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FIRST-PERSON: Cooperation and autonomy

"One church can’t send thousands of missionaries across the state, nation and world. It’s just not going to happen. But because we work together, my church is doing that."

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (BP) – I’ve been a Southern Baptist church member for 54 years, and I was on the cradle roll six years before that. I know all about Mission Friends, RAs and even the WMU and GAs. (I went to GA camp in college as a lifeguard, and I attended WMU meetings as a preschooler with my grandmother.)

I know children’s choir, Celebrate Life, committees, Wednesday night Baptist business meetings and prayer meetings, green bean casseroles, Centrifuge, fifth Sunday sings, associations, “Victory in Jesus,” Adrian Rogers, Lifeway, lock-ins and “Pass It On.” 

I went to a Southern Baptist college and a Southern Baptist seminary. I have the receipts. This either sounds like I’m bragging, or I lived in a vacant classroom in my Southern Baptist church. Not true on either account. I’m just a fifth-generation Southern Baptist. 

But none of these things is really what makes any of us Southern Baptists. Those things are all accoutrements within Southern Baptist churches of yesteryear and some of them are still sung, attended and experienced today. None are litmus tests. 

We Southern Baptists are all different, and that’s what makes our churches so beautiful. Our worship styles, languages, customs, service times, preaching proclivities, fall festivals, prayer rooms, summer schedules, theological nuances and snow day policies differ.

So, what’s the connective tissue? With all that diversity, I’ve noticed over the past 60 years, we do have a few rock-solid, no compromise, do or die essentials: 

1. Jesus saves

2. The Great Commission

3. Our churches are all autonomous.

4. And we work together.

The first two concepts are as broad and deep as the ocean. They are seismic in importance. Nos. 3 and 4 are lesser, but they distinguish us from other tribes. 

Some churches are autonomous, but they don’t work together. Others work together but they aren’t autonomous. 

I want to camp out for a second on that last essential. When we are all in on No. 4, Nos. 1 and 2 are communicated loudly and clearly. 

One church can’t send thousands of missionaries across the state, nation and world. It’s just not going to happen. But because we work together, my church is doing that. 

One church can’t train thousands of future pastors and leaders, but my church is doing that. One church can’t tackle the greatest problem in the whole world: lostness. But my church is doing that. 

One church can’t train evangelists, provide compassion, disaster relief, evangelism conferences and a hundred other things it might care about, but my church can do that. One hip nondenominational church might ask, “How?” Through the Cooperative Program. 

I know it’s not flashy, glitzy. It doesn’t immediately cause your heart to skip a beat. But there is one thing about cooperation that sparks the imagination of the main character in our story. It works.

So how does it work? You give 10 percent of your income back to God through your local church. 

Your local church looks beyond itself to give 10 percent or more to missions in your state, North America and around the world through the Cooperative Program. 

Just imagine how much we disciples could do together if we tried less to be Lone Rangers and worked together. 

The proof is our history. The Cooperative Program fuels the greatest modern missionary movement in the world. 

In fact, one study recently reported that we have seven times more missionaries on the field than any other organization or denomination. 

And get this — our commissioned, full-time IMB missionaries can focus on the mission rather than marketing. They don’t have to fund raise, figure out pledges, sponsors and host churches. And that’s a good thing because they weren’t called to telemarketing and touring. They were created to evangelize. 

The Great Commission and evangelism are the lead for Southern Baptists, but we cooperate with each other in so many other ways. 

When we lose our cooperative generosity, we lose what makes Southern Baptists Southern Baptists. And when we lose our strategy of local church autonomy, we lose what makes Southern Baptists Southern Baptists. 

The local church isn’t dictated to by some ivory tower board room of well-robed bishops telling all the churches what they have to do. 

In the same way, none of our churches, no matter how big they are, think that they can do all the work by themselves. Again, this is just basically what it means to be a Southern Baptist and a Tennessee Baptist. These two concepts go together like peas and carrots. That’s how we “church” as Southern Baptists. 

And if we stray from our DNA, we’re doing it wrong. We are called to reach our village, city, state, nation and world. 

We can only do this by cooperating with God and cooperating with our sister churches. 

Let’s autonomously, diversely and cooperatively preach the Word and reach the world with the Gospel. And let’s keep the green bean casserole recipe secret.

Matt Tullos is the stewardship development specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. This article originally appeared in the Baptist and Reflector.

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  • Matt Tullos