The Mormons Own Coca-Cola

…or is it Pepsi?

Surly you’ve heard this rumor repeated as evidence the the widespread and subversive influence on American culture. It was repeated to me recently during a conversation about missionary businessmen. Several church leaders were talking with a young man who is starting an internet research company so that he and his family could live wherever God sent them without having to raise support or look for a job. A noble concept, for a businessman. As soon as he’s up and running, I’ll post a link to this entrepreneur’s website.

The church leaders were intrigued. The idea of developing a business that would make money while fulfilling the Great Commission seemed like the silver bullet to “getting the job done.”

That got me thinking. If the rumor that Mormons own Coke was actually true, how awesome would that be for, you know, the Mormons? A single share of the Coca-Cola Company is worth over a billion U.S. dollars. That would buy enough white shirts, black ties, name tags, and bicycles to put pubescent Latter-Day Saints elders in every city in the world (with enough left over to keep their families in trampolines and special underwear).

The biggest problem in missions today isn’t a lack of willing workers. In this economy, any eight-year seminarian would jump at the chance of a full-ride to missionary superstardom. Nevermind what the Bible says, the problem isn’t people, it’s money.

Missions would be a lot easier of the churches didn’t hold the purse strings. Churches who get no say in what happens on the field, or even who is sent, but are expected to bankroll every initiative missionaries want to push– clearly, they are the problem. If churches are too stingy to fund strategic requests (church planting among some people groups require a Range Rover), I say we go Silicon Valley on them.

Why not start a business (or network of businesses) that would support the work around the world? Something that would fund missionaries while allowing them the flexibility to travel, plant churches, and disciple nationals. A legitimate business that would secure access into closed places and help develop community in positive ways without requiring them to do any actual work. Something like Google, but without all of the programming; like Coke, but without the overhead. Like Amway, but respectable and not so predatory.

Insurance comes to mind.

Why don’t we own anything that might help fund our missionary ventures? Why don’t regular old missionaries get in on the business-as-mission game? Banking, for example, would be an obvious choice. Or stocks– shares of Google, Apple, or even The Clapper, would buy a lot of plane tickets and ship a lot of peanut butter (everyone knows that Skippy is the key to retention of field personnel).

The answer is simple: most missionaries on the field today (and nearly all of the students coming out of the seminaries) are not business people. Many are talking about business as mission. It’s a great way to show businesspeople that what they do can have kingdom value. Whether it’s coffee shops, agricultural irrigation specialists, or pharmaceutical consultants, we need more businesspeople on mission. Folks who run and own companies naturally think strategically. They tend to be very good at networking (business often depends on it), and, except for the occasional used-car salesman or investment banker, they understand the need for a good work ethic.

Missionaries, not so much.

“Start a business” is not the answer to decreased giving, a right relationship to the sending church is.

Don’t Do Me Any Favors

When you’re a carpenter, people pay you to build things out of wood. Mechanics earn their living by fixing cars. Authors are paid for writing books, lawyers bill for their counsel, and teachers are compensated for teaching.

What is a missionary paid for? There’s really no tangible service being performed, and we don’t produce any material goods. The people who pay my salary will likely never even meet me, much less benefit from my services. Nevertheless, they give.

I’m humbled by the sacrifice and generosity of those who support us on the field. But there’s something strange about missions offerings. Many supporters talk about missions money as though by giving, they’re doing me a favor. I’ve had a number of conversations with church leaders who talk about their missions offerings like they were a big gift to me, their charity case. Again, I am grateful for the sacrifice of those who give, but money given to missions is supposed to be given to God.

Thanks. Really. But don’t do me any favors. If God called me to the field, He will provide everything needed to keep me here. Since He doesn’t need your money, I don’t either.

People support missions for lots of different reasons. Many feel some sense of obligation. Some give to satiate their guilt. Others give as an act of worship. The pious give out of pity and duty. I’m sure certain people feel led by God to send their money, and it’s obvious (to me) that most give out of their own kindness and generosity.

If giving money to support missions keeps you from actually being involved personally in what God is doing around the world, you should keep your money.

Financing the Machine

I get a paycheck on the 15th of every month. I know that isn’t the norm for most professional “missionaries,” but the IMB funds us so that we don’t have to raise our own support. We’re not getting rich, (in fact, we just got a decrease in pay), but we’re not going hungry either. The financial support is a blessing that really frees us up to do our work without wondering how we’re going to pay next month’s rent.

Every year, the IMB collects the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.” The Board uses this heavily-advertised season of fund-raising to ask Southern Baptist churches to give to the Board’s international endeavors. In 2003, the LMCO brought in $136,204,648.17. This year, the goal is 150,000,000 (that’s 150 million). When people give to the Board throughout the year through the Cooperative Program, some of that money is used for stateside operations such as administration, publicity, etc. (Most people aren’t aware that a large part of daily operating costs is funded by investment returns- money made through stocks and bonds.) The entirety of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, however, is used in support of overseas personnel. You can see, then, why the offering is a big deal to us.

The Board really knows how to do things. They use quality media productions and publications to educate the people in the pews about our church planting efforts around the world. They have a department that analyzes the financial needs for the budget year and sets giving goals for the churches. Thousands of people give sacrificially to the organization because they believe in what the Board is doing and they want to be involved however they can.

I’m trying not to get too comfortable, though. It’s not that I don’t think the IMB knows how to raise funding. Times change. In the past, churches were proud of their Southern Baptist identity. Today, many SBC churches don’t use “SB” in their name; I’d venture to say that most members don’t even know what the Convention is or whether their church belongs to it. The only real denominational identity these days is that of “Crusading Conservatives” who are caught up in divisive politics and culture wars.

People are tired of sacrificially giving their hard-earned money to a faceless corporate institution that both defines “the Task” and measures its own progress in fulfilling that task. “It’s going to cost us $800 million for us to finish the task,” the organization might say. But beyond that, there is no real accountability as to how the money is spent or even as to where the financial figures come from.

The changing times has changed the way people feel about giving, but it has not changed their desire to give. “We know Jack and Suzy Brown. They’re part of our spiritual family. We know they’re called to and equipped for missions, and we’ve seen them be intentional in ministry here at home. We’ll support them. We have a relationship with them that will insure accountability, we can remain involved in their ministry, send them volunteers, and house them when there home for a visit.”
The Board’s efforts at personalization and fostering partnerships cannot compete with the relationship that Jack and Suzy Brown have with their home church. Nor should it.

Only when you know your supporters can there be true accountability. One of the biggest problems our field personnel have is the feeling of entitlement. This attitude of “I get what’s coming to me” and “It’s MY money” is everywhere. Regional policies only serve to reinforce the selfishness. “The Policy Manual says that we are entitled to 30 days vacation.” “Regional guidelines clearly state that we get an apartment of 1400m2. Ours is only 900.” It goes on an on. Because our money comes in the form of a paycheck every month from a well-oiled machine that raises support for us. We don’t see the little old ladies who give as much as half of their social security check every month, or the families who give inheritance money or vacation savings. We don’t know the people who give so that we can live and work overseas, so their money means much less to us. There is great financial accountability to the Board, but little accountability to the churches that give to support us.

So what’s the solution? Well, the megachurches are sending their own missionaries. Denominational splinter groups are too. The Board is trying to put on a more personal face by encouraging partnerships between missionaries and stateside churches. They push missionaries to speak in churches and conferences whenever possible. I say, stop it. I say, dismantle the machine and let local churches send their own people through the Board. When they don’t have anyone, or can afford to fully support them, let them cooperate through existing associations. But make sure every church that gives, no matter how little it might be, knows personally the missionary they are sending. If thirty churches in rural Arkansas want to give, make sure they have the opportunity to know the people who receive their offerings, and insure that they have some relationship with that overseas ministry. Instead of selling people groups, the Board needs to be representing us, the field personnel to the churches back home.

What do you think?