Farmersville, Texas, sits adjacent to U.S. Hwy 380 in Collin County. Ours is the final remaining section in our region of this major highway to remain in a two-lane condition. The asphalt through this area is pockmarked with potholes and patches and is one of the worse highway surfaces in our area. The highway has not been resurfaced because it is supposed to be entirely redesigned and replaced with something better. That process has taken place first to our east and west because the redesign inside Farmersville is so much more difficult and expensive than the roadway projects in the more rural surrounding areas. In Farmersville the highway proceeds through a small "canyon" of underpasses past an active railway line and Farmersville's Main Street. The embankments are rather narrow and the widening and improvement of the highway will require substantial work. Also, the highway in Farmersville is crowded with residences and businesses sitting right on the highway. The location of those businesses and homes right on the highway spelled convenience for people when they were erected, but now the proximity that was once convenient has become a problem.
Follow the same highway approximately 650 miles to the West, and U.S. Hwy 380 couldn't possibly look more different. There are no gas stations, no local eateries, no houses, and very few intersections. There is one very significant attraction in the area—a very important site where a defining moment of our history took place—but visiting is difficult because there is no lodging available and the driveway to the attraction is 20 miles long. Inconvenient? It sure is. But since the attraction in question is the Trinity Test Site in the White Sands Proving Grounds—the site where mankind first detonated an atomic bomb—a long, inconvenient road to this radioactive hotspot has probably been a blessing instead of a curse.
Two points on the same highway illustrating in very different ways that efficiency and convenience and brevity are not always the best outcomes or the most important variables in the equation. Long roads can be beneficial and short roads can be disastrous, for sometimes things happen on the journey that are as important as whatever happens at the destination.
The road to the Cooperative Program was a long, good road.
In the nineteenth century, Southern Baptist churches large and small generally did not have budgets for their support of missions. Fundraising for cooperative projects took place through the collection of special offerings. Speaking of highways, along Bus U.S. 641 in Murray, KY, you'll find a historical marker at the First Baptist Church in that town. There in 1900, "under leadership of H. Boyce Taylor, First Baptist Church, Murray, began in 1900 a new approach to church finance. Taylor, pastor 1897-1931, avidly promoted this unified budget plan." Here began the road to the Cooperative Program.
As late as 1917 the SBC was taking official action to encourage Southern Baptist churches to adopt and follow budgets. Truly, the adoption of the Cooperative Program amounted to the adoption of a radical new way of operating financially from up at the local church level through every stratum of Southern Baptist life down to the entities of the national convention.
Radical changes are difficult to make in a voluntaristic union. The careful patience and deliberate inclusiveness of the process is worthy of note. Before proposing a permanent structural change to the operations of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leadership of the SBC embarked upon a one-time trial run called the Seventy-Five Million Campaign. The campaign name was no mystery—Southern Baptist were attempting to raise exactly $75 million dollars to be distributed among various Southern Baptist causes. The time period from the launch of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign to the adoption of the Cooperative Program was a full six years, from 1919 to 1925.
These six years were filled with a truly inclusive and thoroughgoing effort to involve and inform every Southern Baptist of the benefits to be gained by moving to such a plan. The Seventy-Five Million campaign recruited people to assist the effort at every tier of the Southern Baptist family from the local churches to the national campaign. Southern Baptist laypeople across the South enlisted to give "four-minute speeches," mimicking a successful grassroots fundraising campaign by the United States Government during World War I.
Both in its successes and its failures, the Seventy-Five Million campaign was time well spent in determining the future path for the Southern Baptist Convention. It succeeded in demonstrating that Southern Baptist entities were better off financially to join in cooperative fundraising than to continue in the internecine solicitation rivalries that are unavoidable in systems that rely upon designated gifts in special offerings. Yet the campaign also failed in ways. Its high pledge total ($92 million) seduced SBC agencies to go deeply into debts that its far lower actual collections ($58 million) could not possibly retire. The progress of the campaign also revealed how delicate and intricate a process it would be to craft an agreement that distributed costs and proceeds of the campaign in a manner agreeable to everyone involved. By exposing these difficulties in the trial run, Southern Baptists better prepared themselves to minimize or avert them in the final form of the Cooperative Program.
All things considered, the journey from budgetless churches and special offerings to the Cooperative Program took a full twenty-five years. Many would not consider it a very efficient process that takes so many years to accomplish its goal. Southern Baptists, however, have historically been a people reluctant to sacrifice the sole Lordship of Christ over His church in the name of efficiency. Dictatorships are incredibly efficient. The most efficient system for Southern Baptists would be to appoint one man as pope and let him make our decisions for us. We have resisted such a system because we believe that Christ is already Head of the church, and that we have no authority to go about making vicars for Him, lest we depose Him from His rightful throne.
So, this twenty-five year process was not very efficient, as some people measure efficiency. And yet, viewed another way, it was an incredibly efficient and productive process. It not merely secured the compliance of Southern Baptists but actually accomplished the wholehearted buy-in of a national organization of volunteers. Indeed, it accomplished it so well that a full fifty years later people were referring to the Cooperative Program as a "sacred cow" in Southern Baptist life.
How long has it been since the Southern Baptist Convention has proposed or adopted anything that has been as popular and beloved among grassroots Southern Baptists in the pew as the Cooperative Program has been? It seems to me that there is something about the long road to the Cooperative Program that is helpful to all of us.
It commends to us pastors the value of patience in leadership. Brash and forceful bullying may win short-term victories, but it is no good foundation for lifetime ministry. I agree with Stan Norman that our decision making can be as much discipleship as administration—that the winsome and longsuffering work of securing consensus within the church reaps as many spiritual benefits as it reaps practical and secular benefits. Such changes last.
It also provides, I believe, a clear pattern for our present Southern Baptist leaders to examine and emulate. The SBC in 1900 stood at a moment in which dramatic changes were appropriate to help the convention realize a better cooperative ministry future. The need for those changes became persistent and clear enough that they spanned multiple SBC presidencies and numerous SBC annual meetings. Rather than ramrod their changes through and browbeat Southern Baptists into submission, these visionary leaders took the time and made the sacrifices to win Southern Baptist support from local churches, associations, state conventions, the national convention, and the various entities at every level. Although this made their work slower, it also made it more long-lasting and more effective.
Such leadership is more rare today in our nation. We live in a day in which Congress authorizes the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars without even bothering to read the legislation that does so, all because we have leaders who don't want to waste a good crisis and who drown out opposition by declaring that the sky will fall unless changes are made immediately.
I am hopeful that our reorganization task force will not follow the example of President Obama. The task force needs to take at least a year after they have adopted and published specific recommendations for our convention. They need to send emissaries to each and every state convention annual meeting and hold Q&A sessions open to all Southern Baptists. In some larger states, the task force might even be well advised to augment the Q&A at the state annual meeting with a series of regional meetings along the same lines. Only after Southern Baptists from the local church level to the national meeting level have had ample and lengthy opportunity to examine the proposals on their merits should our leaders expect us to be ready to vote.
Highway engineers have recently been examining the Dallas North Tollway in the aftermath of a spate of terrible accidents to determine why drivers are getting on the Tollway and traveling in the wrong direction (e.g., Southbound on the Northbound lanes). Several fatalities have resulted from these accidents. Last night one of our local news anchors reported on the engineers' progress. They have looked at some possible enhancements to make the Tollway safer, but they have noted that every wrong-way driver considered in the recent sample was driving while intoxicated. Alcohol begins to impair judgment from the very first drink. As concentrations of alcohol grow in the bloodstream, people start to turn onto the roadway without giving much thought to their choices. The results can be disastrous. Whether in driving or in decision making, it is impossible to devise a system that will work well even for thoughtless, rushed, or distracted people.
Southern Baptists certainly sit at an intersection. We must choose a route. Let us not be afraid of the long road. Let us be a people of careful deliberation rather than high-pressure rushed decisions. Some voices are pressuring the task force to "blow [the SBC] up" in a hurry. Let us take a good look around before we push down the plunger and detonate the TNT. The members of our task force will spend hours in meetings and will work hard to bring before us what they believe to be their very best recommendations. We honor their work when we take the time to read and consider their thoughts carefully. Let us not be a people who reflexively adopt sweeping legislation that we haven't even read carefully or submitted before the Lord in fervent and lengthy prayer.
And certainly, if we would consider any major changes to the Cooperative Program, let us remember that a great many godly and intelligent people spent a quarter of a century arriving at the plan that we call the Cooperative Program. We honor their work if we pause longer than 1/50th of the time that they put into creating the Cooperative Program before we make any radical changes to it.