Is the Cooperative Program Worthy of Sacrifice?


Is the Cooperative Program Worthy of Sacrifice?

by Nathan Finn and Micah Fries

We are concerned. As we look across our beloved Southern Baptist Convention, we see a problem that is significant, and is growing. Sadly, statistics inform us that this is an issue across the entire spectrum of SBC life, regardless of location or age and type of congregation. This issue is no respecter of persons. Our shared commitment to the Cooperative Program (CP) is on a precipitous decline. We believe this is a great tragedy that bodes ill for our Convention’s future.

Lest you think we’re simply writing to stump for the CP, please understand that we believe there are vital modifications which need to be made to the CP. Micah has started to address some of those concerns here and here. However, despite our views concerning needed reforms, we absolutely remain convinced of the viability, even more so , the continued centrality of the CP as a means of partnering together for mission. Which brings us to what concerns us.

This summer, at the SBC Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Executive Committee President Frank Page issued a challenge to Southern Baptists. After noting that CP giving has steadily decreased over the previous generation, Dr. Page urged every Southern Baptist pastor and local church to consider increasing their CP giving by one percent. He argued that this seemingly small increase would lead to a significant influx of money that could be used for kingdom purposes.

An article in the December 2011 issue of SBC Life elaborates a bit on the effects a one percent increase in CP giving would have on our denominational ministries. Assuming tithes and offerings to local churches remain close to 2010 numbers, about $89 million more dollars would be given through the CP. According to present CP distribution, that would equal about $55 million more for state conventions and $34 million more for SBC agencies. The International Mission Board would receive an extra $17 million, while the North American Mission Board would see an increase of almost $8 million. Our seminaries would receive about $7.5 million more, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission would see an increase of $500,000, and the Executive Committee would gain an extra $1 million.

These dollar increases would have a dramatic effect on our Convention’s ministries. According to SBC Life, “This [increase] would allow the IMB immediately to appoint 375 new missionaries, NAMB to expand church planting support, and the seminaries and ERLC to address numerous maintenance, capital, and moral advocacy needs.” While the article didn’t directly address state conventions (SBC Life is published by the Executive Committee), a one percent increase would have a similar effect on state ministries. We appreciate the heart of Dr. Page’s call for a one percent increase to CP giving and we hope that thousands of churches will consider how they might give more generously to the CP.

Having said that, we want to highlight a theme that is often neglected in current discussions about the Cooperative Program: shared sacrifice. We are increasingly concerned with Southern Baptist pastors and churches who are diminishing their commitment to doing mission together primarily through the CP. We believe a recovery of a sense of shared sacrifice among our churches could lead to an increased commitment to CP giving that, Lord willing, would eventually amount to much more than one percent.

For many years, it was common to hear Southern Baptist leaders talk about the need for churches to sacrificially give to the Cooperative Program. While this language hasn’t totally disappeared, it’s not nearly as common as it used to be. We believe that it is a priority which Southern Baptists need to recover. In fact, we believe that a major reason-perhaps the major reason-CP giving is down is because most churches give to the Cooperative Program conveniently rather than sacrificially. They give to the CP, but only insofar as that support doesn’t drastically affect their budget or their giving to other ministry priorities.

We want to issue our own Cooperative Program challenge. We want to urge churches to consider giving sacrificially to the CP, to be willing to stretch themselves for the sake of gospel advance. Giving sacrificially can easily be neglected when we use phrases that diminish the reality that the CP is an ingenious means of financially partnering for the sake of mission. When we use phrases like “denominational machine” or “bureaucracy” in reference to the CP, it becomes far too easy to dismiss the CP. When we treat the Cooperative Program as a mere program, we neglect the fact that the CP is, in fact, a tremendous method through which we channel funding to take the gospel to the nations.

We recognize that the sacrifice we’re calling for will look different in each congregation. Some churches will forego renovations or building programs, or at least consider spending less money on such projects. We think this would be an appropriately countercultural move in an affluent society. Others will consider training more volunteers to serve in the place of paid staff. We think churches should be doing this anyway (see Ephesians 4:11-12). Still others will consider cutting some of the money they budget for their own ministries. We think most churches have at least one or two projects or programs that, when placed under a microscope, aren’t vital to that church’s wellbeing or gospel advance. Understand that these are just ideas-the sacrifice will be contextual to each congregation.

As younger leaders in our 30s, we want to take a minute to speak frankly to our generational contemporaries. To be candid, some of you have reaped the benefits of the Cooperative Program but you refuse to give generously, let alone sacrificially, to the CP. Like us, many of you have received a college and/or seminary education that was substantially subsidized by the CP. Some of you have served as short-term foreign missionaries with IMB or received NAMB funds to plant a church. You have gladly accepted these moneys, but now you refuse to invest in the very system that has provided you with so much. When we see this attitude, we are grieved. This appears to be, in a best case scenario, the result of ignorance; in the worst case scenario, it could be outright hypocrisy. In recent conversations with state convention staff and others, we’ve been shocked at the number of churches led by younger pastors who give little or nothing to the work of Southern Baptists through the CP.

We want to urge younger Southern Baptist pastors and church planters to lead their churches to give sacrificially to the Cooperative Program. We want to plead with you to educate your congregations as to how the CP works. We want to implore you to become Great Commission champions in part by becoming Cooperative Program advocates. We want to encourage you to join all Southern Baptists in those ministries we all have deemed important. We want you to take ownership of the shared mission strategy that, by God’s grace, helped enable so many of you to get to where you are today.

We know that many of you have concerns about the stewardship of some CP funds. We know you are concerned the CP is too impersonal. We know you fear the bureaucratic inflation that tempts almost all large organizations, including the SBC. We know you want more money going to evangelism and church planting and less going to salaries and overhead. Hear us say that we share your concerns. But we also believe that those who give are those who earn the right to offer friendly suggestions about ways to improve the Cooperative Program. And while there is room for improvement, we remain convinced the CP is a wise strategy for cooperating together for the sake of the gospel.

The fact is, the Cooperative Program is a significant part of who we are as Southern Baptists. The CP isn’t our only distinctive, or even our most important distinctive, but it is most certainly a defining distinctive of the Southern Baptist Convention and has been so for nearly a century. In light of this, if we may be so bold, we want to call upon our fellow Southern Baptists, and especially younger Southern Baptists, to not be afraid of linking arms with all Southern Baptists as we partner together in this manner of doing mission. This is the Southern Baptist way, and while it may not be a perfect way, we’re convinced it remains the best way. Southern Baptists are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the full inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, the primacy of the local Baptist church, and the importance of cooperation for the sake of the gospel. This is who we are. Let’s recommit to partnering together, especially through the Cooperative Program, to advance Christ’s gospel across North America and to the uttermost parts of the earth.

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  1. Mike Brantley   •  

    As a missionary with a non-SBC agency, working in the future of the ecclesia, I follow BTT blog. I want to applaud Nathan and Micah for this discussion.

    Can I be candid, as a former SBC member, as an ally and friend? Sometimes, it’s best to have some one outside the pressures within, to speak honestly.

    The future of the SBC is not looking great. The downward spirals and indicators are consistent across the spectrum. No – it’s not as dire as the mainlines, etc. BUT there is something core that these two fellows did not address. May I contribute here?

    One of the arch mores within the SBC is the local church autonomy. It is also exactly what is leading to this issue. The American church as a whole is as guilty as any other culture – we read “out of” scripture what we like to affirm our cultural values. The west, especially the US, is hyper enlightenment individualists – synchrotism, actually… consumerism, materialism, affluence as the reason to live, our desires and focus, hence our values. This is true within the very decisions we make. We want what we want, and we refuse any authority, even spiritual authority over us. Hence, the decline in allegiance to the SBC as a body…cp.

    This core rebellious nature is our cultural core bane. May we begin to practice deference towards the very body – local and wider – He calls us to!

    Thanks for the opportunity to contribute.

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  4. J. Michael Palmer   •  

    Seems like it is deja vu all over again! I wrote a paper on the CP and the SBC and “beauracracy” way back in 1978 while an MDiv Student at SWBTS. Since then we have had the conservative resurgence and now we are “deciding” if we are going organize the CP and also support it or to say it another way: to put our strategy and our money where our mouth is! The CP is changing. Yes there are elements in the structure that need changing. Yes there are changes that can and should be made within IMB and NAMB and more. But if this generation is not willing to put in some of the effort to make this happen then the conservative regurgence will have been for naught. We have a good thing, yes it CAN be bettter, much better. But unless you are a mega church I do not see anything out there that you can partner with to have some decent effectiveness in making a global impact. I appeal to my younger brethren to TRY. Be a participant and express your heart for streamlining, for administrative and gospel priority change. You will make a kingdom difference!

  5. Robert   •  

    Great piece! This is an important time to have this conversation.

    As a young SBC pastor my concern with the CP is that the current leadership is so ensconced in their ideological commitments that it will prevent serious overhaul. We need to cut loose the ERLC and Executive Committee…then return to missions and church planting while reducing overhead. Most of my peers think CP is indicative of SBC hypocrisy. I think it’s genius, but needs help.

  6. Ben   •  

    This is a helpful article, and I particularly appreciate your point about ignorance or hypocrisy among younger pastors who’ve benefited from the CP. But I’d like to push back, or perhaps just clarify, on one point. You write:

    “We know you want more money going to evangelism and church planting and less going to salaries and overhead.”

    I suppose I speak merely for myself, but I want to see MORE money going to salaries. If you’re talking about administrative/bureaucratic salaries, fine, but I want CP money paying for people to go places and do things where no one on the ground is going to pay them.

    What I want less of is bloated programmatic nonsense, evangelistic gimmicks, best practices (and ecclesiologically bankrupt) training events, mass mailings attacking Calvinism, resort ministries, subsidized pastoral vacations/golf tournaments under the veneer of a denominational event, and gift kickbacks (logo imprinted messenger bags or gift cards for younger pastors “because we just want to love on ya’ “). And most of that’s just what I see in a state that keeps a relatively low percentage of CP funds.

  7. Roger Simpson   •  

    I have a question for those who think that the SBC machine is bloated and use this fact as a pretext to not support the CP. Where is the low hanging fruit that should be plucked off and trashed in the “SBC bureaucracy”?

    I guess we could cut out certain stuff in Lifeway, but Lifeway doesn’t take a dime of CP money to run its operations. Lifeway has to run its business in a prudent fiscal manner. That’s why, for example, it is taking steps to “phase out” or “divest” of Glorieta.

    I have no problem with phasing out the ELRC. However, the budget of the ELRC is “miniscule” compared to the big picture. Given the “small” budget of the ELRC it is not rational to hold the CP hostage because of whatever the ELRC is or is not doing.

    In the year of 2011 the CP money allocated for the ELRC was $730,441. Total allocations during 2011 from CP were $44,269,203. [Source: Executive Committee Website –“Accumulative Distribution — Cooperative Program Allocation Budget/Designated Receipts — Southern Baptist Convention Executive Comittee as of December 2011]. So the ELRC is spending about is about 1.65% of CP.

    Trying to boost up the CP via cutting out the ELRC is analogous to Corzine trying to save MF Global by telling his staff to “use both sides of the paper”. If we are going to turn around the CP it is going to take a lot more than any adjustment to — or zeroing out of — the ELRC budget. The ELRC may be “low hanging fruit” but it is such a small piece of fruit it is not worth arguing over.

    In my opinion, using the ELRC as an excuse to not give generously to the CP is weak.

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  9. Roger Simpson   •  

    Sorry for the error in the abbreviation. The letters are “ERLC” no “ELRC”. I’m going to try harder to say what I mean.

    It is the “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission” NOT “Ethics and Liberty of Religion Commission”

    Please cut me a little slack!!

    Roger K. Simpson

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  11. archie walker   •  

    Ben’s response gets much closer to addressing something nobody else seems to want to talk about–the disconnect between a strictly biblical theology and the practical/philosophical methodologies driving SBC entities. Having been in the SBC 35 years, for the past 20 years I have seen and addressed the very things Ben speaks of, trying to advocate to no avail that we sit down and let the Scriptures test all that we do. It’s as if the greatest thing we have to fear is to subject our genius to the Bible. The only way I see forward is to develop a biblical and Spirit-led concensus re-defining our hobbled great commission and its hamstrung gospel, which are products of our contemporary church growth movement.

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