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The struggling U.S. economy hasn’t been kind to Winnebago County in extreme north-central Illinois.

Winnebago, with the highest unemployment rate in Illinois, is home to the state’s third-largest city, Rockford. Several major plant closings over the past few years have impacted many of the county’s communities, including Machesney Park, where Kevin Kerr is pastor of First Baptist Church.

“We’ve had people who have lost jobs, and some of them have stayed and tried to find lower-paying work or fewer hours,” Kerr said. “Some have had to move away, and that has impacted our attendance as well as our offerings.”

Those facts make Machesney Park’s place on the Illinois Baptist State Association’s list of top-giving churches through the Cooperative Program even more notable, though Kerr is quick to downplay their 17 percent giving increase over 2009. The church wants to be higher on the list, the pastor said, even while balancing the needs of an aging building and a multifaceted ministry to the Karen (Burmese) congregation they planted in 2008.

Some people in the Karen congregation also have lost jobs or had their hours cut back. Machesney Park has ramped up its financial contributions to the younger congregation, continuing to provide transportation, English as a Second Language classes, and other support, along with donations of furniture and clothing for those who are new to the United States.

The increased costs and continued economic impact have forced Machesney Park to continually adjust its budget, make priority decisions, and present pressing needs to the congregation, Kerr said.

“We are not a rich congregation. We don’t have anybody that has lots of money. People are just hard-working and they are willing to sacrifice and give,” he said.

Last year, Machesney Park took up a “Barnabas offering” modeled after a New Testament church method of giving in which people sold what they had in order to give toward the apostles’ ministry. Kerr challenged church members to consider selling things they weren’t using, from smaller household items to boats or vacation homes. The offering went toward major expenses and freed up more dollars for missions.

“Whenever we have to consider our CP giving, it is an agonizing thing for us, because we want to be very committed to that. So, we just laid out before our people what the needs were, and as their giving increased, it resulted in more dollars we were able to give,” Kerr said.

Part of Machesney Park’s giving strategy is to keep Cooperative Program giving in front of the congregation so that even those who are younger and have had less exposure to CP can understand its importance. Every Sunday, Kerr and other leaders at the church present an aspect of CP giving, whether through a video clip, missions story, or special offering emphasis.

The church also puts its missions mindset into action, engaging in several ministries in their community like the Rockford Rescue Mission, a local pregnancy care center, and an elementary school the church adopted several years ago. Church members also are involved with Southern Baptist ministries in other parts of the state, like the Christian Activity Center in East St. Louis and Illinois Baptist Children’s Home in Carmi.

They’re responding to international missions opportunities by working with people in nine language groups who come to Machesney Park for ESL classes each week, and by planning for 2011’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering a year in advance. In January, families began a year-long giving plan, committing to collect their offering in a Chinese food takeout container. If those families collect even just a quarter a day, Machesney Park will collect more than $9,000 for the offering by December.

The Lottie Moon plan, like their weekly emphasis on CP giving, reflects Machesney Park’s strategy of systematic, planned giving to the things they’ve set as priorities, Kerr said.

“We’ve done a consistent job of challenging the people, keeping it before them,” he said, “and they’ve responded.”


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  • Meredith Day