some of us) will spend billions this year on music downloads, fancier cars, movies, dessert, alcohol, pornography, and gambling. Our church buildings are still climate controlled, most have padded seating more than sufficient for their attenders, the kids will go to youth camp, and DiscipleNow will feature a live band.

Now, I’m a big fan of dessert and live music. It’s also nice to not have to wear a parka as I teach my Sunday School class. My point is that, at this moment, few of us are actually suffering or missing meals. Sometimes we talk as if we are.

This week in other places, new church starts will meet in borrowed space and the people will sit on rusty metal folding chairs. In some places the meeting space will not be climate controlled or even indoors. Believers around the world will worship God this week in English and a hundred other languages without benefit of trained musicians or even musical instruments. I’ve preached in places like that within 500 miles of here and have done so 8,000 miles away. I have friends half a world away who we’ve sent into privation for the sake of the gospel. They have gone out with joy, and with the expectation that we would share in their work, perhaps occasionally in their hardship. It’s a reasonable expectation.

A friend of mine tells the story from his work in North Africa of straining the goat hair from the milk he purchased for his kids to drink. The largest clusters of lostness seem to be in places where hygiene, safety, political stability, and medical care are most dodgy. When Americans transplant their lives in the third world for the sake of the gospel they accept to some degree the hardships of their new neighbors. I don’t hear them complaining but I do suspect we at home have too small an understanding of their commitment, and of our own.  

Christmas is an odd mix of wild rumpus and spiritual wonder for those of us whose hope is in heaven. Greater participation in the costs of our world missions enterprise can help individuals, families and churches keep our focus on the better side of Christmas.

Keeping our commitments begins in the heart of individual Christians and families. Without a doubt our standard of living is higher than that of our grandparents and yet that generation built our missionary apparatus and sustained it during difficult financial times long ago. They had fewer outfits, older cars, simpler meals, and a fairly narrow selection of amusements. Between their day and ours, Christian stewardship has become a shadow of what it was. Whether your biblical understanding of financial stewardship is that we should give 10 percent of our riches or that we should give more than that, we are generally far off that mark. Our churches have not prospered in proportion to our families.

And our churches have prospered to a greater degree than has our cooperative work. During the day that our grandparents kept less for themselves our churches also kept less for themselves. Generosity begins on an individual plane but is magnified and modeled by churches. Churches in that day often had fewer staff members, simpler programs, better volunteerism, more effective discipleship, and better missions giving. As average family giving has dropped to about 2 percent of income, undesignated church giving for SBC causes has dropped to between 5 and 6 percent. I don’t believe this change can be blamed on economic factors so much as on spiritual ones.

We have the capability of giving a record offering for world missions this year regardless of what the stock market does. I think that is one way we keep a commitment, one way that we express our heavenly priorities. Our churches, certainly in this part of the country, are wealthy enough to promote the offering without reservation or fear of their own financial loss. World missions is more important than some of what nearly every church does. Our church members are wealthy enough to give more than we normally do, also. World missions is more important than some of the things nearly every family buys.

Southern Baptist churches have sent their friends and children into harm’s way for the sake of the gospel. Nearly every issue of the TEXAN includes a story about people whose actual names we cannot use for fear that their ministries or lives would be endangered. For the most part, we respect that commitment. We also include stories in most issues about a place where Christians are attacked or arrested or even harmed for the simple convictions of their hearts. We have sent people into those very countries because they are the front lines where darkness and light clash. One way, one very safe and painless way, we can honor that commitment and participate in that crucial combat is to provide resources and personnel worthy of the cause.

Our Lottie Moon Offering for world missions is committed 100 percent to work around the world. It does not pay for domestic administration or even for promotion of the offering. It pays for workers and resources committed to spreading the good news in bad news places. As you give during this year’s offering season, I urge you to share just a little more of the burden that the few substantially bear. Lead your church, help your church, give a world missions offering this year that reflects God’s faithful blessings on our lives rather than our fears of financial hardship. The work that money will do will outlast the temporary things that would have otherwise claimed your wealth.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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