New York economy is down, but mission passion is up

Gina Grate Pottenger
Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Owego Faith PromiseThe economy of Owego, New York, U.S., has had its ups and downs.

In the 1990s, the area went into a recession when defense-related industries experienced severe cutbacks. To make matters worse, New York-based IBM, a technology and consulting firm, conducted mass layoffs.

Then there was the flood of 2006 that caused millions of dollars in damage.

Three years ago, the Obama administration canceled a contract with Lockheed Martin to build helicopters, putting more people in the area out of work and leaving numerous brand new homes empty.

“The community has been hurting and continues to hurt because of the financial situation that exists here,” said Larry Warner, Nazarene Missions International (NMI) president at Owego Church of the Nazarene. “I know a lot of people in our churches that are in and out of jobs.”

Owego W&W service in chapelYet, the Owego congregation has never let financial insecurity get in the way of sacrificial giving to global missions.

This spring, the church committed to give more than 8 percent of their income to missions this coming year – matching previous year giving rates. This is well above the minimum 5.5 percent goal for the World Evangelism Fund (WEF). This goal was established in 2010 across the denomination and is based on current local giving.

The Owego church also pledged well beyond their Faith Promise goal of $66,000. And at Thanksgiving last year, they set a goal to give $3,000 to the special WEF PLUS offering beyond their usual Thanksgiving offering. They gave $9,000 -- three times their goal.

But it’s not all about sacrificial offerings. The congregation sends out a Work & Witness team every year. The next team is headed to Liberia this October, carrying a new set of JESUS Film equipment to a film ministry team on behalf of JESUS Film Harvest Partners.

“We are the senders,” said Senior Pastor Dennis King. “I think the local congregation is so key to missions engagement. I feel my role as a pastor is to keep that before the people: A vision of the Kingdom that is bigger than our own backyard.”

For a church that is 80 years old and has suffered economic setbacks along with its community, this kind of sacrificial involvement in mission takes intentionality.

King said there are three ingredients that have been vital for igniting and sustaining missions passion at Owego:
•    strong lay leadership for missions, especially NMI leaders,
•    being a people of prayer, and
•    intentionally inspiring mission passion into the younger generations.

“I think that kind of heart for missions comes from the heart of God, which comes through prayer,” King said. “The Owego church has had a long legacy of praying people and corporate prayer.”

Owego, which runs an average of 300 in attendance for Sunday morning worship, used to hold a mission-centered service once a month on Sunday evenings. Like many other Nazarene churches in the United States, Owego saw its Sunday evening services decline in attendance over time. The church’s leadership knew they needed to do something different.

So, about a year and a half ago, the church started “World Changers Sunday,” which is held on the fifth Sunday of each month that has five weekends. That works out to a mission-centered Sunday service once a quarter.

“It used to be once a month on a Sunday night we’d have a relatively small group who would hear about missions. Now every quarter, our whole congregation [hears],” King said.

Warner is in his second term as NMI president, and has served on the mission council. Having traveled internationally with his job at DuPont, Warner retired in 2001. He sensed a call to work with volunteer missions – in particular, to help others gain mission experience.

He has noticed that when there is a specific appeal for a mission offering that includes clear communication about how the funds will be used, the congregation gives freely.

For instance, a former children’s pastor at the church recently returned for a visit. During an evening prayer meeting, he shared his testimony of how he became a missionary in Central America and is now taking a compassionate ministries position in Alaska. There were 30 people at the service who gave more than $1,300 in a love offering. Most of the givers were retirees on a fixed income, Warner said.

“Owego has always kind of astounded me personally with what they will give toward missions and compassionate ministries when the need is communicated,” he said.

Challenges remain, former NMI president Nancy Kemp said. The congregation is a mixture of age groups. The older generation is passionate about missions, but the younger age groups are still learning. So, for the past six years she has been leading a summer mission ministry with the children.

“Some days I feel like I’m not making any inroads. Other days you can start to see the kids [who are now teenagers], we’re starting to see more of a desire or interest.”

To help make missions accessible to anyone in the church, the mission council has organized volunteer days at a compassionate ministry center that is a five-hour drive from Owego. The church collects clothing and Crisis Care Kits, then volunteers deliver them to the center and assist in sorting and organizing.

The congregation also investigated organizations in their community that had needs. Then, volunteers divided up into groups one day to help with small tasks such as marking military veteran graves or organizing donated clothes at a city resource center. One young man later said he’d had fun, but that he also realized there were needs in the immediate community.

“I feel missions is everywhere,” Kemp said. “I’m glad that we’re getting people to recognize that the U.S. is just as much a mission field as everywhere else.”


Talk about it

  • What do you think it takes to kindle a church's mission passion?
  • How should believers respond when it seems their economic resources limit their involvement in God's mission to the world?
  • In your church or district, does it seem to you that a passion for missions is more evident in one age group or another? Why or why not?
  • What are the key ingredients to instilling an awareness of and commitment to missions in up and coming generations?
  • What do you think of the Owego church's strategies for adapting to how newer generations learn and experience missions?