Friday, July 10, 2009

Urgent Need: Solutions for the Coming Missionary Support Crisis

It is 1965. An Independent Baptist missionary family has just been commissioned by a local church and they are heading out on the deputation trail. It's going to be a hard road. In fact, it is not meant to be easy. They say that this pre-field process is meant to 'weed out' bad missionaries, to encourage living by faith, etc. But . . . it's do-able.

They minister in many churches during this arduous process. With each church promising $25-$50 of monthly support, it took 15 churches. But finally, 6 months later, it's over and they're off to the field God has called them to.

Fast-forward to 2006.

Things haven't changed much. The process of support raising is practically identical. In fact, average support levels haven't changed too much either. But there have been several things that have changed . . . drastically. The value of the dollar that each church promises has plummeted. As a result, the amount of money that each missionary family must raise has risen exponentially. As a result, the number of churches needed for support has risen dramatically, resulting in a drastic lengthening of the process, resulting in a more draining (and less productive) furlough time. You can see how this is going.

I am certainly no economist or mathematician. Nor have I done extensive research to get 'solid' numbers ('solid' numbers are difficult to come by among such independent churches). However, if you are involved in the missions program of a local Independent Baptist church, I believe you will see truth in what I am about to report. The numbers below come from several sources: an article on a website called Missions Mandate, Measuring Worth, the US Census Bureau, email conversations with several missionaries and a missions professor, and two Independent Fundamental Baptist mission agencies.

Here are the numbers:
In 1965:
  • average household income = $7,000 (missionaries generally have to raise more than the US average, but we are going to use these census numbers because they are 'solid' and the percentage change between years should be about the same for the average income and the amount of support raised.)
  • local church missionary support level = $25-$50 per missionary per month
  • % of total support provided by each church = 4-9%
  • # of churches needed to get a missionary to the field = 12-20 (This doesn't take into account the sending church's higher level of support. I imagine that very few would have needed 20 churches)
  • length of deputation = 6-9 months (rough numbers from several anecdotal reports)

In 2006:

  • average household income = $58,500 (The average missionary family must raise significantly more than this, averaging by one agency's record over $70,000, but again we'll work with the census number.)
  • local church support level = $65 (This is a 'solid', though surprising, number from a mission agency in 'my circles.' This number can be expected to fluctuate among the various 'circles' of Independent Baptist churches and in various regions.)
  • % of support provided by each church = 1%
  • # of churches needed = up to 75 or more
  • length of deputation = 2-3 years (A missionary often must visit 2-3 times the number churches needed to raise full support, due to many of the visited churches not financially supporting them.)

Percentage change between 1965 and 2006:

  • average household income = 735% increase

  • local church support level = 30% increase

Here's another way to look at it: $320 in 2006 has the same 'purchasing power' as $50 in 1965. So, if we merely want to support at a comparable level with churches in 1965 we would have to give $320 per month per missionary!

Are these numbers surprising? They were to me.

Here are the hard truths: local church missionary support levels have not kept up with inflation at all; the situation is only going to get worse (perhaps rapidly); these changes are going to have severe detrimental effects upon our missionary efforts in the near future (In fact, they already are). Some (not all) predict impending hyperinflation (loss of Dollar value). With support levels already not keeping up with inflation, we can perhaps expect the % of support provided by each church to drop to .5%. Just this small of a drop could mean that 100-200 churches would be needed to send a single missionary family to the field. This would mean drastically longer deputation times (perhaps 4-6 years?), with the increased burden on the churches increasing the time even more. The result would be fewer missionaries getting to the field (a choice the Southern Baptist Convention is now having to make) and a diminished ability to reach the unreached in our generation (which is our responsibility).

Imagine this scenario happening in the near future: our missionary family has been commissioned by a local church to reach the unreached on the other side of the globe. They are now heading out on the deputation trail. It's going to be a hard road and they pray that their faith is strong enough to survive it. Two years into full-time deputation has only put them at around half of their support. They hope now to be done in 2 or 3 more years. It looks like they'll need 120 churches supporting them.

7 years later: They weren't sure they were going to make it, but they did. Now, after 4 years on the field, they are back home on furlough. It should be a time of restoration to their homeland, family and friends, and a time of profitable ministry. However, they have 120 supporting churches to report to, leaving little time for these things. Instead, they spend their time traveling around the country more furiously than missionaries in the past had to do.

1.5 years later: Exhausted, they arrive back on the field for another term. They are the fortunate ones though. Missionary attrition rates are much higher now. So many don't make it through the grueling deputation process. Even more don't make it back to the field for a second term.

The above scenario (or even worse) is likely to be reality soon if nothing is done to correct the trend. But what can be done? It seems so hopeless. God is faithful though. It is still His will that all peoples become His disciples, through the work of His churches. There are answers. What are they? That is a question for next week.

Please comment below! What are your suggestions? Do you have more 'solid' numbers? I will post revisions, clarifications, etc. as needed.


Dan said...

I would submit also that our staffs at churches have grown considerably, even in my lifetime.

Removing a staff position at a church could save upwards or 30-50 thousand...that's more than one missionary on the field.

Debtor Paul said...

I think you have a valid point here. Much of our money goes to the serving of ourselves (buildings, staff, programs, etc.). While, on the whole, there is nothing bad about these things, it is largely due to the business-type paradigm that we work in. Again, nothing Biblically wrong with paying ministers, but sometimes it is done just because that is what we always do.

Perhaps if we would settle for a simpler model of church life, more funds would be able to go directly to reaching the lost within a more biblical model. ??

Debtor Paul said...

Oh, and average Independent Baptist support levels are about $65,000 per year (that includes both living and ministry needs).

Dan said...

I don't know what it is for the Baptist General Conference, but I know that 22% of my church's budget is for missions overseas. I just don't know if that's across-the-board or not.

Anyway, I think if we could find ways to eliminate staffing, we'd come out on top. I don't want to overwork pastors and/or staff, and the Lord knows I'm in seminary, so this might be shooting myself in the foot, but seems like something needs to change.

David Goedker said...

I am an Ind Baptist Missionary that is returning home after nearly 5 years on the missionary field in Guatemala. My wife and I sold everything and came by faith under the direction of our pastor and support of $100 a month from our church. We never went on deputation. God has proven Himself faithful each and every month. We have lived here for about $1200 a month and we have lived fairly comfortably. After about 3 yrs we returned and visited churches for 2 months and got support from 2 of the 15 or 16 that we visited. Most are too bogged down with building projects, debt, and expenses to justify supporting a missionary. The reason we are coming back is NOT because God is not faithful, He IS. It is because we have found that our original vision of raising up and training national pastors and missionaries to start churches in their own country and in other countries is not feasible. We learned this by experience and by understanding the culture. We feel God is calling us back to the States to work with and train up the myriads of Spanish speaking people that live in the US (the USA has the 2nd largest Spanish population in the world). When they are saved and trained, we feel they will be able to return to their own countries or even go to those places that we from the USA are not typically accepted much cheaper than what we could ever hope to go for. For example, they could live here in Guatemala for $500 a month. They would need very little time on deputation. They would already know the culture and language thus saving an additional year or two. Each year the support could be reduced over four years by which time they could have built up a church there which could support them. Therefore the funds could be diverted to the next missionary. Although my example is with Spanish-speaking people, it would or could work with people of almost any country since the USA is a "melting pot" of people from all over the world. Generally, they congregate in pockets. It is time that we realize that the USA cannot send out the missionaries it once did. But we can still fund missionaries because (at least in Guatemala and Mexico) it is nearly impossible to get the people to support a missionary (and to be faithful with what they have promised, etc.).

Dan Smith said...

I agree with you almost completely. Financially, it makes a great deal of sense. As my love is for Japan, it makes a big difference in the ability to reach the Japanese (not that the Japanese are that reachable anyway). I do think, however, that your ideas still don't deal with the fact that funding is badly off because of staffing at American churches, selfishness of American Christians, etc. But practically speaking, your plan is really good. I wish you the best in carrying it out.

Jason said...

I would love to read a update of your thoughts today compared to 2009 when you wrote this. Jason- Missionary to Hungary

Debtor Paul said...


Thank you for the comment. My feelings today are basically the same now as then. The difference now is that I have been through deputation and am currently on the field. My time on deputation was better than that of most. My sending church covered 25% of my support needs. Because of how we went about planning for deputation, our time on the road was better than most as well.

You may have read some of the posts that followed this one. My proposed solutions remain basically the same. As @Dan Smith said above, there are always the problems of staffing and selfishness. The first is a special cultural issues that would require mega-shifts. The second is a problem everywhere. The people in my host nation are at least as materialistic as we are (though most looking from the outside wouldn't guess it, with the poverty and all). We should be careful in assuming that American Christians are more selfish than most others. I would be very interested to see what those of other nations would do with their money, if God gave them the same prosperity! That doesn't mean there is no problem, only that we ought to be careful in our assessments.

The only "solution" I would emphasize even more now is self-support. However, my reasons for emphasizing it more now have little to do with the support crisis, though it would help there. My reasons have more to do with ethics in entering restricted and other nations, reproducibility in all nations, and more. I am increasingly concerned that we typically look for the wrong people to send--young guys with little to no secular professional experience. All of that, though, would require a separate post. As you can tell, I may not be creating new posts any time soon, though I am happy to keep up with comments.