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‘Missional’ focus must include cooperative funding, report says

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

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)–“Missional” is a popular new term in some Southern Baptist churches describing an attitude of obedience to sharing the Gospel around the world. And yet the concept is nothing new to the 161-year-old Southern Baptist Convention, according to the first line of the final report from the Ad Hoc Committee on the Cooperative Program.

“Southern Baptists have always been a missional people,” the report states.

While messengers to the 2006 annual meeting overwhelmingly adopted the report of five strategies to maintain this mindset, a lively discussion ensued over what makes a church cooperative.

“The Cooperative Program was implemented to give each Southern Baptist a way to be a part of reaching the world for Christ through their local church. Sadly, we too often have allowed our focus to become ingrown and diverted from our evangelistic responsibility,” the 29-page report states.

That conclusion was drawn by the committee of eight state convention executive directors representing Oklahoma, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. They joined with two SBC Executive Committee representatives to address the rapid decline in the average portion given by local Southern Baptist churches to Southern Baptist missions through the convention’s longtime funding channel, known as the Cooperative Program or CP.

Apart from its bumpy start during the Great Depression, the Cooperative Program enjoyed 50 years of steady growth not only in dollars, but in reputation in the eyes of the churches, according to Chad Owen Brand and David Hankins, authors of “One Sacred Effort,” a 2005 release from B&H Publishing Group of LifeWay Christian Resources.

From the early 1930s until the mid 1980s, gifts from local churches grew from $2.4 million to $325.4 million. The percentage of churches’ aggregate undesignated receipts given through CP was consistently in the 10.5 to 11 percent range, the authors recounted.

But in 1984, while the total dollars continued to grow — reaching $522 million in 2005 — and the percentage of churches giving through CP remained remarkably high at 95 percent, the average portion that churches contributed began to sharply decline — from 10.6 percent in 1984 to 6.99 percent in 2004. The portion dropped further to a 6.7 percent average last year.

In a survey of Southern Baptists of Texas Convention churches responding to the Annual Church Profile, the Southern Baptist TEXAN newsjournal determined that the size of the church is not as significant a factor as some might assume. The study was limited to a little more than half of SBTC churches since only 76 percent completed last year’s ACP report and another 20 percent failed to include details of either undesignated giving or CP allocations.

Of the churches studied, the TEXAN found that congregations with fewer than 1,000 resident members averaged 7.4 percent in the amount of undesignated receipts set aside for the Cooperative Program — nearly a percentage point higher than the norm for all SBC churches.

Churches with between 700 and 900 members reported an even higher average level of 9.2 percent. Even when SBTC churches grow to several thousand resident members, the CP average is 8.65 percent.

A decline occurs with a 6.7 percent average for churches in the 3,000 to 3,999 range, 4.3 percent for those between 4,000 and 4,999 and 3.75 percent between 5,000 and 9,999 members. Once over 10,000 resident members, the CP average falls to near 1 percent. The overall average among SBTC churches analyzed is 7 percent.

Analyzing the nearly 20-year downward trend in the average percentage given through CP among SBC churches, Hankins said it represents a 33 percent reduction in a relatively short time.

“A random review seems to indicate the decline in percentage giving is occurring in all varieties of churches — large and small, city and rural,” Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, said. “Many who gave double-digit percentages have reduced to single digits, and many who gave modest percentages have reduced them further.”

Had all Southern Baptist churches maintained the longstanding trend of giving 10 percent or more of their undesignated receipts for the CP-funded Southern Baptist ministries around the world, an additional $250 million could have been invested, the authors noted.

Many churches seem to assume they give generously through CP when tens of thousands of dollars are raised annually for the seasonal Lottie Moon Christmas and Annie Armstrong Easter offerings. But those are designated gifts limited to funding mission endeavors of the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board. When churches prioritize mission offerings to the neglect of CP, other SBC ministries take a hit, including six theological seminaries where ministers are trained, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and relief for ministers’ widows.

One participant in a TEXAN survey of CP and missions giving indicated CP support at a level four times what ACP figures reported the church gave. Most likely the church included seasonal offerings as CP funding. In other cases, churches have moved from a budgeted CP percentage, preferring a lump sum instead. As the church grows, that line item isn’t likely to grow with it.

Suggesting a theme of “Imagine What More We Could Do” to carry Southern Baptists into a new future of reaching people, the report stated: “We must quantify this into goals for new missionaries on the field at state, national, and international levels and into new people groups which could have a witness. We must set bold, challenging goals that will grip the hearts, imaginations, and pocketbooks of Southern Baptists with a bold attempt to carry the gospel to the entire world in our generation.”

The ad hoc committee’s report as endorsed by the Executive Committee, and eventually the messengers at the SBC annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C., last June declared, “This bold vision must come from our SBC leaders at both state and national levels and be cast in such a compelling way that it becomes a part of the heart and purpose of our members, pastors, and churches throughout the Convention.”

Hankins and Brand, a theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also note in their book that the Cooperative Program is comprehensive, a benefit over the spasmodic, isolated and competitive efforts of smaller missions efforts.

“As useful as short-term mission trips are, a caution is in order. Congregations must remember that the local church partnership mission trip is not a substitute for the Cooperative Program. It’s a supplement to it. If churches are not careful, they will allow their interest in one particular isolated mission field to consume all their time and resources to the neglect of the rest of the world.”

“Without the ongoing mission strategy supported by the Cooperative Program, the short-term trips would not be effective or, in many cases, even possible,” the authors conclude, as many short-term groups work in conjunction with CP-supported personnel overseas.

Five strategies provide the framework for steps being encouraged in the report: addressing biblical stewardship, CP as a foundational strategy for fulfilling Acts 1:8, consistency in CP promotion, growing the next generation of CP advocates, and use of volunteer mission trips to demonstrate the impact of the Cooperative Program.

STRATEGY 1 — Develop biblical financial stewards.

Southern Baptist leaders recognize that a church’s stewardship begins with individual members giving at least a tithe of their income. A report by Empty Tomb Inc., a Christian research and service organization, observed that the average church member in America gave just 2.6 percent of income to his church.

Ken Hemphill’s new book, “Making Change,” was recommended as a resource to teach biblical stewardship that leads to financial freedom.

The report also called for this priority to be a part of church planting at all levels, asking the North American Mission Board to require a level of CP participation for church plants supported with CP funds. Currently, church starts receiving NAMB support are required to give to the Cooperative Program, preferably at a level of 10 percent. While a NAMB spokesman said the portion given is considered a local church matter, state convention partners monitor compliance of church starts.

The rate of compliance by SBTC-funded church starts is 100 percent, according to SBTC Missions Director Robby Partain.

“We cease funding for plants that aren’t giving to CP. I would say that five to six percent of undesignated tithes and offerings is a typical CP contribution for our plants,” Partain said.

STRATEGY 2 — Reposition the Cooperative Program as Southern Baptists’ foundational strategy for fulfilling Acts 1:8 through our local churches.

Through existing and newly piloted events, the report calls on SBC leaders to demonstrate the impact of CP in fulfilling the Great Commission, helping churches see the importance of SBC cooperative efforts while imagining “what more we can do as these efforts are multiplied.”

That message is one that will be taken to those preparing for ministry in SBC seminaries, helping them understand why Southern Baptists have chosen a cooperative method, rather than a societal method, of supporting Kingdom work beyond the local church.

STRATEGY 3 — Create, coordinate, implement and maintain consistency in Cooperative Program promotion.

The report echoed recommendations of the Task Force on Cooperation to select leaders at all levels of Southern Baptist life who champion the Cooperative Program. State conventions were challenged to increase the portion of CP gifts they send beyond their states after using a portion for missions and ministries within their borders. The percentage forwarded to the SBC is determined by a vote of messengers during each state convention’s annual meeting.

Many state conventions are working toward a 50/50 allocation of the CP gifts they receive from churches: 50 percent to stay in the state and 50 percent for SBC causes. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, with nearly 1,800 churches, allocated 53 percent of its CP gifts through the SBC this year. In contrast, the older Baptist General Convention of Texas allocated 21 percent through worldwide causes in 2005.

On the national level, some churches expressed frustration with the priorities of their state convention by giving directly to SBC ministries, mailing CP checks straight to Nashville for distribution to SBC causes.

That number grew from 91 churches in 1997-98 to a high of 266 in 2000-01. But the number routing their CP around state conventions has steadily declined, with 176 choosing that path last year.

When some messengers to the Greensboro meeting bristled at the original language encouraging churches to give at least 10 percent of their receipts to support world evangelization through the Cooperative Program, others questioned what message is being delivered when SBC presidents typically come from churches with poor levels of CP support.

Ultimately, the reference to a 10 percent goal was removed from the report put before the convention in June, though messengers gave 50.48 percent of their votes to the candidate who has demonstrated strong CP support at all of the churches he has led.

Newly elected president Frank Page is pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., where 12.44 percent of undesignated receipts go through the Cooperative Program.

Supporters of the two other candidates whose churches reported allocating 1.85 and 4.47 percent of undesignated receipts to CP defended their commitments to missions by praising the extensive ministry each church had in carrying the Gospel around the world with Southern Baptist partners.

In an interview with Florida Baptist Witness Editor James A. Smith Sr., Page said it’s possible for a church to demonstrate strong support of Southern Baptist missions through giving to the Cooperative Program while also not neglecting its duty of its own “personalized” missions.

“I believe you can do both well. At Taylors First Baptist we have seen an example of strong support of the Cooperative Program at the same time as a tremendously effective, locally initiated mission works on three levels … local, national and international,” Page said.

“I believe in strong, sacrificial giving to the Cooperative Program as a moral imperative because of the support we should give to our missionaries and entities. I cannot say I’m a Southern Baptist and give a paltry sum to the Cooperative Program,” he said.

Page expressed his objection to any percentage becoming a mark of cooperation and for participation.

“The question for me was, does your church give sacrificially to the Cooperative Program? Does it give in such a way as to show a missional mindset?”

While calling it “bad theology” to assert that churches can and should tithe, “I do believe 10 percent indicates a serious commitment” to missions, Page said.

That priority was reflected in the priority of this year’s Committee on Nominations at the SBC, recommending a slate of new trustees from churches that give an average of more than 9 percent of their budgets through the Cooperative Program.

“I believe there needs to be some accountability of the people who serve our convention in making great efforts to support CP,” a West Texas pastor completing an online survey of Acts 1:8 churches said.

His thoughts were echoed by another surveyed pastor who shared his concern that “for far too long our most visual, prominent leaders” have claimed CP is important “whereas they themselves have been leading their churches to see CP as insignificant.” Ultimately, he said, “They seem more preoccupied in building their own churches than the kingdom of God.”

STRATEGY 4 — Develop an ongoing process that integrates CP education in families and throughout the fiber of Southern Baptist life and grows the next generation of CP advocates.

Data gathered from the Woman’s Missionary Union, the International Mission Board and the TEXAN find a higher level of support for Cooperative Program giving among churches with missions education classes.

Groups like Girls in Action and Royal Ambassadors have been squeezed out at many Southern Baptist churches as they struggle with fewer hours given to instructing children. Some congregations have moved toward Team Kid or AWANA programs that include an element of missions awareness, though not the focus of the curriculum.

“We have mission education because if we don’t teach this generation, who will?” asked Raymond Edge, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bastrop, Texas.

Page noted a “failure on the part of the denominationalists to truly show the Cooperative Program as an object of worth, as an object of value,” adding, “we can no longer and will no longer as a convention respond to denominationalists screaming, give more, give more…. We must be shown where the money is going.”

Spreading that message through the traditional channels of Southern Baptist literature, prayer meetings and seminary classrooms may be insufficient. When churches discover new uses for traditional meeting times, the missionary prayer calendar is often abandoned along with prayer meeting.

The Ad Hoc Committee encouraged interactive websites, cutting-edge educational and promotional training material and resources at every age level, integration of CP education at seminaries, an e-mail database to provide regular CP updates and targeted lessons for specific groups and cultures.

STRATEGY 5 — Use volunteer mission trips to demonstrate the impact of CP.

Committee members believe firsthand experience on a CP-funded mission field encourages further support. In his recently released book, “To the Ends of the Earth,” IMB President Jerry Rankin said the board is discovering ways to give churches “personalized ownership of the missions task and partnership involvement with missionaries in reaching people around the world.”

Concerned that Southern Baptist churches are gravitating more than ever to support parachurch and independent mission organizations, Rankin calls for personalization instead of generic support, partnership instead of exclusive control, and passion as the motivation instead of program promotion.

Two years ago the IMB’s trustee chairman challenged regional leaders to imagine what could be accomplished if funds were unlimited.

“Working with our Great Commission Christian partners, we can reach all people groups numbering more than 100,000 with the Gospel, and we can do it in years, not decades,” Tom Hatley of Rogers, Ark., said. “God has provided the resources, the technology and the ability to travel. We are at a point of opportunity never before seen.”

That level of commitment would require a 60 percent increase in funding, he noted.
The complete report of the Ad Hoc Cooperative Program Committee is available at www.sbtexas.com. This article first appeared as part of a special report on giving published by the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter