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FIRST-PERSON: Decision time

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a package on giving that appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan earlier this fall. It is reprinted by permission.

DALLAS (BP)–Can there be any doubt that Southern Baptists have come to a crossroads in support for our cooperative ministries? Without a change in our attitude toward missions, the Southern Baptist Convention will be diminished in ways none of us will find to be an improvement.

It is an attitude toward missions we are discussing, not just one about the how or who of missions support. The path leading toward highly personalized and locally controlled missions has the potential to dissipate the effectiveness of our corporate work.

The more traditional path of Cooperative Program missions has enabled growth and strategic thoroughness in our denominational work. Yes, some churches can do both well. Not all do so and in the balancing act of church budgeting one thing must take precedence over others. It seems observable that the rise of locally controlled mission projects has been at the expense of a more comprehensive missions strategy.

In a nutshell, we’re becoming independent churches with benefits. As the giving trend for an average SBC church drops into the 5 percent range the benefits will fade.

Seminary education will become too expensive and the institutions may become so dependent on other funding channels that their accountability to the denomination becomes more nominal. Scholarships will be inadequate to the need of students who need training so that they have to leave or take 10 years to finish a degree. As a result, the trend toward staff ministers with no theological training will become more pronounced — as will the trend toward pastors trained by other faith traditions.

Southern Baptist missionaries will fall further behind the goal of reaching the world with the Gospel. We will once again have a situation where missionaries are called and appointed but unable to go because the funds aren’t there. The last time this happened it startled us. It can happen again. No local initiatives in partnership missions can make up for the absence of resident missionaries. Even these volunteer trips will become more difficult and rare as host missionaries are overburdened and fewer in number.

As our infrastructure ages we’ll one day have a national disaster that Southern Baptists cannot address in a coordinated manner. The difference will be evident for volunteers and victims if not to the rest of us.

Southern Baptists and all evangelicals will face increasing opposition from an anti-Christian culture. As CP ministries lose ground, our educational and advocacy ministry at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission will be overrun. Our denomination will be absent from significant debates regarding religious freedom in the United States. We’ll be an army without scouts.

It takes little imagination to see these changes in our future. In fact, that future is not far off. Either our commitment to cooperation will be revitalized or we will see changes like these and worse in the next decade.

Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said back in June that we will face a crisis within the next 20 years. I think he was being optimistic by half, assuming things go as they have for the past 20 years.

Those who read this probably care about these ministries. Many who don’t will not be convinced by anything short of an e-mail from their favorite anti-denominational guru. A crossroads is often a parting of the ways. Sadly, this one will be just that.

Of course, God doesn’t need money. The SBC is a body made up of churches that make decisions, under Him, regarding what they will bless and what they will not. If churches decide that denominational structure is not worth their support, whether their decision is led of God or not, the structure will collapse.

The SBC is not a thing that stands or falls without regard to the will of its affiliated churches. It is us. The ministry we nurture or neglect is our ministry. Any of us of an age to lead anything or preach to anyone are now responsible for how we affect the health of the institutions we hand off to our children.

Friends, the story is good, the information is available in any medium you prefer, and the cause is worthy of your support. If your people or your children don’t know what the Cooperative Program means, or that your church is Southern Baptist to begin with, why?

Oddly enough, one of the best things that’s happened to CP in recent years is Hurricane Katrina. People who had no idea how Southern Baptists worked got to see it up close. Where did those trucks come from? Who paid for that food? How did all these Baptists from other states know what to bring and how to organize this mess? Who’s going to help house these evacuees? Can we help rebuild some of these churches and homes? You mean they’ve been training and preparing for this all along? My church paid for part of this? Miraculous!

Twenty-five years ago, I had a seriously cynical attitude toward CP promotion. In those days our seminaries did little to explain what the thing was or how it benefited anyone. At the same time many of our SBC leaders and employees were in open contempt of what our churches and people believed.

When moderates wore buttons saying “Save the Cooperative Program,” I heard “Save our Phony Baloney Jobs from the Unwashed Masses.” Believe it or not, Paige Patterson, Richard Land, Danny Akin, Chuck Kelley and Jim Richards — to name a few of millions — were the unwashed masses in that day. Is that the way 26-year-old seminary students and pastors hear our CP promotion today? I truly wonder, and dread a little, the answer to that question.

It is not CP or even missions that holds the SBC together. I said that then and I say that now. Unless we agree on the nature and content of the Gospel, missions is beside the point. That is what the Conservative Resurgence was all about. Subjugating truth to pragmatism is always wrong and offensive.

As many are eager to say, the Resurgence is accomplished. We can now trust the integrity of our institutions in a way we couldn’t in those days. Our leaders are flawed but they preach the same message in our churches as they do in classrooms or staff meetings — that is a huge change. Why then is there apparent cynicism today toward the institutions that provided key support for existing churches and ministries — institutions not nearly replaced by anything comparable in purpose or effectiveness?

Ministry leaders must reject knee-jerk cynicism and prejudice toward denominationalism. “I don’t value it or know anything about it” is not an argument. Tiny churches that give little and giant churches that aren’t aware they give any share alike in the stewardship of what God has built in our midst. We will account for what we did with the Lord’s institutions as well as what we did with His church.

Show your church what CP does. Lead your church, in increments that fit your ability, to reverse the trend of lowered percentages of CP giving. Let your more direct missions involvement supercharge the commitment of your congregation to work with other believers in doing what you can’t do alone.

The innovations of our era allow us to see firsthand the things only career missionaries saw in earlier generations. It’s also miraculous to be there and see that and help with it. That ability is also based on the foundation of training and organization and advocacy and budgets and audits and oversight.

Our continued ease of access depends on our commitment to some kind of foundation. For Southern Baptists nothing has been used of God more mightily to provide for all phases of the harvest than the Cooperative Program.
Gary Ledbetter is the editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, online at www.sbtexas.com/texan.

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  • Gary Ledbetter