RICHMOND, Va. — Somewhere in a Texas storage shed sits a reminder of the reason Mark Moses left home and headed overseas. It's a paper Moses, then 11 years old, wrote for a school assignment. The first line reads: "I want too be a misiunary wen I gro up."
"I tell folks my spelling has changed but my calling has not," jokes the Fort Worth, Texas, native, who has spent the past 22 years as a Southern Baptist missionary in the Philippines.
It hasn't been easy. Between the joys of new believers and churches starting, Moses also has endured bitter disappointments and devastating personal tragedy — including the loss of his wife, Jan, to cancer last year.
It's this deep sense of calling that helps drive and sustain Moses and the more than 5,500 other missionaries who serve with the International Mission Board (IMB).
Called to persevere
Today these missionaries must hold fast to their calling as they experience the fallout of a burgeoning economic crisis. That's because missionaries' ability to live out the Great Commission on the mission field depends on the generosity of Southern Baptists' gifts through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
Those financial lifelines are "the umbilical cord that keeps our heart pumping, our feet moving and our hands serving," Moses says. "I used to wonder what I would do if, for some reason, my support from Southern Baptists dried up. I've watched other missionaries who don't have the support structure we're privileged to receive. They spend so much of their time focused on raising support that it limits their effectiveness overseas."
Earlier this year, the U.S. dollar lost an average of 12 percent of its value in the world marketplace — a daunting drop given that 85 percent of the IMB's $300 million budget is spent overseas. Though the dollar is rebounding, it has not yet recovered the buying power it had prior to the decline.
"This means that the $150.4 million given to the 2007 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering spends more like $132 million — a loss of more than $18 million in purchasing power," explains David Steverson, the International Mission Board's financial chief. "To make matters worse, Lottie Moon giving isn't keeping pace with inflation (3 percent to 4 percent annually)…. In accounting terms it's what we would call a 'double whammy.'"
Missionaries serving in Western Europe are among the hardest hit. Each time they exchange a dollar for a euro — the currency of the European Union — they're losing 20 percent of that dollar's value.
Christopher Watts and his wife, Colleen, are Southern Baptist missionaries from Georgia who've served in Rome since 2004. Less than 0.1 percent of the city's population of 4.1 million is evangelical Christian. Watts calls this a "tragic reality" given that the Apostle Paul himself helped lay the foundation of the church in Rome.
"The last two years have been pretty tough for us," he says. "The exchange rate is killing us, and while the IMB has done a fantastic job trying to keep up with it, it's made life harder…. I just hope people are able to recognize the priority that missions should take in the life of every Christian and find a way to continue to give. We can't accomplish the task without them."
Heart for the lost
Southern Baptists' goal for the 2008 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is $170 million. Though the figure may sound intimidating in light of America's struggling economy, IMB President Jerry Rankin encourages churches to rest in God's providence and continue their 120-year tradition of faithful Lottie Moon support.
"I know that a rough economy hasn't changed Southern Baptists' heart for the lost any more than it has changed missionaries' call to reach them," Rankin says. "Difficult circumstances don't excuse us from fulfilling our Great Commission mandate. Hardship and sacrifice, even danger, are all part of the task Christ has called us to. We are asked only to obey and entrust the rest to our heavenly Father."
Whatever the outcome of this year's Lottie Moon offering, Watts offers his heartfelt thanks for Southern Baptists' support.
"There are no words that can express how much my family appreciates how well our Baptist brothers and sisters take care of us," he says. "Their prayers sustain our ministries, our spirits and our health, and their financial gifts put a roof over our heads and food on our tables, not to mention Bibles in the hands of the lost and medicine in the hands of the sick and suffering.
"Without their prayers and their gifts, the whole thing falls apart. Our churches in the States are truly the solid ground upon which God builds our ministries."
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Graham is a writer with the IMB.)