To give or not to give–that isn’t the question.
The Cooperative Program has been Southern Baptists’ unified missions mechanism for more than 80 years as churches faithfully allocate funds for collaborative missionary efforts. But a rapid decline in the average portion churches give through CP raises the question of whether church priorities are changing.
In trying to reconcile Southern Baptist tradition with new missions strategies, many churches are now hedging the traditional norm of 10 percent through CP and asking instead: how much? Ultimately, the answer will likely determine whether Southern Baptist ministries stay on course in cooperatively funding a worldwide missions enterprise.
In an effort to learn how churches strike a balance in missions budgeting, the Southern Baptist Texan solicited the comments of Texas Southern Baptists in an online survey last month. The survey covered churches where traditional CP giving was the norm and others where CP and church-based missions were emphasized.
The respondents include pastors, missions leaders and laymen whose churches are among the several hundred in Texas that embraced the Acts 1:8 Challenge–the new Southern Baptist Convention initiative to assist congregations in implementing a comprehensive missions strategy involving their communities, region, continent and world.
The majority of churches interviewed average 50-150 in worship attendance and all consider themselves committed to local and international missions.
As long-time Southern Baptists, most of the survey participants are recipients of comprehensive exposure to the logistics and scope of the Cooperative Program. Five of the churches are well over 100 years old while eight were formed between 1900 and 1950. Nine of the surveyed churches were formed between 1951 and 2000 while four are recent church plants.
In addition, 72 percent of respondents attended Southern Baptist churches as children, 60 percent participated in a missions education program like Royal Ambassadors, and 68 percent were educated at Southern Baptist seminaries. Despite familiarity with the SBC’s mission giving mechanism, some of these churches are effectively defunding the Cooperative Program as they shift resources to a direct missions strategy.
Figures from the Annual Church Profile (ACP) of Southern Baptist churches show congregations have consistently decreased undesignated Cooperative Program rates from 10.6 percent in 1984 to 6.7 percent in 2005. The trend of decreasing funding through the Cooperative Program is not isolated to a particular area or region. Across Texas most SBTC churches now average 7 percent in Cooperative Program giving, regardless if the congregation numbers 100 or 10,000.
Seventeen of the Acts 1:8 congregations are beyond that average level with seven of that group giving between 10 and 15 percent through CP. Four give between 2 and 6 percent through CP, and another five chose not to answer the question.
With the face of the typical Southern Baptist congregation changing from traditionally churched members to non-traditional and formerly unchurched, newer members lack knowledge of the Cooperative Program, one pastor observed. While his church gives more than 10 percent through CP, it can no longer be assumed that most members understand the Cooperative Program.
“That’s changing rapidly as many of our newer members don’t have a clue as to what the CP is or does.
With fewer Cooperative Program champions, this pastor finds “education and explanation are a continuing work.”
As long as churches are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, what is the danger? Does it matter if Southern Baptists choose to fund direct mission strategies over the Cooperative Program? According the “One Sacred Effort: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists,” a book by David Hankins and Chad Brand, great peril exists in abandoning the Cooperative Program altogether. The authors list several reasons for addressing the growing imbalance in missions giving.
“Some mission endeavors, while enthusiastic and well-intended, do not have a coherent plan for accomplishing their aims. They may not lack for enthusiasm, but they are not given to strategic planning or reliable reporting,” the authors write. “The Cooperative Program undergirds a thoughtful, coherent, intentional strategy for systematically reaching the goal. It has the advantage of ministries based on sound, baptistic theological premises with oversight by committed leaders who are accountable to the churches for the resources utilized, the goals attempted, and the results achieved.”
While a cooperative missions emphasis has been a historic characteristic of most Southern Baptist churches, more churches are looking for ways to fulfill all of the Acts 1:8 challenges that include:
>increasing missions involvement through preparation of mission teams;
>bringing mission awareness to the entire church body;
>praying for a worldwide vision;
>increasing support of CP and other SBC cooperative missions;
>participating in mission trips;
>telling the gospel story;
>sending members out as vocational missionaries; and
>multiplying efforts through church planting.
“We realize that we can’t do them all right away,” acknowledged Joshua Webb, student pastor at Calvary Baptist Church. “This will be a process of growing in the different areas and gradually accomplishing these goals.”
About 92 percent of the survey participants said they are involved in local mission projects such as intentional and servant evangelism, prayerwalking, food and clothing pantries, and job training. Church planting is also a priority for many survey participants. Most of the respondents are planting churches, financially support new plants in their association, partnering with a new church, or plan to incorporate church planting into their missions goals.
For state and international efforts, survey respondents encourage church members to personally encounter missions by offering them short-term trips, hosting missions conferences, signing up for vocational missions, and sponsoring training classes.
Calvary Baptist Church of Tyler designated a classroom as a missions conference center for missions education, complete with three computer stations for research and an area for prayer. Boyd Baptist Church in Bonham turned its annual Thanksgiving meal into a missions banquet to motivate members for involvement. To mobilize members for mission work and as an education conduit, Forestburg Baptist Church in Forestburg produces a missions handout for Wednesday evening services. The handout is replete with missions tidbits and prayer requests.
Additionally, the majority of the churches frequently host full-time and volunteer missionaries during worship services for a time of testimony and report.
“We continue being involved with prayer calendars, “Open Windows” missionary listings, having missionaries in our church speaking to small groups and the church family,” shared Tom Hawk, minister of church ministries at First Baptist Church of Silsbee. Being personally involved with missionaries builds a kindred spirit, he said.
In preparing from missions, three major factors contribute to a church’s level of mission involvement: pastoral leadership, continual emphasis and education, and action. “The way to prepare for missions is to do missions,” said Rod Minor, pastor of Anderson Mill Baptist Church in Austin. “If we waited until we’re prepared, we will still be waiting when Jesus comes back.”
Trends in mission giving are also reflective of the increasing hands-on approach many Texas churches are taking, with 72 percent of survey respondents indicating they would like to increase funding mission projects directly. Half that many would encourage increased giving through CP.
Only one of the respondents recommends decreased Cooperative Program funding.
To clarify intentions in the giving balance between the Cooperative Program and direct missions strategies, survey participants were asked a hypothetical question: How would you divide mission expenditures between the Cooperative Program and directly-funded mission project if you allocated 20 percent of you budget to missions?
Despite the trend of decreased giving through the Cooperative Program, barely half would split such a budget equally between CP and direct mission efforts. Well more than a third of the respondents indicated they would allocate 15 percent through the Cooperative Program and a few preferred to give 5 percent through CP and 15 percent to direct mission projects.
Difficulties often arise in allocating monies equally and consistently as Texas Baptist churches begin to multiply. Survey respondents said looking beyond personal needs, operating in areas saturated with churches, small church budgets, and the overall median age of church members all aggravate the funding dilemma.
One pastor said he strives to keep the Acts 1:8 challenge before his people, encouraging them to examine how increases in funding for local facility needs could affect commitments to missions funding.
Among those hit the hardest by the rigor of budgeting for missions and growth are new church plants.
“I would love for us to increase our giving,” said one church planter. “As a new church start with no one’s support, we live close to the bone and zero fat. But we still give through the Cooperative Program and missions.”
STRIKING A BALANCE
Preparing a church budget can often become a balancing act. But as churches grow, statistics indicate the gap between continued participation in the Cooperative Program and increasing participation in personal mission endeavors grows wider each year.
To help reverse lowering percentages in local church CP giving, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee brought a recommendation to the 2006 SBC annual meeting encouraging tithing among believers and increasing proportional Cooperative Program gifts among Southern Baptist churches and state conventions.
The original recommendation asked churches to forward a specific 10 percent of undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program. After much debate, that language was amended without reference to a specific target amount.
As an answer to the decline in Cooperative Program funding percentages, the recommendation called for churches to increase the CP percentages for five successive years beginning in 2007.
Many Texas churches already have a proportional system in place for Cooperative Program funding. As churches grow in size, some increase the percentage sent through the Cooperative Program as well. For some survey respondents, adjusting slowly to budgetary increases solves the problem of correctly dividing expenditures.
To ensure an increasing commitment through the Cooperative Program, one survey respondent shared that his church decided to increase giving by .25 percent each year. Another respondent indicated a yearly increase in Cooperative Program funding is kept separate from special mission offerings to guarantee growth in multiple missions giving areas.
“The challenge for us seems to be convincing all of the people that we must look beyond our local needs and raise our very limited giving to a percentage that will reflect out stated priorities,” said one respondent, striving to lead his church to balanced giving. “My goal is to see this reflected in our church by eventually designating 20 percent of our budget for missions, including giving through the Cooperative Program and support for mission trips by our members.”
Acknowledging the comprehensive scope of the Cooperative Program for all Southern Baptists, most survey participants cited specific examples of how they personally benefited from the unified giving plan. Examples of the effective nature of a unified giving strategy included references to church planting funds, subsidized seminary tuition, associational work, missions training and education, missionary support, vision casting, and “being part of a family that has world=wide impact.”
Jim Lamar of Arcadia First Baptist Church in Sante Fe, Texas described the unique blessing “of knowing that our charge to be his witnesses to the uttermost parts of the world is being fulfilled in part by our participation in the Cooperative Program.”
Furthermore, the cooperative strategy yields greater influence, he said. “We support the Cooperative Program because this is the most effective way we can support missionaries on the field. By ourselves we can send out four or five teams a year for one week or one month each. In cooperation with other Southern Baptist churches we can help keep thousands of missionaries on the field all year long.”
Rex Bland of Olive Branch Baptist Church in Axtell echoed that sentiment, stating: “It seems to be the most efficient and effective way, especially for smaller churches, to combine our financial contributions to make a concentrated global impact through support of the worldwide mission endeavor.” He added that his church benefits “by being able to participate through giving in the most worthwhile project on the planet.”
Bart Barber of First Baptist Church of Farmersville said: “The Cooperative Program reduces competition among SBC agencies for missions dollars,” a practice once common prior to 1925 when the Cooperative Program began. “It allows for a common-sense appropriation of funds and coordinated efforts among convention entities, and takes place in appropriate atmosphere of accountability to the churches.”
“The Cooperative Program supplements the tuition costs of our students in six Southern Baptist seminaries,” noted Morris Chapman, SBC Executive Committee president. “In fact, almost every pastor now living who went to a Southern Baptist seminary received an outstanding theological education at a fraction of the actual cost. The Cooperative Program makes it possible for us to raise our voices for religious liberty and a moral and ethical culture in America and beyond.
“I am praying that the heightened discussion of the Cooperative Program has created a moment of reflection in the heart of every Southern Baptist and that we shall find ourselves taking a fresh look at the worth of cooperative missions supported through the Cooperative Program.”
David Lino of Faith Family Church in Kingwood put it on a more personal level. Calling the Cooperative Program a unique, God-used strategic effort, he believes those who criticize loyalty through CP as well as folks who “just give it verbal allegiance” need to imagine what the Southern Baptist Convention would look like without it.
“Where would their churches be if there never had been a Cooperative Program?”
Biblical fidelity is the key reason Steve Dorman cited for giving to the Cooperative Program. The pastor of First Baptist Church, Brownsville, explained, “A consequence of the Conservtive Resurgence in our convention over the last 27 years has been the added attention to the biblical fidelity of each of our Cooperative Program entities and their personnel. We can now give confidently to the CP and know that our money is going to support ministries and personnel that are tied to the Bible. There is accountability.”
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 CP 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, all evangelicals, will face increasing opposition from an anti-Christian culture. As CP ministries lose ground, our educational and advocacy ministry at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission will be overrun. Our denomination will be absent from significant debates regarding religious freedom in the U.S. 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 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 affected 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 Cooperative Program means, or that your church is Southern Baptist to begin with, why?
NACOGDOCHES?The old oak tree is now a stump, but the church it provided cover for as early as 1832 is still standing tall and looking forward.
Old North Baptist Church of Nacogdoches, which affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention last month, turned 168 years old in May. That an active congregation still exists serves as a testament to perseverance in the face of troubled times.
Beginning with secret prayer meetings in what was Mexican territory, Old North Church has seen slavery and the Civil War, the end of slavery and Reconstruction, the Great Depression and oil strikes, segregation and the civil rights movement.
Church members say they are praying the church’s historic labor in the gospel continues far into the future. “We don’t want it to become a landmark,” said church secretary and treasurer Callene Murdock, a 20-year church member. She said the congregation of fewer than 20 people is well aware that they need to draw new members to keep the songs and sermons flowing from the pulpit each Sunday.
Murdock said she realizes younger people and their families tend to be drawn to larger churches with their many programs and contemporary music.
“We don’t exactly do that,” she said of the congregation that meets in the 154-year-old white, wood-frame building. They still sing the hymns as old as the building and listen to preaching which, Murdock said, is some of the best she has heard in her life.
“He is the most wonderful preacher I’ve heard,” she said of Pastor C.T. “Bro. Pete” McGuire. “He is a fabulous preacher.” She said the 77-year-old pastor’s knowledge of Scripture and the way he imparts it to the congregation is inspiring. “We’re hoping through him the church will grow.”
McGuire was traveling and could not be interviewed but his wife, Betty, enthusiastically sang the praises of the church to which they have belonged for two years. “It looks like an old church in the wild wood,” she said, recalling the old hymn. And the people, she said, “are precious.”
Regarding their new affiliation with the SBTC, McGuire said she and her husband have wanted to join with the convention since its inception but have not had the opportunity until taking on the pastorate of Old North Baptist Church.
“We were active with the [Conservative] Resurgence,” she said in reference to the theological struggles that took place in the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 20th century. After meeting this year with area pastors and an SBTC ministry associate, the congregation voted to affiliate. McGuire said, “The people are happy to be in.”
The Old North story is one of pioneering faith and endurance. While Texas was still under Mexican rule, those wanting to settle in the territory had to proclaim allegiance to Mexico and the Catholic Church.