In our propagandizing about the Cooperative Program (and I use the word "propagandizing" in its noblest sense), we've always landed heavy on the word "Cooperative" and left the "Program" part as the unaccented syllable. Our very good reason for that emphasis is the fact that programs inspire nobody while cooperation is a noble and uplifting concept. I also note that, in our expositions on cooperation, we tend to emphasize the concept of people cooperating with other people and churches cooperating with other churches. These are worthy emphases, and certainly the Cooperative Program does represent the cooperation of people with people and churches with churches. Normally, those doing the propagandizing are denominational employees trying to recruit people and churches to engage (or engage more fully) in the Cooperative Program.
Nevertheless, we must admit that EVERY funding system by which more than one person or more than one church fund joint ventures is, by its definition, just as "cooperative" with regard to people and churches as is our Cooperative Program system. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, although it is not a part of the Cooperative Program, is a fine example of people cooperating with other people and churches cooperating with other churches to reach people for Christ.
The true genius of the Cooperative Program—the novel aspect of cooperation that it introduced like a soothing balm—was that, in addition to the cooperation of people and churches that had always been present among Southern Baptists, it introduced an unprecedented level of Southern Baptist entities cooperating with other Southern Baptist entities. What had theretofore been a competition to see which entities could tap most effectively the pool of Southern Baptist charitable funding became a cooperative effort to solicit Southern Baptist funding in harmony. The loss of the Cooperative Program would not constitute the end of Baptist Christians and Baptist churches cooperating with one another, but would certainly endanger the cooperative relationships of our Southern Baptist entities.
I submit as my thesis for this post the following idea: The greatest danger to the Cooperative Program today lies not in the idea that churches will cease to cooperate with one another, but in the threat of the various constituents of Southern Baptist life not dealing with one another cooperatively. In specific, several factors pose dangers to our forward movement together.
A weakening of the cooperative relationship between the various state conventions and the national Southern Baptist Convention.
Technically, our Southern Baptist family is non-connectional. In other words, the conceptual relationship between my state convention (the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention) and my national convention (the Southern Baptist Convention) is one of disconnected partners. The Southern Baptist Convention is not a subsidiary of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. The SBTC is not a subsidiary of the SBC. Each could conceivably exist apart from the other, although neither could exist apart from the churches.
Practically, however, the state and national levels of our convention are intricately interwoven. The boards and committees of our national convention and entities, for example, often are structured to require proportional representation from the various state convention areas. The Cooperative Program is one factor that increases this enmeshed relationship between state conventions and national convention. Because of the Cooperative Program, the national convention is dependent for its funding upon the decisions of state conventions regarding how much CP money to keep for their own operations and how much to forward. Sometimes it is apparent that these decisions have been made in ways very favorable to the state convention and very unfavorable to the national SBC, while in some cases the state conventions have labored very sacrificially to give greater funding to national and international missions. The national convention needs the state conventions to do well and to be in a position to practice good stewardship of CP funding.
Conversely, Cooperative Program funding is generally solicited by an appeal to the Southern Baptist love for missions in general and international missions in specific. The states, therefore, have a vested interest in the health and success of the Southern Baptist Convention not only for their spiritual reasons (as people who love the Lord and want to spread the gospel), but also because the number of CP dollars coming into state convention coffers will be determined more by local church buy-in to the SBC's program of missions than by any other one factor.
State conventions and the national convention, then, are like partners in a three-legged race. Each needs the other for the success of the Cooperative Program.
Starting in 1979, the national Southern Baptist Convention took a dramatic turn to the right in its theology and practice. If any state convention partners were out-of-step with the pre-1979 SBC, the change in the SBC may have made the intricate dance between state convention and national convention a more graceful one. However, if any state convention partners were well matched with the pre-1979 SBC, then the dramatic changes in the SBC posed a threat to their cooperative relationship. One of two things had to happen: (a) either something like the Conservative Resurgence needed to happen in those state conventions to facilitate greater cooperative agreement between the two tiers of SBC cooperation, or (b) the cooperative relationship between the two bodies was inevitably going to weaken, eroding the foundation of the Cooperative Program (or, theoretically, (c) state conventions could hunker down and try to wait to see whether the SBC meanders back left again after leaping to the right).
Evidence of both outcomes among the various state conventions could likely be presented, although decorum prevents me from giving examples or naming names. My point is simply this: We employ the name "Cooperative Program" alike whether state and national convention are working at cross-purposes or laboring in harmony. No matter how much a state convention keeps for its own uses and no matter how little a state convention forwards to national or international causes, we indiscriminately refer to the system as the "Cooperative Program" and treat these various systems as though they are all equally "cooperative."
This is a farce.
What is needed is not a season of recriminations or attacks between state and national tiers of our Southern Baptist family, as I am in danger of provoking with these words. My goal is simply for Southern Baptists to acknowledge that state-national relationships within the SBC vary in their levels of cooperativeness, and that these variances have implications for the health of the Cooperative Program as well as upon the actions of local churches and other partners in the CP family. I pursue this goal not in the quest for some sort of blame-game, but because the Cooperative Program cannot, in my estimation, be strengthened by cultivating denial of this reality. The Cooperative Program can never be stronger than the cooperative nature of the relationship between the state conventions and the national convention.
Not that the state conventions alone contribute to problems in the cooperative relationship. I confess that I have, in the past, allowed my exasperation over specific examples of financial hostility toward the national SBC by specific state conventions to provoke me into intemperate and categorical language speaking of the stinginess of state conventions. Such language on my part, as well as GCR-related statements critical of our state conventions, are no solution prone to bolster the health of the SBC or the Cooperative Program. Rather, they are more likely to make the problems worse by heightening tensions that need to be relaxed. And obviously, any past statements I have made about state conventions have not been meant to apply to ALL state conventions—I do not apply any of those characterizations to my own state convention, which is a model of cooperativeness, IMHO. I need to speak and write more carefully in the future, for the cooperative and collegial spirit between state conventions and the national SBC is too important a feature, and often too fragile a feature, for reckless talk to be allowed to endanger it.
Lackluster participation in the Cooperative Program by the local churches is a problem in our generation. Does the root of the problem lie in some dissatisfied angst not properly addressed by the SBC? In some cases, probably so. Does the real problem concern an isolationism and self-centeredness among churches that increasingly seek to become an empire unto themselves? Again, this is likely at least partly to blame in some cases. But let us not forget that in some cases churches are circumventing the Cooperative Program not because they are upset with the missions program of the SBC, but because they are delighted with it. They perceive an uncooperative relationship between their state convention and the SBC. From their vantage point, the Cooperative Program is already broken, and not by their own hands. They are acting, as they perceive it, not in violence to the Cooperative Program so much as in self-defense on its behalf.
I know whereof I speak—once upon a time it was me. I'm thankful that it is me no longer, but I am sympathetic toward those who claim that these factors shape their Cooperative Program giving (or lack thereof, as some would count it).
For this reason each and every state convention in the Southern Baptist Convention should, if it has not already done so, adopt the Baptist Faith & Message in its latest revision. The national Southern Baptist Convention and the various state conventions should labor hard to reconcile any differences in methodology or any age-old tensions that might be present. A sincere and united front among the state conventions and the national convention would bolster local-church participation in the Cooperative Program, for it is this kind of cooperation among the tiers of Southern Baptist life that either is or gives rise to the most winsome features that commend the Cooperative Program over all other approaches. This is also one of the reasons why the Georgia Baptist Convention's proposed strong constitutional stance on the authority of the Bible is such a splendid idea. The GBC's action demonstrates that Georgia Baptists are in theological harmony with Southern Baptists across the nation. Such demonstrations, whenever they occur, strengthen our cooperative work with one another.
A weakening in the cooperative relationship among the individual state conventions. Today we witness the divisive phenomenon of congregations seeking affiliation with state conventions other than those headquartered in their home states. A few years ago the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention was solicited along these lines and very wisely demurred. The creation of a climate of state conventions competing with one another for the same churches is injurious to the fabric of cooperation within the Southern Baptist Convention. For any state convention to accept into its membership churches from another state is nothing less than a declaration of war against a neighboring state convention. An ecclesiological Anschluss makes a poor foundation for cooperation at the national level.
Such actions necessarily further heighten tensions between any offending state conventions and the national convention. The state convention admitting churches beyond its state is, by definition, no longer a state convention. It is, at least, a regional convention. It may be a group coveting the status of national convention—an incipient schismatic competitor to the national convention. Cooperative trust, particularly as the division of funds is concerned, is difficult to maintain in such circumstances.
Any increase in designated giving. People have the freedom to designate their gifts. Churches have the autonomy to designate their gifts. I affirm this liberty as an important one. Nevertheless, designated giving is not Cooperative Program giving, and is indeed injurious to Cooperative Program giving.
Any pastor of any church ought to recognize the truth of this matter. When we consider making the jump to designated giving and societal missions, we ought first to ask ourselves, "What if the members of my church were to follow this example in their giving to local church ministries?" Who is going to designate money to pay the electric bill? Who is going to designate money to purchase insurance? In budgets, like in churches, sometimes the "dishonorable members" turn out to be quite important after all! All of our churches receive designated gifts, but none of us would be comfortable will allowing this "dessert" of designated gifts to become a substitute for the main course of undesignated gifts.
Our ultimate motivation for preferring undesignated giving over designated giving is not greed or megalomania or a desire to suppress freedom. We encourage undesignated giving because we realize the hidden inefficiencies of designated gifts. The causes for which we designate money could not function apart from the health of those causes to which nobody ever designates anything. The beautiful building built by designated gifts is rendered useless when the Electric Company shuts down the power for lack of payment.
For this very reason, perceptions that mechanisms other than the Cooperative Program are more efficient are often illusory. My church can engage an unreached people group directly and cut out all that is in the middle, but as we do so we take advantage (mostly for free) of strategies and the identification of UPGs developed by IMB personnel, partnerships fostered by state convention relationships, staff members educated by SBC seminaries, and laypeople educated and inspired by decades of SBC mission emphases. If our churches could not parasitically feed off of these CP services, could we really participate directly in a worldwide strategy for evangelization at a lower cost?
At all costs, the Southern Baptist Convention must avoid the confusion of designated giving with Cooperative Program giving. To make this mistake will be to lose the capability of developing any overall convention strategy and will be to goad our entities at every level of the SBC family to take individual fundraising initiative. The end result of any growth or encouragement of designated giving will be a return to 1900. SBC family entities will be incentivized to forsake the Cooperative Program methodology and make direct appeals to churches for designated gifts. Work to develop an overall strategy for convention ministries will be undermined, and the advantages of the convention method will be lost.
Yes, the Southern Baptist people will cooperate for missions. Yes, Southern Baptist churches will reach out to one another to cooperate upon a wide variety of important ministries. These things are so natural as not to be fragile. Like the grass underneath your nearest sidewalk, the sprouts of intercongregational cooperation among Baptists are indefatigable even in the face of the most cumbersome of barriers.
However, let us not take for granted, and let us not place into further jeopardy, the great Pax Baptistica by which our entities have come to lock arms with one another and work in harmony with one another rather than in competition. This formal cooperation among entities is the great jewel of our denominational life. And if the Cooperative Program is weakening at all among Southern Baptists, then I suggest that we look in this area of how our various institutions get along with one another first for the causes as well as for the solutions. Not that no causes exist elsewhere, but because these factors are most within our grasp and control and because they have great power to motivate and influence the participation of Southern Baptists at other levels.