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FIRST-PERSON: Cooperative Program at the crossroads

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–The Executive Committee of the SBC will present a report to the Southern Baptist Convention next month that concerns the Cooperative Program. I was privileged to serve on the committee that developed the report. The purpose of the report is to alert Southern Baptists to a serious decline in Cooperative Program percentage giving and to encourage them to adopt strategies to reverse this decline. The solutions will not materialize overnight, but steps can be taken that will begin to have immediate impact.

One of the recommendations of the report (though not its most important one) asks our state and national conventions to elect leaders from churches who contribute at least 10 percent through the Cooperative Program. This has brought criticism from some quarters. It has been suggested this is coercive or makes Cooperative Program giving a test of fellowship for Southern Baptists. Others have pointed out that some of our most effective leaders of recent days did not meet that test. These critics do not want a Cooperative Program “criterion” for elected leaders.

Why does the report make such a recommendation? (The following is my opinion on the subject and not the committee’s). The Southern Baptist Convention is not merely a loose-knit fellowship of churches with similar ecclesiology. It is a specific organization that was created to “elicit, combine, and direct the energies” of Baptists in America for Gospel causes. The SBC has voted into existence certain distinct subsidiary organizations such as mission boards, seminaries, a publishing house and other entities and charged them with carrying out particular ministries on behalf of the convention and its participating churches. Baptist state conventions have a similar structure. For 81 years, the Cooperative Program has been the pivotal common funding mechanism for nearly all these entities.

We need leaders who understand the importance of Cooperative Program to the success of our entities’ ministries. We need leaders who will model sacrificial percentage giving from the churches, especially when so many churches are choosing to decrease their level of support. There are many great godly Christian leaders who are leading wonderful growing congregations and performing other magnificent Christian ministries, and who do not lead their churches to give through the Cooperative Program. They are independent. They are convinced their way is better. I thank God for them. But I don’t think they ought to be elected to lead Southern Baptists. If they wanted to be elected, I would wonder why.

This recommendation of 10 percent was not made because folks were giving 9.8 percent or even 8 percent and we wanted to ratchet it up. Too many leaders had records in the 1-3 percent range. The recommendation is not intended to be a legalistic rule. Everyone knows churches go through cycles that affect their ability to give through the Cooperative Program. But we do desire to raise the bar. In recent years, concern about Cooperative Program giving by leaders (presidents, officers, trustees) was set aside to consider the weightier issue of theological soundness. This was the right thing to do. After all, if our doctrine is false, who needs the Cooperative Program? Thank God, the theological crisis has been resolved. Now we must tackle the mission support crisis. Will we elect leaders, like Bobby Welch, who by their lifelong example demonstrate their commitment not only to the inerrancy of scripture, not only to soul winning and church growth, but also to the Cooperative Program? Must we settle for only one or two of these characteristics? Aren’t there leaders among us who possess all these characteristics and more?

The Cooperative Program is at a crossroads. Wishing it were different does not make it so. The report of the committee doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But I hope Southern Baptists will grapple with the recommendations that are there. A serious debate on the subject is overdue. And, I hope messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention will settle for nothing less than convictional inerrantists, dedicated soul winners, and Cooperative Program champions as their leaders. It is not the candidates’ choice to make. It is the convention’s choice.
Hankins is executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • David Hankins