During my February trek to Nashville for the SBC Executive Committee meeting, I’m always blessed by the reports from the entity leaders of the SBC. It is thrilling to hear about the advance of the gospel in North America and among the unreached in neglected places of the world.
Baptist Press reported an interesting stat. The former president of the Executive Committee, Dr. Frank Page, said in his address that “less than 2,000 churches in our convention give 50 percent of all Cooperative Program receipts.” He further noted, “Almost 7,000 churches give 80 percent of Cooperative Program receipts.”
When I heard Dr. Page, I wondered how our 1,800 Missouri Baptist churches stacked up. I sent an email to MBC staff and in seconds learned that in 2017, 22 percent, or 395 churches, gave 80 percent of the Cooperative Program dollars through our state convention.
You may think, “22 percent give 80 percent of the money?” I would suggest as a matter of stewardship to ask your own church what the percentages are. You might be surprised. It reminds me of the old sad 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the work gets done by 20 percent of the people. In the churches the Lord allowed me to lead, we were not too far off those numbers when studying the entire membership.
There are exceptions. When adult and student lives are being born again and transformed, the percentages rise. Why? Dollars tend to follow mission. When we catch the vision of God working, we want to invest in the work. When the passion to obey Christ is more important than anything else, our hands become open to the generosity in our hearts toward the Kingdom vision.
When church leaders catch the vision for what churches can do together to further the gospel, the Cooperative Program becomes the preferred conduit for amazing work.
My good friend, Ken Hemphill, has written more in the last two decades on biblically-based processes for effective local churches and the Cooperative Program than any writer. Recently, he wrote the following:
“A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a small group of North Greenville students, many from our Christian studies department. One of the young men asked me why I allowed my name to be placed in nomination for SBC president. I looked him in the eye and said, ‘I am doing this for you.’
“Seeing his confusion, I asked how many of the students were planning to attend an SBC seminary. Several raised their hands. I indicated that a significant portion of their tuition was paid by Southern Baptist churches giving through the Cooperative Program. I then asked how many of them planned to go to the ends of the earth as an IMB missionary. Several responded and I told them I wanted to be able to assure them that if God called them, Southern Baptists would send them.”
In the same article, Dr. Hemphill writes about the danger of the “Neo-societal” method of churches giving to the missions.
“They give a small percentage through the traditional Cooperative Program and then give the remainder of their mission dollars through designated giving, some to Southern Baptist entities and some through other non-SBC mission agencies. Some larger churches fund their own missionaries.
“Every church is fully autonomous and can determine their own mission giving strategy, but this neo-societal method short-circuits the system of giving that has made Southern Baptists the greatest missional community of all time.
“You would think we would understand that the traditional method of cooperative giving would be the default method of giving and receive most of each church’s mission dollars. Mission trips and special initiatives that a church wants to fund would be above and beyond Cooperative Program giving. It is how we work together.
“Consider, the Cooperative Program is the unified budget of the Southern Baptist Convention. I can’t imagine any pastor encouraging church members to pick and choose among the possible budgeted items and determine what percentage of their tithe should go to a specific item of the budget. For example, what if a majority wanted to give to the youth program or choir ministry and few wanted to fund salaries or the electricity bills. No local church could long survive with such a giving pattern that ignored the cooperative nature of a unified budget.
“Another anomaly impacting our denominational effectiveness is that churches with larger budgets talk about the size of their gift and not the percentage of the gift. I have heard people remark that no one can expect the larger churches to give a significant percentage of their multi-million-dollar budget to the Cooperative Program. I must confess I find this argument difficult to understand. I can’t imagine a pastor telling church members with significant means that they can discount their tithe while expecting families with far less to maintain the tithe as their standard of giving. It is not about the size of the gift but the size of the sacrifice.
“In the days of Malachi the prophet, Israel wanted to know what must occur for them to return to God and experience His blessing. God responded by asking whether a man would rob from God. He then indicated they should bring the whole tithe into the storehouse and test Him to see if He would not open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing. This is my prayer and my passion for our Southern Baptist people. I desperately want God to pour out a blessing until it overflows (Mal. 3:8-12).”
Like Dr. Hemphill, I’m super grateful for our churches of every size and style who see the value of the Cooperative Program. May the personal giving to our churches be worthy of our Lord, and may the cooperative giving of our churches be worthy of the One whose grace super abounds through His people.
Who should lead Southern Baptists? Answer: those who fully support the Cooperative Program and have demonstrated their support through the percentage giving of the church they serve and lead. My assertion’s explanation and argumentation is this:
In round numbers, Southern Baptists churches contribute approximately $690 million annually through the Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon International Missions Offering and the Annie Armstrong North American Missions Offering. Approximately $475 million is contributed through the Cooperative Program and $215 million is contributed through the two major mission offerings. These numbers vary year-to-year by several million dollars. In addition, many millions more are given through State Convention annual missions offerings, Disaster Relief, World Hunger Offering, and associational mission gifts.
I share these numbers because I fear the average “Brett and Brianna Baptist” SBC church members have little idea of the impact Southern Baptists make because we cooperate financially to send and sustain missionaries, educate pastors, start churches, train leaders, and so much more. Moreover, “Brett and Brianna Baptist” probably do not understand the scope of our cooperative work and the manner in which it is funded.
The largest and primary funding strategy for SBC churches is the Cooperative Program (CP), a unified effort for local, regional, national and international ministry and missions. Most churches allocate CP mission dollars as a percentage of their annual budget, though some budget a set dollar amount. According to a report of the SBC Funding Study Committee, issued on September 23, 2003, SBC churches maintained a percentage giving to missions through the CP in the 11 percent range from 1930 to 1980. By the 1980s this average had dropped to 10.5 percent, and by 2002 it was 7.39 percent. In 2017 that number had fallen to 5.16 percent. As a percentage of the church budget, SBC churches are giving less than half to CP missions than they did just 30 years ago.
Various suggestions have been offered as to why CP missions giving has dropped so dramatically. These suggestions range from rising health insurance costs, to more emphasis on local ministry, political infighting, and the desire of churches to do missions directly. No doubt these have all contributed to our decline in CP supported missions. But I want to suggest something different – I firmly believe that the single biggest factor in our decline is the selection of leaders who do not fully support CP as the major way to fund Southern Baptist missions. Thus, they do not – and, really, cannot – share passionately with others a vision for the impact such a unified effort makes.
If a church chooses to support missions directly, and gives a small percentage or zero through the CP, that is their right as an autonomous church. Some pastors and churches may believe they can better allocate their missions dollars than can state conventions and the SBC. Often these are megachurches with huge budgets. I get that. But remember, there are less than 200 SBC megachurches (average worship attendance of 2,000 or more), and a total of 51,000 SBC churches and mission churches. Half of the churches in the Northwest Baptist Convention, where I serve, average 50 or less in worship. Nationally the median number is probably closer to 70, but the normative SBC church has far fewer than 100 on Sunday. That’s partly why CP missions has worked so brilliantly over the years. It makes possible a cooperative missions strategy that strengthens the abilities of the typical church to play a part in the far-reaching responsibilities of the Great Commission. Sure, if your church has 200 or 500 or 1,000 on Sunday, you might have the staffing and finances to do some larger mission projects. But even a large church finds it difficult to have a fully-orbed Acts 1:8 missions strategy.
Recently I visited with the pastor of an independent church that has 3,000 in weekend worship attendance. He was amazed to learn our church planting efforts in the Northwest include Vietnamese, Bhutanese, Korean, Spanish, Burmese and many other non-English language churches. He quickly understood that even given the resources of a large church they cannot penetrate lostness like our 500 smaller churches do through a cooperative strategy. CP missions is just such a cooperative strategy and we should choose leaders who understand it, believe in it and have supported it over the course of their ministries.
Presently, the International Mission Board (IMB) of the SBC is seeking a new president. In addition to the necessary spiritual qualifications, experience, and gifting, the next president should have a background that demonstrates a strong commitment to support missions through the CP. Remember, international missionaries don’t fall off angel’s wings onto the mission field! They are discipled and educated and called out through the ministries of our churches and through CP supported state camps, college ministries, seminaries, and the like. The SBC is a system of missions, ministry, training and education, and we need each part of the system for the global enterprise to remain healthy. Key leaders like the president of the IMB should understand this and support it. If a particular leader doesn’t support the SBC system of CP support (and you will only know he supports CP by what he led his church to do), he should not lead a CP supported SBC entity.
This June Southern Baptist will also elect a new SBC president. The man elected to this position should likewise be someone who has a track-record of strong CP support. How can a person effectively lead Southern Baptists if his church doesn’t support CP with a minimum of the 5.16 percent that the average church gives? Indeed, shouldn’t our leaders come from churches that give above the average percentage? This seems like common sense, but such sense seems less and less common.
Southern Baptists are at a critical crossroad. One road leads to the continuation of decline in CP missions giving and the continuation of the decline of the SBC (that is a subject for another article, but yes, we are in serious decline by most every measure). The other road will lead us to growth in our cooperative missions strategy. Which road we travel will depend not only on what we do individually, but also on those we choose to lead us. As for me, I will do all I can to encourage Southern Baptists to select leaders who generously support missions through the Cooperative Program and have a long history of doing so.
The account in Acts 8:26-40 of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch through the witness of Philip fascinates me every time I read it. There are so many surprise factors in the story.
The passage overflows with surprising providences of God. Perhaps I’m only surprised because, like many people, I underestimate God’s supernatural ability to order the daily details of our lives. Continue reading