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Innovative missionaries brace for economic fallout

By Robert Mims

On the front lines of the battle to reach a lost world with the gospel, Assemblies of God missionaries find themselves facing an unexpected foe: a two-headed economic monster born of the fluctuating value of the dollar overseas and diminished giving from home as the recession deepens.

By some estimates, church giving nationwide may have dipped as much as 10 percent since the economy began to decline in the latter part of 2008. A survey issued in December by The Barna Group reported that Americans are passing on their financial pain to churches and other nonprofit organizations by substantially reducing what they give.

The study found that 30 percent of born-again Christians had lost at least 20 percent of the value of their retirement and 401(k) accounts. At the same time, one out of every five households had reduced contributions to churches in the fourth quarter of 2008. Among those who had diminished giving to churches, a whopping 22 percent say they no longer give anything.

Zollie L. Smith Jr., executive director of U.S. Missions for the Assemblies of God, said the recession also is having an impact on the more than 1,000 missionaries, 400-plus chaplains and 5,000 related field personnel domestically.

“What has really gone down for us is our designated [church] support for missions and projects,” Smith says. “Our income based on missionary-support giving is down maybe 5 percent over the last few months, but they may be taking a bigger hit than we are showing,” Smith says.

What is affected? The impact is felt throughout U.S. Missions offerings — among them college campus ministries; programs to help drug- and alcohol-addicted teens; church-planting campaigns aimed at Native American, immigrant and other ethnic communities; Youth Alive outreach efforts to junior and senior high school students; and training of lay chaplains for nursing home, hospital and prison missions.

Smith and Assemblies of God missionaries at home and abroad understand the pressures an economic downturn can bring on the budgets of churches and their constituent families. But they stand on the scriptural promises of provision for those who are faithful in their giving — even in tough times.

“We cannot become despondent or dismayed as Christians,” Smith says. “God is our supplier, and He will make a way for all the needs to be met. We cannot back off the promises that have sustained us in our lives.”

Pastor Scott Williams of Chico (Calif.) First Assembly seconds that conviction, and says even a small church such as the one he pastors can help turn things around for AG missionaries at home and abroad. Noticing how few churches still had Sunday evening services — long a favorite venue for missionaries to introduce themselves — Williams says he and others in the church felt led to reach out to other AG congregations by hosting an areawide missions service.

Invitations went out to dozens of churches within 60 miles of Chico. Nine churches and 10 missionaries responded. Missionaries set up information booths in the Chico church’s gymnasium, and close to 200 people attended, getting to know the hearts of ministries needing their help.

“Our own church increased our faith promises, and we are looking to pick up at least three more missionaries while increasing our support of a few others,” Williams says.

None of the participating churches is large by any measure. Chico First Assembly itself numbers about 120 people.

“We just pulled our resources together, believing that great things will happen,” Williams says. “We got people fired up for missions, and hopefully they will take that back to their congregations.”

Meanwhile, Chico First Assembly looks to host another missions service this year, with a goal to at least double participation by other area churches in the AG Fellowship.

Williams has some advice for churchgoers apprehensive about giving generously to missions in the midst of an economic downturn.

“It would serve us well to put ourselves in our missionaries’ place,” he says. “Ask yourself, ‘Would I be able to suddenly survive on half of my paycheck?’ Each of us can help those missionaries by simply increasing our commitments by $5 or $10 a month.”

For many months prior to the onset of America’s Wall Street and banking woes, missionaries already felt the pinch.

“Many of our missionaries are struggling to stay in the field of their calling, and they are doing everything possible to remain in ministry,” says John Bueno, executive director of AG World Missions. “They are the key to establishing national churches, training workers and planting churches to further God’s work.”

In the past two years, the dollar’s value against its primary competitor, the euro, has fluctuated wildly. In early 2007, missionaries could buy euros for about $1.28 each, but by April 2008 it took $1.60 in exchange for a unit of the European Union currency.

While the dollar strengthened some as 2008 came to a close, the damage to missions budgets had already been done. And even as the dollar regained some of its value, its rise coincided with the onset of a deepening recession, increasing unemployment and a credit crunch that seemed to defy swift resolution.

Steve Livingston and his wife, Pam, know well the challenges faced by the Assemblies of God’s nearly 4,100 missionaries, associate missionaries and their families throughout 212 countries and territories around the globe. Livingston acknowledges that support has dropped off seriously enough that he and his wife plan on returning to the United States from Jamaica in March — three months earlier than scheduled — for deputation, the customary yearlong period when missionaries visit churches in an effort to raise support.

“Our work funds dropped to zero in June, so we have had to be very careful financially since then,” says Livingston, dean of students and administrative board member at the Assemblies of God Bible College in Christiana, Jamaica, since 2003. “Unfortunately, we have had an increase in the number of churches who have dropped us while we have been in the field.”

The resulting drain on finances has meant an end to picking up the cost of textbooks for students in the poor island nation, and delays in needed repairs at the college.

ROBERT MIMS is a journalist and member of Life Church of Utah, an Assemblies of God congregation in Salt Lake City.

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