Evaluating Missions Support Tricky

May 11, 2016

Dr. Rick Patrick | Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL

Twenty years ago, evaluating a Southern Baptist Church’s support for missions at the associational, state, national and international level was fairly simple—report the percentage of undesignated receipts forwarded by the church through the Cooperative Program and through their local association and you would have a pretty good idea if they were cooperating.

Today, churches that are primarily on the “CP Plan” can still be evaluated in just such a fashion. However, churches on the “GCG (Great Commission Giving) Plan” require further exploration and analysis. It may not be that we can really compare these two approaches any longer on the same scale since this is truly an apples to oranges comparison. This essay will look at various factors to explain this reality.

Multi-site Churches

Let me begin by saying that I include myself among those who feel that multi-site churches are not biblical and that each site should actually be reported as a separate church rather than lumped together. In essence, I believe these organizations are actually structured like mini-denominations featuring a type of connectional polity foreign to the Baptist tradition.

Having said that, these little denominations called churches have become popular. Our present accounting approach is to add all of the individual campuses together and list them as if they were only one church. This approach provides a scope and scale of achievement that is impressive but in some cases a bit misleading. Sometimes, for example, the multi-site campus network swallows up pastorless churches, bringing them into the fold through a merger and growing overnight.

In our association, if I were to partner with our ten largest churches to become a multi-site “church” we could easily multiply our giving records, baptisms, membership and attendance, creating the impression of genuine growth when in fact we were really just merging with other existing bodies.

At that point, I would argue, it would no longer be fair to compare our baptisms, for example, with the baptisms of other churches, because we would have lost the one-to-one aspect of the comparison. Perhaps we could more properly describe this approach as the comparison of one apple with ten apples. If one were to count, for example, the number of missionaries appointed from one’s church and compare it with the number appointed at other churches, it would make sense first to divide that total up by each individual campus.

Redirected Giving Channels

Under the Great Commission Giving Plan, some churches choose to give few dollars through their local association, few dollars through their state convention, and few dollars through the Cooperative Program, Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon. At first, that doesn’t sound cooperative, but it would be inaccurate to say that these churches are not at all cooperating in reaching the nations. They just go about it in a very different manner—so different that any comparisons are once again rendered confusing if not utterly meaningless.

Let us suppose, for example, that a ten-campus church with a multi-million dollar budget decided to give next to nothing through their local association, their state, the Cooperative Program, Lottie and Annie—minimal amounts around 1%.

Let us further suppose that this church redirects the millions of dollars saved through this approach so as to finance a very substantial gift at one of our seminaries to create a church planting school. Suppose they also give massive dollars directly through NAMB and IMB, creating connections and building relationships within the denomination that can be helpful when candidates from one’s church apply for the church planting school or the church planting program through NAMB or missionary appointments through IMB.

Preferential Treatment Not An Accomplishment

Does it stand to reason that a church that gives big bucks directly to various organizations might be on the receiving end of some preferential treatment when it comes to appointment decisions? In other walks of life, large financial contributions by organizations tend to purchase strong levels of influence.

Within the past year, I received a phone call from a Calvinist who felt marginalized in today’s SBC appointment process. At first I was incredulous, as it seemed to me that Calvinist church planters at home and missionaries abroad were being appointed at numbers far exceeding their representation in our Southern Baptist Churches. Then this brother explained to me that while his theology was Calvinistic, he was not the kind of movement Calvinist with ties to any highly connected or popular church planting and missionary launching pads. He seemed to imply that candidates coming from some of our Southern Baptist Churches might have an easier time gaining their appointments than candidates from others.

Comparing Candidate Acceptance Rates 

When a Southern Baptist Church boasts of the number of missionaries they send to the field, it raises a few red flags. First, I don’t ever really remember any church using this as a missions support metric before. Second, if one believes these appointments are divinely led, then God should receive all the glory for those who are called, and it just seems weird to share some of that glory with a local church. Third, if the candidates from that local church have been accepted by the mission boards at rates higher than the average rate of acceptance for candidates from other Southern Baptist Churches, then I want to explore that fact. Are the candidates from this church superior to those from other churches? I find that doubtful, believing that terrific candidates can be found from a variety of churches all over the convention. Is it possible that the superiority was not found in the candidates but in the connections—connections purchased by the combined spending power of several different campuses pooling their resources and cutting out associations and state conventions in order to finance large and direct donations? This notion was clearly the hypothesis of my poorly connected Calvinist friend.

Conclusion

I certainly appreciate those serving on the mission field, both in Southern Baptist life and in other denominations. I am glad our churches are sending out missionaries. Every single time it happens, it is worthy of celebration. This essay does not call into question the desire of our churches to reach the nations. Further, I celebrate all missionary approaches within our denomination, even if these approaches do not fall into the category of my preferred CP Plan approach.

However, until we can get more information from our mission boards enabling us to compare the acceptance rate of each individual church with the acceptance rate for all churches, we cannot rule out the existence of the kind of appointment bias alleged by my poorly connected Calvinist friend. I believe it would be a mistake to credit a church with some type of missionary achievement when it may simply be on the receiving end of preferential treatment due to a stewardship tactic of replacing the CP Plan with the GCG Plan and pouring millions into a relatively new missions giving channel.

When Southern Baptists had only one plan—the Cooperative Program—and only one type of church—single site—it was much easier to evaluate the missions support achievements of each congregation. Now that other plans are being utilized by structures that may actually resemble mini-denominations, we must revise our evaluation processes to compensate for these changes. Since missions support has become more complicated than ever, it stands to reason that the missions support evaluation process has become trickier as well.