FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) – Too many among us fail to give appropriate attention to our past because they find history irrelevant to the present. This unfortunate preoccupation with only the present day, however, robs us of important knowledge and context that can greatly benefit us when we consider current challenges. This framework is especially true for Baptist history as it pertains to how the Southern Baptist Convention was organized and changed over time resulting in our present structure and method of denominational cooperation.
In spite of whatever shortcomings we may have, I want to make the case that our DNA as a convention of cooperating churches makes the SBC a body worth preserving and perpetuating. A century ago, three major events happened in relatively short sequence that helped to mold the SBC identity as we know it today: the 75 Million Campaign, the establishment of the Cooperative Program, and the restructure of the SBC Executive Committee. Each of these moments in its own way sheds light on the cooperative DNA of Southern Baptists, and our revisiting them in turn allows us to appreciate what we have inherited from past generations.
The 75 Million Campaign
The second half of the 19th century in the SBC was marked by debates about the nature and extent of cooperation, including whether all mission work should come from local churches, associations, and states acting individually over and against the nationally combined efforts between churches. As the 20th century dawned, however, the growing number of Southern Baptist churches and a need for structure led to an overabundance of committees and a societal system of fundraising that was both inefficient in its outcomes and overly taxing on entities as well as churches. The logistics of handling a cooperative effort by thousands of churches representing millions of members was daunting. It would take some monumental shifts in the organizational approach of the SBC to get things moving in the right direction.
One such shift occurred at the 1919 annual meeting in Atlanta. That year, building on a widespread desire for cooperation and vigorous promotional work by leaders like L. R. Scarborough, the second president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the SBC created the Baptist 75 Million Campaign. As Campaign leaders brought this message to Southern Baptist associations and state conventions, pledges totaled more than $92 million. The Campaign’s outcome was not only financial, but also “inspiration, information and organization of a great denominational force,” Scarborough wrote reflecting on the effort. His contemplations on the Campaign and other cooperative matters are included in the recently released volume, The L. R. Scarborough Treasury, published by Seminary Hill Press.
Despite an economic slump resulting in only about 60 percent of monies pledged being eventually given, the Campaign galvanized Southern Baptists to understand more fully their need to work together for mission advance. The spirit of cooperation among associations and state conventions that the Campaign engendered showed how Southern Baptist churches could work together financially to accomplish far more than any one church or association could alone. The connections that the vast majority of Southern Baptist churches shared in doctrine and in missional desire provided a voluntary bond that overcame the variety of personalities and positions in the Convention, allowing all-encompassing endeavors like the Campaign to work.
The Cooperative Program
The year after the 75 Million Campaign ended, during the 1925 annual meeting in Memphis, the Convention established what has become the ongoing hallmark of Southern Baptist cooperation, the Cooperative Program. This new initiative took the financial lessons of the Campaign and created a means to harness collectively and perpetually the missional heart and spirit of Southern Baptists.
The formation of the Cooperative Program began with a recommendation at the 1924 annual meeting that urged a change to the existing model, which overemphasized designated giving: “We recognize the right of individuals and churches to designate their gifts, but it is earnestly hoped that the contributions will be made to the whole program. It is urged that pastors, denominational representatives and all others of our workers shall present the whole program and press upon the people the importance of unity in its support.” With the overwhelming vote in 1925 to establish the Cooperative Program, the SBC solidified into its DNA that it was not only a convention of churches doctrinally and missionally likeminded, but also a convention of financially cooperating churches united by a commitment to a shared missions funding program.
What the SBC accomplished nearly 100 years ago remains the largest ongoing voluntary cooperative effort between churches of any denomination, resulting in a funding mechanism that is the envy of other religious bodies. We cannot take that reality for granted. The hearts behind the Cooperative Program and of the people who brought it into existence were always motivated by a desire to see growth in the Gospel realms of evangelism, discipleship, benevolence, and education. That goal continues to be the Cooperative Program’s function today.
The Executive Committee
With the establishment of the Cooperative Program coming on the heels of the 75 Million Campaign, fiscal impact and accountability became a priority. In 1917, after a year’s worth of hard work by men like M. H. Wolfe and SBC president J. B. Gambrell, the Convention approved a bylaw change that created an Executive Committee with very limited advisory responsibilities. The 75 Million campaign and the subsequent establishment of the Cooperative Program led to a massive shift in its function, though. Concerns over financial laxity pushed the Convention to approve the formation of a Business Efficiency Committee in 1925. In response to that Committee’s report at the 1926 annual meeting, E. Y. Mullins proposed a major restructuring of the Executive Committee, making it responsible for suggesting budget allocations for Cooperative Program funds to the SBC entities and for bringing together the several state conventions and the SBC in cooperation.
We should not miss that the expanded role of the Executive Committee established a means by which SBC fiscal stewardship could be maximized and measured by having a central committee that recommends Cooperative Program budget allocations to the SBC boards, institutions, and commission. The expanded role did not, however, place the Executive Committee as an omnipotent body to govern the SBC. No such body exists in Baptist life. Each SBC entity head serves a board of trustees elected by the messengers to the SBC annual meeting. The Executive Committee, alongside the various SBC entities, exists to serve all Southern Baptists and fulfill what their messengers have voted to carry out.
The core responsibility of the Executive Committee remains largely the same today as that described by Mullins nearly a century ago. The work done by the Executive Committee in the years following its restructuring has led to a wide degree of unity and cooperation among the various Southern Baptist entities around the nation.
Reflecting on our past and informing our future
Southern Baptists should always be ready to evaluate the efficacy and value of our cooperative structures in light of contemporary needs. Nevertheless, proper organizational change comes from proper understanding of an organization’s history. We must admit that recent events in SBC life have produced valid questions concerning cooperation. At the same time, the seriousness with which we address these questions is not the same thing as questioning the whole project of denominational cooperative missions. When we value our history, retaining core commitments and learning from failures, we gain the tools necessary to truly make the work of our Convention better. Together with our doctrinal distinctives, cooperation historically has been at the heart of everything that makes the SBC worth preserving, and I firmly believe we should pray and work toward its renewal.