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Giving shortfall risks Southern Baptists' opportunity to re-engage closed country

By Don Graham

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--A rare opportunity to place missionaries in a highly restricted Central Asian country may soon slip through Southern Baptists’ fingers due to a serious shortfall in missions giving.

The country — which can’t be named without risking missionaries’ chances of obtaining a visa — is home to more than several million people, mostly Muslim. Only about 2,000 are believed to be evangelical Christians.

Shane and Melanie Johnson* were on track to become the first Southern Baptist personnel to serve inside the country in nearly a decade. But now that plan is in jeopardy.

On July 10, the Johnsons received word from IMB (International Mission Board) that their missionary appointment had been put on hold.

“It hurts,” Melanie said. “It’s really sad that in times of crisis [giving to] the church and charities is the first thing to go.”

“We want to go to one of those places on the map of lostness that’s totally black, where there is nobody there,” Shane said. “We know the Bible is clear about the Great Commission. We are to make sure that someone from every tribe, tongue and nation bows before the throne of God and praises His name.”

The Johnsons are among 69 long-term missionary candidates who are being delayed because of a lack of funds to send them to the field. That’s in addition to an estimated 350 short-term candidates who also are on hold.

In May IMB announced it would severely limit the number of missionaries sent in 2009 due to reduced giving through the Cooperative Program and a $29 million dollar shortfall in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. More than half of IMB’s annual budget comes from the Lottie Moon offering, 100 percent of which is used to send and sustain more than 5,600 Southern Baptist missionaries serving overseas.

The goal for the 2008 offering (which funds the 2009 budget) was $170 million, but only $141 million was received, $9 million less than last year.

But even if there were no shortfall, getting the Johnsons inside that Central Asian country won’t be easy.

Southern Baptist missionaries began spreading the Gospel there for the first time in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But by the year 2000 all missionaries had been asked to leave. That left behind 500 new Christians and a young church struggling to survive under intense persecution.

Since that time missionaries have been painstakingly training and discipling national believers by flying them in and out of the country. Though that strategy has seen success, it’s also slow, cumbersome and expensive, which is why IMB wants personnel living in country again.

WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

Kris Plummer* leads Southern Baptists’ efforts to spread the Gospel in this area of Central Asia, including the country where the Johnsons want to serve. Once inside, he said their goal will be to lay the groundwork for IMB to re-establish a presence there.

Before they were delayed, the Johnsons planned to arrive in early 2010. But due to the financial shortfall, that isn’t likely to happen until that summer— at least a six-month delay. Plummer said the longer they wait, the risk is the situation may change.

“Right now we have a window of opportunity to try and place them in [the country],” he explained. “But we don’t know how long that window’s going to be open. … We’re ready to take advantage of this opportunity, but if this delay stretches out too long the window may close on us.

“It’s a disappointment because we’ve been trying to get back into [this country] for so long. … When we got the word the Johnsons were delayed, it’s just one more barrier to cross. And it’s a barrier that really shouldn’t be there.

“It’s not a question of Southern Baptists having money — even in this financial crisis Southern Baptists have money,” concluded Plummer. “It’s more of a question of what’s their priority for spending that money.”

Maybe even rarer than the window to enter the country, Plummer said, are missionaries willing to pioneer the work there — alone.

“Like most things in Central Asia, you never know until you try, and even when things look very wide open they can slam shut very quickly,” he said. “The glorious thing is we’ve got somebody like the Johnsons who are willing to try. Those kind of people don’t come around every day, and I want to take advantage of their heart and desire.”

PERSONAL HARDSHIP

Besides risking their chance to enter the country, the Johnsons say the delay is also causing them significant personal hardships as well.

They’ve both just graduated from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and were planning to transition straight to the mission field. But now, without jobs, they’ll have to live with Melanie’s family in order to save money.

“Because of the delay we’ve rescheduled our whole plan for the next eight or nine months,” Shane said. “It was tough to come to terms with but it’s water under the bridge at this point.”

Adding to their stress is the impact the delay will have on their growing family. Midway through the application process the Johnsons found out they were pregnant with their first child. They were counting on IMB salary and medical benefits by the time the baby arrived, but the delay makes that impossible. They have some health insurance available through GuideStone Financial Resources, but the rest will have to come from Medicaid and their savings.

“The bottom line is that God has always provided for us,” Shane said. “We’re not in debt at all; we’ve made it through seminary … He’s going to take care of us just like He always has.”

TRUE COST OF DELAY

The greatest impact from the delay, the Johnsons said, will be on the peoples of Central Asia that God has asked them to serve.

“We’ll never know what the time we missed overseas might have resulted in as far as yields for the Gospel,” Shane said. “Even one believer can multiply exponentially and have a tremendous impact for the Gospel. … That’s the true cost [of the financial shortfall], and we’ll never really know what that is.”

*Names changed.

Don Graham is a writer for IMB.

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