By Debbie Legg
1962—10 am Sunday at First Christian Church in Fairfield, Illinois. The worship leader sings from a hymnal, accompanied by a pipe organ and piano. A senior minister, youth minister, secretary, and custodian make up the staff. Average attendance is more than 400. The missions program, with a budget of $7,000, sends support to two missionary families and answers the occasional minor request. But such a budget doesn’t go far.
Then minister Robert E. Reeves and the missions committee introduce the idea of a faith-promise conference as a means of supporting missions worldwide.
2007—same time and place. The worship team leads worship songs accompanied by a band and projection screen. Four ministers, two secretaries, two preschool teachers, and two custodians comprise the staff. Average attendance is 400 to 500. The faith-promise method of supporting missions gives to 16 American missions, 7 colleges, and 25 foreign missions, with commitments totaling $225,000.
How is it possible a program First Christian Church (FCC) started 45 years ago is not just relevant today, but actually growing and thriving? In addition to thorough planning and preparation, good attendance at events, and consistent prayer coverage, there are other factors in the continued success of faith-promise at FCC.
Nellie Milner, former church secretary and missions committee member, wrote this in her book The First Decade:
We think the best explanation of the term Faith-Promise is that it means just what it implies. It necessitates going to God, and having the faith that He will provide the means whereby we can fulfill that promise. Often it includes promising that which we do not have, and always it means committing to God that which we do have. . . . A faith-promise commitment is not a pledge. It is simply a covenant between man and God. If, for any reason, this promise cannot be kept, it is still a matter between man and God.
The fact that the faith-promise fund is completely separate from the general fund is one key to the program’s success. The missions team sets each year’s budget based on commitment cards from the congregation. Money is not transferred from the general fund should there be a shortfall at the end of the year. Likewise, if money is needed in the general fund, it is not “borrowed” from the faith-promise fund. Interestingly, general fund giving has never suffered, even with FCC’s current $2.4 million building and renovation project. As FCC has remained faithful in the smaller things, God has remained faithful in the larger things.
Carroll Kakac, former minister of FCC for more than 30 years, believes a large part of the success of faith-promise is the quality of people on the missions team. “Do not place people on the missionary committee who can’t make it on the evangelism, Christian education, or finance committees. The purpose of the church (missions) demands the best we have in God’s church.”
Each missions team member keeps in contact with a couple of missions. This includes receiving and relaying information, hosting missionaries when they visit, even visiting the field themselves if needed. This hands-on approach has been instrumental in building the relationship between the congregation and the missionaries.
“The next thing that is a must is to have the preacher all out for missions,” Kakac said. “In 1976 I visited our missions in Africa and Europe. I came back totally sold on some fine, dedicated people who were doing a great work.”
This attitude influences the congregation. The adults have participated in several mission trips over the years. FCC member Ruth Otey is currently serving with Christ Reaching Asia mission in China. The high school youth have a yearly summer missions trip. It truly makes a difference in excitement and commitment level to see God’s work firsthand.
Carol Jackson, a missions team member, believes continuity of vision must be successfully relayed to the next generation. It is essential all age groups have the opportunity to learn about missions and the missionaries the church supports. Everyone above nursery age can have the Great Commission shared with them in a concrete way.
While commitment to the central vision remains unchanged, FCC hasn’t been afraid to tinker with the mechanism, finding fresh ways to present missions. Rick Wolford, executive director of FAME and a former youth minister at FCC, remembers, “When the usual, traditional, several-day faith-promise rally no longer seemed to be working about 20 years ago, adjustments were made and the program continued.” Growing and thriving mean adjusting to the needs of the congregation.
One way to accomplish this is to organize activities that make missions concrete and alive to younger members. One year a “World Café” was held, complete with foods and beverages from the various countries supported, games for children, and engaging decorations and displays.
At the 2006 Missions Weekend, Wolford staged a virtual missions trip for the congregation. Groups experienced Airport Check-In (complete with suitcases, police officers, and security procedures), the Work Project Station where medications were sorted, the Cross-Cultural Worship Station, and the Craft Station, where available materials were used to illustrate a Bible story. It was a true hands-on experience for members and families, and was fun and challenging.
For all of the changes the faith-promise program has undergone over the last 45 years, it has never wavered from the original calling. At the second faith-promise conference in 1964, Woodrow Phillips, then head of the missions department at Ozark Bible College, encouraged the congregation to embrace the full meaning of the Great Commission.
Milner recalled, “Brother Phillips told us that either we must go or we must send to fulfill the will of Christ and to preserve the heritage of faith for our own children. Isolation is impossible and unthinkable. If the only concern of the Jerusalem church had been its own preservation, the gospel would never have reached us.
“We took these thoughts into our hearts and searched them out, knowing they were true. We must go, or we must send. There is no alternative. We cannot all go—but we can all send.”
Debbie Legg is a speaker, writer, and member of First Christian Church in Fairfield, Illinois.