By Sam E. Stone
As Joan Rivers used to ask, “Can we talk?”
We have some issues in Restoration Movement churches that need to be discussed. Many worthy missionaries and church-related organizations who have received generous gifts through the mission giving of local churches are facing serious challenges.
Over the years I’ve talked with many missionary leaders around the world. They know more about the subject than I do—but it wouldn’t be prudent for one of them to write this article. You might dismiss their comments by simply declaring, “Well, they have a vested interest in this.”
I don’t. But I do care about what happens to our missionaries and other workers who are serving sacrificially and faithfully. They depend on the Lord’s people to supply their needs. As his people, we need to have some “second thoughts” about missionary support.
Let’s talk about two basic problems.
1. What constitutes “missions giving”?
Some congregations have decided to change what they consider “missions” in their church budget. Over the years that generic term has been used to cover a multitude of worthy causes. In some cases it is now being reserved exclusively to designate overtly evangelistic efforts overseas.
I have no quarrel with this in itself. The problem comes when stateside benevolent and educational projects are then removed from consideration for any support by the church. That is not wise. It is not right.
Certainly a congregation can and should determine where it will send its money—under whatever category it falls in the church budget. And certainly we need to do all that we are doing to promote world evangelism. (In fact, we should do more!) At the same time, it is not reasonable to “write off” our Christian colleges, camps, orphanages, and retirement homes by saying, “We don’t consider you eligible to receive gifts under our new definition of missions.”
Here we should appropriate a statement of our Lord: “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23, New King James Bible). It is not right to send our students to colleges we won’t support, to turn our backs on widows, orphans, and people with disabilities, and stop helping other worthy causes for no reason.
Think of all the ministries that indirectly help foreign workers evangelize.
Some college had to train them. Some organization has to provide resources for them to use in evangelizing. Some retirement home will have to take care of the workers when they can no longer serve overseas. What about all those groups? Aren’t they “involved” in foreign evangelism too?
Further, isn’t the church responsible to care for widows and orphans, those with disabilities and special needs? And aren’t we to teach leaders who can teach others also? If we decide not to use money from our “missions budget” to help these people, we should immediately add another category to our church giving, perhaps calling it “education and benevolence,” and help them in that way.
If we fail to provide solid support for our Christian colleges and seminaries, we shrink the pool of human resources available for leadership in both foreign and domestic evangelism, church planting, Christian publishing, and staffing for church-related groups (e.g. camps, orphanages, homes for the elderly, etc.).
Perhaps we should distinguish between foreign and domestic outreach, but we dare not sacrifice one to support the other.
Unless the church of the Lord assumes responsibility to fund these projects, it is shortsighted to assume that our senior citizens will be cared for, our young adults will be trained, and other valuable services will be provided.
Whether you call these worthy causes “missions” or not, they deserve a prominent place in the giving of every local church.
2. What responsibility does the church have?
Consider some of the things that those receiving financial support from churches hear from time to time:
“We know a new worker who is raising support, and he seems to need our help more than you do. We’re discontinuing your monthly checks and will be giving the money to him.”
Isn’t that robbing Peter to pay Paul? If you made a commitment to help the first missionary, why would you drop him now just because another needy missionary makes an appeal? What do you expect the first missionary to do? Is this fair to him?
“We don’t send your organization a great deal of money as it is. You probably won’t miss our little bit, so we plan to drop you and the other 10 missions we have been supporting, and give all our money to one ministry!”
You might be surprised how many faithful workers and valuable projects have been sustained by faithful supporters who have consistently given “the widow’s mite” over the years (Luke 21:2). Your regular gifts and your prayerful expressions of concern have sustained them on the field. Receiving a “Dear John” letter has a very demoralizing and discouraging effect on the workers.
“We’re entering a big capital campaign at our church, and we can’t afford to continue helping you at this level.”
Will the Lord bless us if we are interested only in erecting church buildings for ourselves to use here in America, while disregarding the needy, lost world around us?
Solving the Problems
There is a better way.
Congregations need to develop consistency in their “missions” giving. Who makes the decisions about the missions budget in your congregation? Is it the elders, the mission committee, the minister, the board—or some combination of these? That group must carefully think through their procedure, and develop consistency in following it.
This will prevent “surprising” a long-supported missionary with the news, “We have changed our focus” or “You don’t fit in with what we’re trying to do anymore.” It will keep the decision-makers from constantly shuffling the church’s mission giving around. It will let the missionary know what he or she can count on. The missionary or church-related organization can feel confident that life-sustaining support will not be capriciously removed. While the missionary understands that the church is not obligated to support his work forever, he will be assured that their giving won’t be changed whenever a new decision-maker comes along.
Certainly every church has the right to expect regular reports from those they finance. Surely the Golden Rule demands that every congregation show understanding and consideration as well. Every church should sense the importance of their prayers, e-mails, gifts, and visits to encourage their missionaries and partners in church-related groups.
If your church doesn’t receive adequate reports about the work, tell the person or organization. If you have questions about the work, ask them. Don’t drop a missionary or organization because of unsubstantiated criticism or because they did not visit your church in the last year! Many missionaries operate on a shoestring and are not able to visit their stateside supporters as often as they would like. E-mail provides a wonderful means of keeping in touch. Short-term mission trips (when properly arranged) can be beneficial to all concerned, and not be a burden to the overseas workers.
If this article makes sense, share it with your church staff, the elders, and the mission committee. Perhaps it can serve as a springboard for discussion. That is my prayer!
Sam Stone retired, after serving 25 years as editor of CHRISTIAN STANDARD, in 2003. He continues his ministry of speaking, teaching, and writing from his home in West Chester, Ohio.