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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--When I was a college student in Oxford, Ohio, I knew "Lottie Moon" only as the name of a local popular bar named after a Confederate spy during the Civil War -- not the missionary whose name our annual missions offering bears.
During my first pastorate, I regret that "Lottie" still meant little to me, as our church gave scant attention to what was then known as the Lottie Moon Offering for Foreign Missions.
During my second pastorate, though, Lottie Moon took on more significance. Confronted by a Woman's Missionary Union director who challenged me to love missions "if you're going to be my pastor," I began to learn about God's work around the world. It was also during that ministry that I married my wife Pam, who had been raised as a GA and an Acteen and who greatly loved the story of missionary Lottie Moon.
Knowing Lottie and promoting the offering named after her were no longer optional.
Now many years later, Lottie Moon is increasingly important to me -- not because of stories I have read, but because of people I have met. I think often of a van driver in an Asian country where Pam and I traveled in my role as consultant for the International Mission Board. Seldom have I met anyone as considerate as he was. He greeted us at the airport, carried our luggage, opened our doors and helped us from the van. Were a man judged eternally on his willingness to assist others, this man would be first into heaven. But this kind man did not yet know Jesus -- and apart from Christ, he had no hope. Who will continue to reach out to him?
In another country, we visited the burial place of a holy man of another world faith. When we inquired about this man's life, it was clear why he was perceived to be holy. The response to our next question, though, revealed much about this man's religion. We asked the caretakers of the grave if the holy man were in heaven, and their best answer was "We don't know for sure, but we hope so." According to their religion, they could only hope that his good works outweighed the bad. Their wrongly directed faith gave absolutely no assurance of eternity, even for a man who was thought to be holy.
Who will confront this darkness?
There are, of course, committed Southern Baptists who have accepted this calling. No missions organization does the task perfectly, but God continues to work powerfully through our missionaries. In fact, I could write all day about their stories: the young couple who are raising their preschoolers in the shadow of a pagan temple in one of the darkest countries I have ever visited ... the single adult working quietly but persistently in the danger of a war-torn country ... the veteran missionary who told me that after many years of ministry, her team is still "picking up rocks so the soil is ready to plant seeds" ... the faithful family who returned to serve even after a young daughter barely survived a serious illness contracted on the field ... the older couple who took early retirement from a strong U.S. company to take the Gospel where others had not gone.
Because we have met and worked alongside so many of these unrecognized heroes of the faith, giving sacrificially to the Lottie Moon Offering is hardly a sacrifice anymore.
Even more powerful to me, however, are the testimonies of believers whose lives have been changed by the ministries of Southern Baptists.
Again, the stories could fill column after column: the Asian Christian whose father first heard the Gospel from a Southern Baptist missionary, led his family to the Lord and then escaped persecution by boat ... the African student who now understands that Jesus -- not animals -- is the sacrifice for his sins ... the tsunami victim who embraced us heartily, thanking Southern Baptists for bringing the Gospel and relief aid to his village ... the refugee in the States whose family first met Christ while under the oppression of a dictator's rule.
We have seen firsthand the changing power of the Gospel around the world, and those experiences remind us that Lottie Moon dollars are still making an eternal difference.
What keeps me awake at night, though, are those who have never heard or who do not yet believe. More than 6,000 people groups around the world have no Gospel witness. By some estimates, as many 3.5 billion people have never heard the Gospel. Some 6 billion people are lost without Christ.
Six billion lives at stake, and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering provides almost 55 percent of the IMB's annual budget to engage this lostness. Clearly, Lottie Moon still matters.
Chuck Lawless is dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.