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.
Dr. Rick Patrick, Pastor
FBC Sylacauga, Alabama
Exec. Director, Connect 316
In 2010, even as Southern Baptists admitted that all missions giving is worthy of celebration, we clearly affirmed the superiority of the Cooperative Program over against every alternative method for the financial support of missions:
We call upon Southern Baptists to honor and affirm the Cooperative Program as the most effective means of mobilizing our churches and extending our reach… The greatest stewardship of Great Commission investment and deployment is giving through the Cooperative Program. We call upon Southern Baptists to recommit to the Cooperative Program as the central and preferred conduit of Great Commission funding, without which we would be left with no unified and cooperative strategy and commitment to the Great Commission task. (Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, 2010)
The time has come for Southern Baptists to decide if we truly meant these lofty words concerning the Cooperative Program that we adopted in June of 2010 or if we only truly meant the lofty words about celebrating rival forms of missions support. While it makes sense to celebrate any and all support for missions, it is only logical that we reserve our greatest passion and excitement for the one strategy we deem most effective, most exemplary of our greatest stewardship, and unquestionably the central and preferred conduit of Great Commission funding.
Either we have a Cooperative Program or we don’t. When churches diminish the importance of the Cooperative Program to “do their own thing” under the banner of Great Commission Giving or any other competing approach, it cannot help but weaken the most effective missionary sending channel in world history. Certainly, whenever anyone gives to missions, we celebrate this fact, regardless of their approach, but if they reduce their Cooperative Program support in order to fund a little something on the side, we are right to identify such reallocations as clear threats to our mutual Southern Baptist missions work. The leadership principle used to make this evaluation is the simple time honored notion that the good is the enemy of the best.
Taking the Temperature of the Cooperative Program
Measuring the health of the Cooperative Program can be compared to taking the temperature of a patient. A healthy human body requires a temperature reading of 97.3 – 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures are considered life threatening when they fall below 95 degrees or rise above 104 degrees. The same human body that flourishes at one numerical reading will die at another. There is no magic in the thermometer itself. Any numerical reading will not do. The temperature must fall between a certain range or the physical body will die.
Similarly, the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention flourishes when the temperature readings are strong, but fails to survive as the readings sink lower and lower. According to a 2003 study, Southern Baptist Churches gave an average of 10.5 percent of our undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program in the 1980’s. That number declined to 7.39 percent in 2002. Our most recent data indicates that this number has now dipped to 5.16 percent for the reporting year 2016-2017.
It makes sense that there is a certain threshold below which our ministries simply cannot function. It is a simple fact of arithmetic that our reduction of international missionaries by 25% over the past three years could have been avoided if Southern Baptist Churches had not cut our Cooperative Program giving in half since the 1980’s. We must understand the problem is not the Cooperative Program itself. Our thermometer is working fine. The problem is that our readings on this thermometer have dipped below the level required to sustain life and health. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we have a strategy historically proven to be both feasible and successful, unlike our decade long experiment with alternative giving options, which have proven to be both infeasible and unsuccessful. All we must do is bring our numbers back within their appropriate ranges. This is a plan every Southern Baptist Church can embrace—unlike the strategies of some SBC churches today who utilize Great Commission Giving. In so doing, they fund their own special projects on the side while giving less through the Cooperative Program.
Smaller churches simply cannot afford this “do it yourself” strategy. Thus, if we are all going to be in this thing together, then the Cooperative Program is the only game in town. It is the greatest system for the support of missions that the world has ever known—but it needs a little medicine to bring up our body temperature.
The 10-3-10-50 Strategy for Southern Baptist Cooperation
This is not merely a hypothetical plan for cooperation. It represents the precise formula I am presently putting into practice in my personal finances and in the financial choices of my church family and my state convention. It does have one very specific advantage. If everyone did this, Southern Baptists would be in excellent shape financially to support our mutual missions work at every level of our denominational cooperation.
Here’s how the plan works. There are four areas of cooperation—individual, association, state, and national.
This is a simple and proven strategy. It works. Frankly, it works even if the numbers are approximately at these levels. As long as we are in the vicinity of these benchmarks, Southern Baptist missions will thrive financially.
Overcoming the Two Most Common Objections
1. Don’t these voluntary benchmarks threaten the principle of autonomy?
Not in the least, and here’s why. In Southern Baptist life, every individual, every church, every association, and every convention is completely autonomous. They can do whatever in the world they want. No single goal at any level of the money trail can threaten autonomy because no one is being forced to do anything at all. Having said that, I can certainly ask Christians to tithe. They have the autonomy to say no but I have the autonomy to ask. I can also ask churches to support their local association with donations in the vicinity of 3%. They have the autonomy to say no but I have the autonomy to ask. I can ask churches to support the Cooperative Program with donations in the vicinity of 10% through their state convention. They have the autonomy to say no but I have the autonomy to ask. And I can ask the state convention to forward Cooperative Program receipts in the vicinity of 50% to the Southern Baptist Convention. They have the autonomy to say no but I have the autonomy to ask. Because every action is voluntary and everyone involved is autonomous, I endanger no Baptist principle by recommending these reasonable, attainable, and worthy goals.
2. Isn’t it true that percentages do not pay for missions, but dollars do?
This observation is often credited to Adrian Rogers, whose ministry and legacy I profoundly appreciate. Nevertheless, the statement presents a false dichotomy, since any level of funding can be stated in terms of either percentages or dollars. I fully understand the gist of this argument that a large church’s small percentage often translates into an amount most people consider an enormous sum of money. This is simply the way percentages work. Ten percent of nothing is nothing while ten percent of a fortune is a fortune. Which would you rather have in your missions fund—one billion dollars or ten percent of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ net worth? If you chose the dollar amount, on the theory that dollars pay for missions, you would have one billion dollars. However, if you chose the percentage amount, ignoring this adage about dollars paying for missions, you would have 13 billion dollars. Clearly, percentages can be thirteen times more effective than dollars in financing expenditures! Not only do percentages pay for missions, but higher percentages pay for more missions than lower percentages.
However noble its intentions, Great Commission Giving has neither improved Southern Baptist missionary work nor Southern Baptist cooperation. It has left us with a house divided in our missionary funding strategy. We have been challenged to celebrate societal missions, but why? Why celebrate the embrace of a missions funding approach that is neither most effective, an example of our greatest stewardship, or the promotion of our central and preferred conduit of Great Commission funding? Why celebrate the second best option when the best option is readily available? Let us quit playing around with rival approaches that have only gotten us lost in the woods. Let us stop abandoning the Cooperative Program on the false assumption that we have discovered a better way. There is no better way. The Cooperative Program, when supported at sustainable levels like those described in the 10-3-10-50 Plan, remains the greatest channel for the support of missions that the world has ever known. It is not too late for Southern Baptists to administer CPR—a Cooperative Program Resurgence—that will bring us back to life again and restore our missionary heartbeat.
Reuben Ross was born of poor but pious parents. He came into this world nearing the birth of our nation, born in North Carolina, May 8, 1776.
Reuben was the youngest of six brothers of Scottish descent; three of the Ross boys became preachers.
The family was rich in hopes and dreams. These dreams drove them westward through the Carolinas, over the Smokies, and into Tennessee and Kentucky.
Under a shade tree in Montgomery County, Tennessee, Reuben Ross preached his first sermon to a small group of people. Years later, Dr. J.M. Pendleton would describe Pastor Reuben Ross in this manner:
“There was in the expression of his eyes and the features of his face a union of intelligence, gentleness, solemnity, greatness, majesty … his sermons were combined exposition, argument, and exhortation.”
This article seeks to capture a defining moment in the life and ministry of Reuben Ross as he pastored in the Red River Baptist Association. This Baptist Association started on April 15, 1807, with 12 congregations; three were in Tennessee and the majority in Kentucky, according to John H. Spencer’s book A History of Kentucky Baptists: From 1700 to 1885. Continue reading