Sluggish world economy affecting missions
RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--Jodi Nichols cries when she talks about it. Her husband Kevin says he would rather be hit with a baseball bat.
The couple from Wheeler, Miss., committed their lives to missions nearly two years ago. They planned to move to Russia with their four children in January. But in the midst of a rocky economy and shortfalls in missions giving, they won't be going anytime soon.
"It hurt," says Kevin of the day he, his wife and about 200 others also called to missions learned that Southern Baptists' International Mission Board did not have the funds to send them.
"Today it still doesn't feel real ... I know what God has called us to ... [but] it takes money," he says.
For now, the Nicholses are uncertain when -- or if -- they will be able to go to the mission field. By the time the economy rebounds, their oldest child may be 15 or 16, and IMB discourages the appointment of families with children that old.
The Nichols family's situation is a snapshot of how a struggling economy impacts lives -- both here and around the globe. Because the Nicholses can't go, someone in Russia may not hear the Gospel.
A GLOBAL PROBLEM
In Asian countries such as South Korea, a sluggish U.S. economy means fewer sales and less money for local goods. It also means that in one of the largest missionary-sending countries in the world, fewer South Korean missionaries will have enough funds.
"The South Korean market kind of mirrors the U.S. market, but double the effects," says John*, a missionary who handled finances in South Korea for four years before recently moving with his family to Thailand.
"As the U.S. market kind of tanked, [South Korea] lost about half of [its] buying power," he adds. "They are extremely dependent upon the U.S. imports of their Asian goods."
South Koreans also are heavily involved in missions -- with more than 17,000 Korean Protestant missionaries currently serving worldwide.
"They're probably our biggest [missions] ally worldwide," John notes. "The weakening of the Korean won [currency] has impacted their ability to function outside Korea. As a missionary-sending country, they are really feeling it."
Other countries around the globe are "feeling it" as well.
The U.S. unemployment rate stands at more than 10 percent and is continuing to climb. As staggering as that seems, unemployment in Zimbabwe hovers around 90 percent.
Statistics from the International Labor Organization show the number of unemployed could jump to 239 million internationally by the end of 2009.
There also is the issue of the dollar.
Last year, it took $1.62 to equal 1 euro. This month, the value is around $1.49 after improving briefly to $1.25 earlier this year.
"The dollar has gained some strength," IMB treasurer David Steverson says. "But while we are better off than we were a year ago, we are not nearly as good as we were [as recently as several months ago]."
'DIFFICULT TO LIVE'
IMB missionaries Mike and Jan Bennett have worked in Venezuela for more than 10 years. Even doing simple things, they say, can be a major expense. When inflation rose to 26 percent, two combo meals at McDonald's cost $35.
"The economic crisis is affecting every country in the world," Bennett says. "It makes it very difficult to live on the field when the prices continue to go up."
In past years, Bennett says, missionaries have been unhappy about the lack of funds to buy Bibles or other ministry materials.
"But the truth of the matter is that this is a far more serious problem," he says. "The critical need is just having [missionaries] here to do the work."
The lack of workers also is jeopardizing the future of a significant ministry in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who live and work in Europe board ferries every summer to return home to North Africa to visit family.
However, an effort that puts Bibles and ministry materials into the immigrants' hands as their cars pass through a European city's port gates may fall by the wayside.
Approximately 200 Southern Baptists help with the ministry each summer. Because of last year's shortfall in Southern Baptists' Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, many short-term missionaries who coordinate the efforts will not be able to extend their terms.
One missionary says the program won't be able to continue without them -- or replacements.
"The project is in danger if we are not able to replace personnel," says Dave Webber*, who leads the effort in the European country, where there are believed to be more than 5 million Muslims.
Last year, teams distributed 26,000 Gospel packets at the port gates.
"That means 26,000 families received the Gospel," he says. "What if we're not there at the gates? You can't print this stuff in many parts in Algeria" where distributing Bibles is illegal.
"I think about this [economic] slowdown and the tough things that are going on around the world financially and in the United States ... but what if we're not there at the opportunities the Lord has given us?"
'HARD TIMES' BACK HOME
Parkridge Baptist Church in Coral Springs, Fla., has sent teams in the past to help with the outreach in the European country. But like many churches and ministries worldwide, they also are experiencing their share of financial challenges.
"It's a hard time," says pastor Eddie Bevill, who started the church 17 years ago.
"Our offerings haven't grown much in the last year," he says. "We raised our mission challenge but reduced our general operating budget. No one got raises -- but we didn't have to let anybody go."
As the housing market continues to struggle and people are laid off from jobs, many turn to their church for help.
"It used to always be people outside of our church," Bevill says. "Now more and more, it's [church members] who need financial assistance.
"People call me now saying, 'I've never asked for help in my life. I can't believe I'm calling.'"
To avoid staff layoffs, the church reduced its Cooperative Program (CP) giving to a month-by-month basis. Nearly half the funding for missions comes through CP, which supports state efforts as well as IMB and North American Mission Board.
"If it comes we'll give it," Bevill says. "If it doesn't come we can't ... and that's a terrible way to support the Cooperative Program.
"Older pastors around the country would kick me, I'm sure, for doing that."
This year the church began what it calls the "Great Connection Offering." It's a year-round offering that collects funds for Southern Baptists' state, national and international mission entities.
"We have challenged people to give on a weekly basis to missions," Bevill says.
The church set a goal of $60,000.
"Right now we're ahead of [schedule], but if we hit that goal, we will be giving more to those entities than we've given in the last three years."
Bevill, whose church received CP dollars when it formed, knows the importance of giving to other ministries.
"But I can read a spreadsheet, too," he says. "I can see what's coming in the offering plate. These are tough decisions for everybody."
*Names changed. Shawn Hendricks is a writer for the International Mission Board. (Note: The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering supplements Cooperative Program giving to support more than 5,600 Southern Baptist missionaries as they share the Gospel overseas. This year's offering goal is $175 million. The 2009 Week of Prayer for International Missions is Nov. 29-Dec. 6. To find resources about the offering, go to imb.org/offering. For additional information about the Cooperative Program, go to cpmissions.net.