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GCRTF VIEWPOINT (Mark Coppenger): Groundhog Day or Chariots of Fire?

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–When I became executive director for the Indiana convention in 1988, I was surprised to see that most of the Cooperative Program dollars that came from Indiana churches stayed in the state and that many of the dollars that went on to the SBC offices in Nashville eventually returned to Indiana through programs of the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board). But I think we Hoosier Baptists made good use of those funds.

We had a lot church planters on the field as we moved toward starting at least one new congregation a week in communities without an evangelical witness. Our paper, the Indiana Baptist, made an important stand for the cause of biblical inerrancy, and our evangelism conferences, with such preachers and musicians as Jerry Vines, Jay Strack, Junior Hill, and New Song, stirred our people. We believed in our state camp and in our student work at IU, Purdue, ISU, Ball State, and yes, Notre Dame. We even had a seaman’s center for Great Lakes mariners.

We could have used a lot more money — for raising church planter grants to more than $500 a month, for building some BSU centers, for boosting support of our retired pastors who were living on peanuts, etc. At the state office, we tightened our belts to stay in the black, with staff members wearing several hats — state paper/campus ministry; missions/Brotherhood; evangelism/stewardship; Sunday school/discipleship training.

We were busy, but, as I learned at a meeting with other state execs, Indiana had a long way to go. I remember the man from Louisiana’s announcing that they’d finally scheduled an event for every day of the year. That’s just what happens when you assemble a godly, mission-minded staff. They’ll find and create good channels for the money.

We could even spend all $550 million of the SBC Cooperative Program where I serve now in our Chicago association, covering 6 million people in two counties — on realistic church-planter packages, demographic studies, strategic publications, literature distribution, new-church construction, video productions, media buys, camp development, city-wide events, rescue missions, joint-sponsorships, symposia, disaster relief rigs, overseas partnerships, etc. The same could go for our Illinois state convention.

The fact of the matter is that $550 million just isn’t that much money — if your aim is to reach the world for Christ. Hollywood spends that much on new productions in a single week. Or, to put it otherwise, it’ll pay for two really big films, specifically Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Spider Man 3. But that’s it. And there are needs everywhere.

When I served in the Executive Committee’s Convention Relations shop, we were trying to match the Mormon public service announcements (costing $400,000 each) with a $25,000 budget. (We did manage to get good play for one we made for $750, using old RTVC footage with a new voiceover.) Later, at Midwestern and Southern, I wished that our students had the same low tuition I enjoyed at Southwestern in the 1980s. Then, as a church planter in Evanston, I could have used some health insurance, instead of making piggyback payments on my wife’s outside-work plan. And, of course, there are the gazillion lost people overseas who haven’t heard the gospel and who could use a lot more missionaries — though, of course, they don’t know it yet.

Yes, if we Southern Baptists all tithed and if our churches all gave 10 percent to the Cooperative Program (which I highly recommend, respectively, to individuals and churches), we could triple or quadruple our CP, but even at that, something would be a bit strange. I know the denomination is not a church, but I think a comparison suggests itself. What if a local church collected its offering through the Sunday School classes, which first took their cut for class projects? How much of this money would go forward to congregation-wide causes?

Or what would happen if all CP money went first to the associations, who used what they thought needful before passing on the remainder to the state conventions? How much Chicago CP money would make it downstate?

Since my days as a Royal Ambassador, I’ve always been a big supporter of the Cooperative Program, even when some of that money went to liberal professors and even when our church-plant offering was only $38 one Sunday. (We sent our 10 percent CP, $3.80, on to Springfield joyfully.) But it is fair to ask whether we’ve gotten the system quite right. And might the CP grow if we made some serious adjustments? I think so.

If, figuratively speaking, we have only enough money for a couple of films, do we want to risk producing Groundhog Day (same old same old) or Titanic (with that sinking feeling), when we might be able to give the world The Passion of the Christ and Chariots of Fire?
Mark Coppenger is professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church.

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  • Mark Coppenger