Over a 45-year pastorate, John Morgan has led Houston's Sagemont Church to give $25 million to missions, build $50 million in buildings, and set aside more than 10 percent of its annual budget for missions.
Remarkably, the church has done it all without borrowing a penny for decades. "There's not one building program in the Bible that was ever financed," Morgan said. "It was when a willing-hearted people gave a willing offering as God prospered them. And so I became very convicted that if our church was going to do missions like we wanted to do them, then we couldn't do so and stay in [financial] bondage to the world."
Morgan's ministry at Sagemont began in 1966, when he was called as the congregation's first pastor. At that time, it was a mission of First Baptist Church in Pasadena, Texas, where Morgan's father was pastor. About fourteen people came to the new church initially, he said.
In June, Sagemont celebrated its 45th anniversary. Over four decades, the church exploded to 17,400 members, approximately half of whom have joined by making professions of faith, according to Morgan.
Sagemont's commitment to debt-free ministry began in the mid-1970s when the congregation read through the Bible and Morgan was struck by God's warnings about debt. Around the same time, he served as moderator of Houston's Union Baptist Association and learned a startling fact: in one year, the churches gave a combined $2.2 million to missions but paid $3.5 million in interest on their buildings.
So beginning with a group of three laymen, Morgan cast his vision for getting Sagemont out of debt and never borrowing money again. The church agreed with him and in thirteen months retired $660,000 in debt. It also committed never to finance a building program.
At times, keeping that commitment has been a challenge, Morgan said, but God has always blessed His people's faith and supplied their needs.
"If we don't need it, then He won't supply it," Morgan said. "And that's happened to us a couple of times."
Once, Sagemont was unable to launch a building project because of insufficient funds. Had construction proceeded as planned though, the proposed building would have ended up flooded, according to the pastor. On another occasion, the church planned to purchase a building. But when God did not supply enough money, it leased the building instead.
At other times, God has provided money in astonishing ways.
For example, currently Sagemont is in the final stages of a building program. On June 5, it had to sign nearly $3 million in contracts for audiovisual equipment. Yet that day it was still $2.1 million short. When the situation was explained to the congregation, it gave a building offering of $3.4 million in one day—in addition to meeting its regular budget needs.
The rejoicing at an outdoor worship service that night was jubilant, Morgan said.
When the offering total was announced, "a dove came right down over the crowd, just came swooping down over the crowd and went up into the sky," he said. "And the sky opened up—now there's hundreds of witnesses to this—right where the sun was, it opened up like the lens on a camera. And it opened, and a beam of light came straight down where we were, and it closed in fifteen seconds. And we celebrated."
But Morgan is quick to note that Sagemont made sure missions giving did not decrease during the building campaign.
"One of the reasons the Lord has really blessed us is that the church always tried to stay focused on missions and to strongly support missions," he said "… If there's any one thing I would put my finger on and say the Lord has blessed us for doing it, it's staying focused on the world, not just ourselves."
Sagemont's missions reach is vast. More than 2,000 of its members went on mission trips last year, and it was the eleventh highest giving church to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. Sagemont also helps fund Southern Baptist missions and ministries through the Cooperative Program and gives to its local Baptist association.
The congregation designates additional funds to its own outreach programs as well as SBC causes that it feels led to support above and beyond CP.
"One of the things that I try to do is to tell as many [pastors] as I can, especially these young guys: Get your people involved in giving to the Cooperative Program, and you be a giver," he said.
Morgan compared Southern Baptist pastors who do not support CP to the prodigal son. Having reaped benefits from the SBC family, they launch their own ministry endeavors in lieu of cooperative giving. But often they return to the denomination, realizing that they cannot improve upon the entities and services the SBC has established.
Unfortunately though, those entities and services will cease to exist if too many young Southern Baptists stop giving through CP and experiment with fully independent ministries, he said.
"They'll decide to come back," Morgan said of the proverbial CP prodigals, "and the father will meet them halfway down the road and say, 'Oh son, I've missed you. I heard about all the good work you were doing out there. …But I'm sorry, son, I've sold the farm. I've sold the ranch. I've sold the seminaries. We don't have a Glorieta anymore. We don't have a Ridgecrest anymore. We don't have any of that stuff. And it's too late.'"
In addition to CP giving, Sagemont supports about 160 needy retired ministers through Adopt an Annuitant, a program sponsored by GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. It also makes periodic gifts to SBC seminaries, gives scholarships to Houston Baptist University, and plans to adopt an unreached people group through the International Mission Board.
Another portion of Sagemont's missions giving has gone to help other churches and ministries in financial need. For example, when Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, declared bankruptcy, Sagemont helped organize a coalition of SBC churches that sent $300,000 to help. In response to the gift, revival broke out in the Austin congregation, according to Morgan.
Similarly, when the Union Baptist Association was preparing to borrow $88,000 to pay a debt, Sagemont sent the association a check for the entire amount on the condition that it would not borrow money.
The list of missions efforts at Sagemont could go on to include giving cars to people who have lost their jobs, providing an expense-free retreat center for couples facing trials in life, and teaching people how to get their personal finances in order.
Though such efforts may seem extraordinary to some, Morgan says it is what God wants every church to do.
"When a church or a person relies on God to meet their needs, He comes through in incredible ways," he said. "'The eyes of the Lord go to and fro throughout the whole earth to show Himself strong on behalf of people whose heart is perfect toward Him.'"
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Kentucky.