My ministry partner stood and moved toward the speaker's stand in the Jacksonville, Florida church, echoing the heartfelt sentiments of thousands of called students studying at Southern Baptist seminaries.
"My name is Philip Barber. I am a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. As such, the first thing that I need to do is to thank each of you for your gifts over the years to the Cooperative Program. It is because of your faithfulness in giving that I am able to attend Southwestern Seminary. So, on behalf of myself, as well as the rest of the students at each of our six Southern Baptist seminaries, thank you. We are beholden. And I want you to know that you are impacting the Kingdom in this way."
Maximizing Our Kingdom Potential
The Cooperative Program has been accomplishing this and more for generations — what a rich heritage we share. As a child I observed dedicated Southern Baptist congregations that would make sure Cooperative Program commitments were met, even if payment of the pastor's salary had to be put on the backburner. Yet times have changed, and changes have not always been for the best
In 1925, the God-ordained Cooperative Program was devised to link the efforts of local churches, state conventions, and the Southern Baptist Convention in proclaiming the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ at home and around the world. This program of unified effort has proven to be the most effective and fruitful method ever devised for doing missions together locally, nationally, and internationally. It has provided the vehicle through which our denomination delivers hope for salvation through the grace of God to the lost of the world, inspires the faithful to greater service in the Kingdom, prepares those called by God for their places of service, rescues the hurting at home and abroad, and spreads the truth of God's Word.
The original Cooperative Program structure was intended to promote cooperation and unity of spirit among the Southern Baptist family members. The fruits of this plan would inspire the participants to deeper involvements in bringing honor to His name. Yet the percentage of Southern Baptist churches' aggregate undesignated contributions has declined over the last twenty years from an average of 10.6 percent to 6.99 percent.
There are several obvious reasons for this negative report. While the benefits of such unified efforts remain, many of our local church members have lost touch with the significance of the plan, or, in the case of new members, they have never been educated of the Cooperative Program and its meaning. We need aggressive reminders to those on the pews of our churches about this plan, its purposes, and its challenges. The astounding potential for effective missions through the Cooperative Program is birthed and nurtured in the local church and its giving patterns.
But in order to reach this potential, our church members must be reminded of the importance of the tithe and other offerings to the cause of Christ. The regeneration of generous giving habits to the Lord's work will only enhance our denominational efforts to win the world for the Lord.
Recent Threatening Shifts
A few of our states have reacted to recent controversies among Baptists by resorting to alternative giving plans, meant to pacify and appease those with differing opinions about denominational matters. Sadly, these actions have actually fractured the original purposes of the plan, especially the promotion of unity and cooperation. These optional giving plans have also weakened the efforts of the partners involved in the plan.
Until 1990, my own home state of North Carolina managed to remain true to the original single-giving plan, but at that year's state convention meeting in November an effort was made by the leadership of the convention to greatly limit the amount of the Cooperative Program funds allocated to the Southern Baptist Convention.
The chairman of the budget committee stated in his presentation of the proposed budget, "we wanted to maintain our commitment to Southern Baptist mission causes while preserving our historic right as an autonomous state convention to define our own cooperative program…I never recall the Cooperative Program being static …."
Mark Corts, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem stood to introduce a substitute motion to counter the General Board's budget recommendation, moving that the proposed state budget for 1991 "reflect the same division between the Baptist State Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention as the 1990 budget: with the Baptist State Convention portion and the total approved as printed and provision made for churches to designate to the proposed SBC designated missions budget."
Dr. Corts, former state convention president and chairman of the IMB (the Foreign Mission Board at that time), reminded the messengers: "Our Cooperative Program has served us well. I've taught my people for years that you don't give to the Cooperative Program; you give through the Cooperative Program and to the Lord! It seems to me that this (the new proposal) introduces conflict because if a church wants to continue to give to the Cooperative Program way as we've known it, they have to then vote to designate to authorize the treasurer to send money to the SBC…. My substitute will allow churches to do everything this would do, but it puts our main budget back to a Cooperative Program budget. We are a Southern Baptist related convention. We are cooperating Southern Baptists. Let's approve a cooperating Southern Baptist budget."
There were advocates for and against this important substitute motion. I finally addressed the convention, pleading with the messengers "… to let all our personal prejudices, all of our allegiances to nametags, take a back seat to the will of the Lord. I cannot feel that the budget that has been advanced is the will of our Lord. It is the will of some who would cater the will of those who have been displeased (with the direction of the SBC), and who would take their marbles and run away if the game is not played their way. I truly believe that something has been right about the Cooperative Program all of these years, and I am here to plead with you to adopt this substitute motion (offered by Dr. Corts) in order to keep the Cooperative Program working, vital, and in the best interests of our Lord!"
Dr. Corts' effort to save the original plan was barely successful, but the floor had been laid for dissident Baptists to channel their mission giving away from the national convention.
By 1995, North Carolina Baptists found their Cooperative Program had evolved into three plans: A, B, and C. The "A" plan was for churches who wished to continue with the traditional Cooperative Program plan, splitting the funds 32 percent for the SBC and 68 percent for the state convention, while Plan B took away some support from the Southern Baptist Convention, leaving the national body with only 10 percent and applied these extra funds chiefly to state college divinity schools; while Plan C designated 10 percent to global missions under the auspices of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship programs and the state theological schools and gave nothing to the SBC. Both Plans B and C continued the same level of contributions to the North Carolina convention work, 68 percent.
The cancer of disunity continued to grow when North Carolina Baptists added Plan D to the 1999 budget, reducing funding for state convention causes, while maintaining traditional giving (32 percent) to SBC causes. The new plan also designated additional giving to other state missions causes including Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute. What some had considered good for the goose earlier years now became new fodder for the gander.
During 2002, 1,960 North Carolina churches participated in the plan through Option A, the traditional Cooperative Program plan, while 271 churches chose option B. There were 149 churches that chose Plan C, which totally excludes the SBC. There were 502 churches enrolled in Plan D, the only option that reduces the state convention share of the missions funds. There were several churches that participated in more than one plan, and others exempted gifts to several entities in both state and national budgets.
Several churches, frustrated with the growing list of options, decided to mail their missions checks directly to the state and national missions entities that appealed to them. Recently I asked Bob Wensil, pastor of Pearl Baptist Church in the tiny town of Iron Station, which plan his church supported.
"Ted," he responded, "We still stick with Plan A, the traditional Cooperative Program plan that divides the missions funds we mail to Raleigh between the state convention and our national Southern Baptist Convention.
"For years I have tried to teach our folk that the money they give to the church is God's money. And we need to treat it that way. We see our investment in the Cooperative Program as the same. It is God's money that we give to the Cooperative Program. We may not like some programs as much as we do others, but we're heading in the right direction. And it is God's money, and we are not going to designate and pick. We'll continue to pray for God's direction in the way that the state convention and the SBC use His money in these missions."
Preserving and Strengthening CP
These optional plans have weakened our cooperative missions efforts. Only months ago, the media reported that several of our state convention workers had retired or been let go because of insufficient funds to continue their employment. At the last annual Baptist State Convention meeting, Bob Foy, who had just assumed the presidency after the sad death of President Jerry Pereira, bemoaned the lack of funds available to our International Missions Board. At that time many volunteers were being denied appointment because the necessary money was not available. A dear lady at the state convention office recently reflected to me, "But, Ted, at least we're still together!" But I knew differently. Our minds are set on different goals. We walk to different drummers. Our unity is only in name — and the Lord cannot be pleased.
Let no reader construe this article as criticism of any one individual or group — we must never forget that this giving plan was never designed to preclude any person or church from giving directly to any cause not covered under this umbrella. We are all Christian brothers and sisters, and this is an earnest plea for all Southern Baptists to preserve and strengthen the Cooperative Program.
I believe the Cooperative Program was God-ordained, and that it will survive these temporary setbacks. I pray that we all will resist calls to reorder or minimize giving to and through the Cooperative Program, but rather recognize it as the best way for Southern Baptists to do missions together and bring honor to His name!