SAN ANTONIO (BP)–Royce Sweatman couldn’t get the image out of his mind.
The North Arkansas Baptist Association’s director of missions saw a set of jumper cables stretching from the heart of Africa to the 54 Southern Baptist churches scattered across north Arkansas’ Ozark mountains. It was a vision that would eventually spur his association to the greatest level of missions involvement in its history.
Sweatman shared his testimony at the International Mission Board’s Lottie Moon Thank You Dinner in San Antonio. The June 11 gathering honored top-giving Southern Baptist churches whose commitment and sacrifices to telling the story of Jesus helped raise a goal-breaking $150.1 million Lottie Moon Christmas Offering in 2006.
Sweatman recalled wrestling with a burden to lead the North Arkansas association to missions in Africa, even committing himself to a 40-day fast to confirm God’s calling.
“Will anybody go?” Sweatman wondered. Most of the churches in his association were small, rural congregations with an average Sunday School attendance of 40.
But Sweatman stayed true to God’s call, and people did go.
Today, the association sends more than 150 people each year on short-term mission trips. Eleven have been called from among the association’s ranks to serve as Southern Baptist missionaries overseas.
“Fire has been lit in the hearts and lives of people all over north Arkansas, and the reason that it happened is because we joined together with our partners in a foreign field,” Sweatman said. “It’s changed us.”
IMB President Jerry Rankin praised churches in associations like Sweatman’s for not allowing their size to intimidate them in the face of a global missions task.
“I get real emotional when I get letters from a church like Bellville Baptist Church in Brewton, Ala., where 34 members gave a Lottie Moon offering of $32,000,” Rankin said, as the room erupted into applause.
Rankin also thanked the biggest givers in 2006, noting that the top 100 churches each contributed more than $100,000 to the Lottie Moon offering. Representatives from churches credited with giving either the overall highest dollar amount or largest gift per capita in their respective associations were asked to stand and be recognized.
“Most of all we’re grateful to Woman’s Missionary Union, who envisioned in 1888 … a Christmas offering to send out foreign missionaries,” Rankin said. Since that time, Southern Baptists have given nearly $3 billion to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
Wanda Lee, WMU executive director/treasure, joined Rankin on stage to announce the new Lottie Moon goal for 2007, $165 million, and presented him with a check for $10,502.
“Because WMU’s only focus for 119 years has been to love and care for the missionaries, raise the support that will keep them on the field and teach the generations about their responsibility for the Great Commission, we want to be the first ones to give to the new offering goal,” Lee said.
“It’s never too early to start giving to next year’s Lottie Moon offering,” Rankin quipped, drawing chuckles from the crowd.
“It would be impossible … to state the significance of what reaching our goal of $150 million is all about,” Rankin said on a more serious note. “Last year we appointed over 700 new missionaries, not one of whom had to defer going to the field in order to raise their support … because of your faithfulness in giving.
“We estimate meeting the goal this year will enable us to send over 200 additional missionaries that we would otherwise not be able to send out.
“We don’t appeal to our churches to give just to reach an offering goal, just to get more money. A lost world is saying, ‘Tell me the story of Jesus.'”
The gathering also heard testimony from Bill Jessup, pastor of Stafford Baptist Church in Stafford, Va. Jessup explained that the church felt called to spread the Gospel across Iceland, even though there were no missionaries serving there. Last September, Stafford Baptist sent its own church planter, in partnership with the IMB, to begin work in Iceland’s capitol, Reykjavik.
“We’ve already seen a Bible study that’s multiplied … and we’ve seen some fruit that starting to develop as the Icelandic people are now engaging their culture,” Jessup said.
Stafford has now partnered with more than 100 other churches to provide prayer support for their work in Iceland. Overall church giving, Jessup said, continues to increase.
“We’ve heard so many that say once a church gets involved it’s so expensive to send teams, to accept responsibility for a missions program, it’ll hurt our Cooperative Program giving and our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” Rankin said. “But we’ve yet to see it. Once you get involved you give more generously.”