Several years ago, in my previous life as a pastor, a well-meaning member of our Missions Committee looked at the church’s missions budget, noted the large sum of money we were sending to state and national denominational groups and declared with resignation: “This isn’t missions; this is paying dues.”
Don’t get me wrong; I consider this person a friend to this day, not an adversary. Her honest comment accurately describes the way many lay leaders see church funding for denominational bodies these days. At best, it’s paying dues. And at worst, it’s something ripe for cutting to balance a church budget. It looks like administrative overhead, not hands-and-feet ministry.
Around the same time as this conversation, I had an epiphany talking with another church member about her definition of “missions.” Like the first woman, she was an older, longtime church member. Which is why I was surprised to hear her parsing of the word “missions.”
To her, missions meant benevolence. She was all about the food banks and clothes closets and things we do to give people handouts — especially locally. She was also concerned about evangelism, but her primary motivator was benevolence. Which meant she favored local projects over faraway projects and handout ministries over hand-up ministries.
At the time of this second conversation, our church was just beginning engagement with a new ministry of Christian advocacy — one detailed in the new book The Mission of Advocacy, by the way — and this same person was adamantly opposed to this effort. We were organizing against payday lending, seeking to rally support for public education and addressing root causes of hunger and poverty.
In this church member’s mind, Christian missions calls us to put bandages on people who are hurting, but finding out who is hurting them and why — that’s not missions, that’s politics. She was perfectly willing to give to food banks and clothes closets but not willing to support the church’s efforts to prevent people from having to seek the help of food banks and clothes closets.
Neither of these women are Millennials, the demographic group most feared of ending traditional support for church-based global missions. Instead, both are first-wave Boomers reared in the church and steeped in our Protestant missions culture. In previous days, either of them likely would have been president of a congregation’s Woman’s Missionary Union or United Methodist Women or the equivalent.
“She was perfectly willing to give to food banks and clothes closets but not willing to support the church’s efforts to prevent people from having to seek the help of food banks and clothes closets.”
I recalled both these stories this week when pondering the reality of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s budget reduction that has forced staff layoffs and spotlighted the reality of decreased giving to national and global missions causes. Our church’s giving to CBF, just like your giving to CBF or some comparable body, is what the first woman considered “dues.”
In a Methodist world, that might be a more accurate assessment because of the way apportionments are levied on congregations based on membership. But it’s equally true in a Baptist context because we’ve failed to help congregants understand that these “dues” aren’t just supporting a denominational infrastructure but are the primary funding source for traditional missions efforts — the bread and butter of missions, in fact.
And then there’s the difficulty of selling special missions offerings today. In the Southern Baptist church of my youth, we were drilled with the importance of giving to the Annie Armstrong Offering for home missions at Easter and the Lottie Moon Offering for foreign missions at Christmas. If you were a good and faithful church member — regardless of age — this is what you did. We supported missionaries financially.
Along about the late 1980s, missions-minded churches began adding a new layer to their formula: international missions trips. As the cost of air travel decreased and household incomes increased, it became more feasible to take groups of adult church members to visit missionaries on location and to engage in hands-on work that supported their ministries in far-flung places.
“We had been indoctrinated that missions is something we average church members give to but not something we do.”
Two positives resulted from the age of missions trips: Volunteers’ worldviews were expanded, and giving to missions causes back home increased. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early days of this phenomenon, it took documented research to convince wary missiologists that spending money on laypeople traveling to Japan was a help to missions and not a hindrance. We had been indoctrinated that missions is something we average church members give to but not something we do. That all got upended.
Ultimately, the mission-trip culture fostered a sort of toxic charity in the aura of colonialism that earlier had given Christian missionaries a bad name. At the same time, conservative denominations like the SBC began prioritizing evangelism and church planting over social ministries that had been a staple of Christian missions for decades. Support for hospitals and poverty eradication turned mainly to evangelistic crusades and the tallying of baptismal numbers. That was a mission worth funding for some but not a highly motivating reason to give for others.
Meanwhile, some missions practitioners discovered new opportunities to save the world through digging water wells and teaching agricultural techniques — projects that had been done before but that accelerated in scope. This was made possible, in part, by the use of simple techniques that made water wells and gardening cheaper and more portable. And for those turned off by evangelistic crusades as missions, this opened a new reason for giving.
Back home, denominations in general continued to decline in membership, attendance and giving. And the old appeal to give to missions out of Christian duty didn’t have the selling power it once did. Harsh as it sounds, you can only make an appeal for so many water wells and so many evangelistic crusades before people in the pew think they’ve heard this all before.
This is the inherent danger of what cooperative Baptists always ridiculed as the “society method” of missions — a return to the pre-cooperative missions days when every missionary and every organization trotted church to church with hat in hand. The cooperative spirit of Southern Baptists — and by extension CBF Baptists — showed a more excellent way modeled on a kind of United Way appeal. Give once, make a difference all over the world.
That unified appeal worked great for a generation or two of joiners but began to unravel when, as Robert Putnam so elegantly suggested in 2000, people started “bowling alone.” Which is probably why, by CBF’s own recent survey data, the fastest-growing segment of missions giving in CBF congregations is through direct relationship with specific field personnel. What’s old is new again.
There are some exceptions to this narrative, of course. Among those is the up-and-down record of giving to the SBC’s Lottie Moon Offering, for example. While some recent years have shown increases in giving to the special offering, the SBC’s International Mission Board — still an enormous missions-sending force — cut one-fifth of its overseas missionary force in 2016 due to funding restraints.
Similar stories have been told across other denominational expressions as well. And in CBF life, the number of field personnel supported has been slowly cut in half in recent years through retirements and restructuring.
News this week that CBF would anticipate receiving only $2.8 million for its Offering for Global Missions in the coming year hit hard because just three years ago the offering goal was $4 million.
As I’ve talked about this with other pastors — both inside and outside CBF life — a common refrain has emerged, and it matches the two stories I told at the beginning about the two women on our church Missions Committee.
“If it weren’t for pastors holding the line on continued general giving to denominational causes, things would be far worse than they are.”
Summarized, the new narrative is this: Christians of all ages give less priority today to giving to general “missions” causes but are enthused about giving to specific missions causes they have a direct relationship with — to a point. If it weren’t for pastors holding the line on continued general giving to denominational causes, things would be far worse than they are. And in most places, local trumps global in getting church members’ attention.
And one other thing, borne out by recent research: Younger Christians aren’t motivated by those food pantries and clothes closets. They want to know why people are naked and hungry and what can be done to stop it. To them, that is missions today.
For now, though, the money isn’t with the younger crowd who are getting established in careers and families and are saddled with enormous student loan debt. So we are caught between the idealism of two vastly different generations.
One Millennial friend heard me out on this and summarized his take: “Millennials and Gen Z believe exactly what you’re saying, but they also have tremendous doubts about the ability of the church to do anything useful with what little money they can afford to give away.”
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.