Anyone who has experienced life at any level knows that actions have consequences. The longer we live, the more we realize that our actions or decisions often have unintended consequences.
Sometimes these consequences are absolutely un-foretell-able or un-seeable at the moment of decision; but more often, they are foreseeable. Scripture instructs the wise person to “count the cost.” This exhortation aptly applies to conversations concerning the continuing value of the Cooperative Program.
In recent years, some within our Convention have been suggesting new funding modalities for our mission work. I understand why they do so. Support for our current methods of cooperative giving and special mission offerings has failed to raise the kind of dollars needed to propel an aggressive global vision while simultaneously maintaining a strong home base of ministry.
Monies which once were on the increase have plateaued. Even when dollars increase annually, they have not kept up with inflation and certainly have not kept pace with population growth. Therefore, we find ourselves in a day and time when people are looking for new methods, new ways to raise mission dollars to distribute for global missions and North American evangelism and church planting.
Some characterize this methodological change as generational, pitting the young versus the old. This is certainly inaccurate.
Some suggest this change in modality has underlying theological connotations. Certainly this is an inappropriate generalization as well.
Nonetheless, we find ourselves in a day where people are asking serious questions about how best to support missions in the coming years and decades. These are serious questions that need to be asked!
Do we give up on a cooperative model which has brought us to this point? Is the model we currently use perfect?
A Need for Perennial Review
I would like to address the last question first. The cooperative model we now use is not perfect. Yes, it was developed many years ago by godly people and has done great work. But, as with all human ideas, it is in constant need of review and adjustment according to current needs and resources, so from time to time it has been changed.
Currently, both the SBC and most state conventions are reevaluating budget programs and allocation percentages in order to make the greatest impact for Kingdom purposes.
Despite diminishing contributions to the churches and from the churches, a greater percentage of CP contributions have made their way from the states to the missions and ministries of the SBC over the past few years.
For example, as our churches began to feel the impact of the Great Recession of 2007–2008, state conventions retained, on average, 63.45 percent of all CP contributions, forwarding 36.55 percent to the SBC. By 2013, the amount retained by the states had dropped to 61.97 percent remaining in the states with 38.03 percent forwarded to the SBC.
The state conventions have made this concerted effort to forward more money to the SBC during the same five-year stretch that total receipts received by Southern Baptist churches have declined by almost one billion dollars (from $12.1 billion in 2008 to $11.2 billion in 2013), a decline of almost 6 percent.
Even though CP as a percentage of our churches’ undesignated gifts ticked up slightly, from 5.41 percent in 2011 to 5.50 percent in 2013, last year’s total CP was still $60 million less than it was in 2008 ($542 million in 2008; $482 million in 2013). State conventions are trying to do more with less money and fewer staff. The number of staff employed by our cooperating state conventions has declined from more than 1,750 in 2008 to less than 1,350 in 2013.
Challenges of Direct Giving
Now to the earlier question—Do we give up on a cooperative model which has brought us to this point? This is the question being discussed at many levels and among many generational and theological groups. I would like to ask that we look at some issues which may well have unintended consequences.
While much of the current discussion revolves around percentages retained by state conventions or SBC allocation percentages, I believe there are issues that are far more crucial involved in a possible change to direct giving.
First of all, no one alive today has lived through the anarchy that existed prior to the institution of the Cooperative Program. Churches were literally bombarded with funding requests from entities, agencies, and individuals so much that they cried out for relief!
Virtually every Sunday, some worthy cause asked local churches to receive special offerings for its ministry. Inevitably, the entities and individuals who were the most persuasive raised the most money. Also inevitably, entities jockeyed to speak to the church during peak attendance seasons during the year. I doubt seriously that churches in the twenty-first century will tolerate this kind of “free-for-all” for very long.
Another very real consequence to direct giving or “societal methodology” flies under many people’s radar. According to a 2011 study by The Pew Research Center, the overall wealth of Anglo households is approximately twenty times that of African American households and eighteen times that of Latino or Hispanic households. How does this connect?
When persons are required to raise their own support they do so by going to friends, family, and fellow church members. When individuals in that sphere of influence have fewer resources, mission volunteers have to work that much harder to raise their support.
The unintended consequence of such a modality is that our mission force will become less diverse over time, an unintended consequence no one would wish for. Is an unintended consequence of a direct giving model a diminishing of ethnic representation in our mission force? This is a serious question that must be answered.
Yet another unintended consequence of a direct giving model is its impact on the small church. While there is no intentional “war” on small churches, as some feel, many who are discussing changing our methodology do so from a large or megachurch perspective.
A direct funding modality may not be problematic in a large or megachurch situation. Persons from those settings can go to the church and quickly receive funding for their calling to missions and ministry. This has been occurring for years and is done without great effort.
However, when a mission volunteer comes from a small church, which most of our mission volunteers do, it becomes increasingly difficult for that person to raise funds within that setting.
Southern Baptists are primarily a small church network. I think most of us recognize that such a small church would have to make hard decisions about supporting its mission volunteers. Where would that money come from? In my opinion, it would come from the church’s Cooperative Program giving that it has been committed to, perhaps for many years.
Competition vs. Cooperation
These unintended consequences have the potential for great impact upon our overall missions program. If they come to fruition, the overall result will be a dramatic lessening of support for the world’s largest fully-funded missions-sending organization and all of the Convention’s related missions and ministries.
As the pool of CP money lowers, Convention entities will, of necessity, have to find alternate means of support. This will likely set off a “turf war” within our Convention with each entity fighting for any remaining resources. This leads, not to unity, but to disunity.
I pray that we will all think carefully about these new methods and their long-term impact. They may raise more missions support in the short term, but could have long-term consequences that would negatively impact our Convention’s missions and ministries.
Frank S. Page is president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee and is a member of Clearview Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee.