Our ministries are not competitors

The Southern Baptist Cooperative Program has taken a beating over the past few decades. It is well known that the total received for worldwide missions has declined in real, post-inflation dollars. We have more churches and wealthier churches, but those churches have reduced their giving significantly in many cases. On the local level, church members give a drastically smaller percentage of their incomes than did their parents and grandparents. I maintain that the decline of the Cooperative Program is not a failure of marketing or branding but one of discipleship in the lives of Christians and nearsightedness on the part of churches. And no one has a better idea for addressing the Great Commission.

That last point matters. Even as some outside the SBC, those who’ve lived with societal missions for 100 years, express admiration for the CP, some more familiar with our cooperative giving plan have started to admire societal giving. As you’d expect, this “new” idea is only better for those ministries the innovators like best. I do respect the missionary heart of those who rob Judea to reach the uttermost parts of the world, but I also think it is shortsighted.

The dalliance with societal missions within the SBC has often aimed at blessing the International Mission Board. IMB President Tom Elliff has been careful to uplift CP, but he passionately lays out the problem—too little money means too few missionaries around the world. This reality has drawn many of us into a version of societal missions. It can only work for a short time and it will not address the causes for long.
Here’s what I mean: It may start when pastors decide to send more money around the world by reallocating mission funds in favor of some causes and to the detriment of others. By some, theological education is deemed less important, so world missions gets some of the money that would go to the six SBC seminaries through the adopted SBC allocation budget. It’s important to note that many of these supporters of world missions continue to uphold the importance of the ministries being cut. This is a bit of a mixed message.

When prominent pastors in the SBC make this case, saying, “This may not be for everyone. It’s just what we think we should do,” they are downplaying their real influence among the churches. We know their names because they lead high profile ministries, host pastor conferences and speak at denominational meetings. What they do, some others will do, and partly because they’ve done it. There is a stewardship of influence that should be given more consideration.

That stewardship of influence is why I say it’s a mixed message to claim that ministries to which a church lowers or cuts funding are important but not important enough to receive adequate support. If the ministry, seminary or state convention still has an important role and if a prominent leader leads his church to lower funding, and if that leader has influence across his region, is he actually OK with other churches, maybe most churches, doing as he has done partly because he did it? He should be OK with it and say so. In fact, he’d better be comfortable with those ministries declining or shutting down if he’s going to lead a parade away from supporting them. 

Yes, I affirm the right of churches to discern for themselves God’s will regarding what they fund and support. It’s only on my worst days that I wish some mortal man could tell Baptist churches what to do. I also affirm the leadership of pastors in helping their churches discern and pursue God’s will. In fact, I don’t reject the notion that some ministries, even some aspects of denominationalism, can pass out of importance or relevance. What I do have trouble affirming is the idea that something is still significant, it has even benefited our own ministry at times we can remember, and we actually believe it should continue to benefit ministries more needy than our own, but somebody else needs to carry that ball because we’ve moved on to another level of understanding what missions means. Others inevitably will want to join us on that higher plane and the ministries we’ve affirmed with our mouths will starve to death.

Southern Baptists have a significant presence in and strategic vision for the nations for exactly the same reasons that we have cutting-edge Baptist scholars teaching our pastors and missionaries-in-waiting. It is for exactly that same reason we have a strategy for reaching American towns and people groups few have heard of. It is for the same reason that rock star “yellow shirts” show up almost as soon as the tornado sirens stop wailing. It is the same reason that Southern Baptists are doing serious work in revitalizing dying churches. We can do these things because the Cooperative Program funds ministries your church doesn’t need at this moment. We can do these things because some people are empowered to study unreached corners of Texas or to prepare disaster relief volunteers with the same intensity a local pastor gives to his own church.

Yes, we need more missionaries. That will take money currently going to other things. But those competitors for funding are rarely other ministries. The money needed to reach the nations is in the same place as the money you need to reach your own community—largely tied up in credit card interest, cars, clothes and entertainment. As I said, it’s a discipleship issue. And that is what your church and mine should be about: making disciples, joyful givers, out of lost people and the spiritually immature. 

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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