Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dollars or Percentages? Which Matters to the Great Commission?

First of all, the Southern Baptist Convention (i.e., the national denominational apparatus of employees) has no business whatsoever lecturing any church about what it gives or doesn't give to missions. We believe in and practice the association of autonomous local churches. It is not only the privilege, it is the responsibility of each local church to determine and submit to God's priorities for the spending of God's money. I am therefore opposed to efforts to set litmus tests for denominational service based upon arbitrary percentages given through the Cooperative Program. If an autonomous church gives $10 through the Cooperative Program, the Southern Baptist Convention's only suitable response to that is to say "Thank you."

All that just to say that there's no political football here. I've voted for and supported a lot of pastors as SBC officers and leaders whose leadership was exhibited in areas other than their CP giving.

However, as a thinking exercise and not a political exercise, I want to consider this idea that missionaries spend dollars and not percentages, and therefore that it doesn't much matter what percentage a church gives through the Cooperative Program so long as it gives a large number of dollars. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea, but I think that the present demographics of our convention's life suggest otherwise.

People cite a plateauing or even decline of Southern Baptists statistics. These figures seem to suggest a stasis in Southern Baptist life, but that is misleading. I suggest that Southern Baptists are on the move, and in a radical way. Americans are moving rapidly out of rural areas and into the cities. Commensurately, Southern Baptists are migrating out of small rural churches and into urban (generally larger) churches. Thus, although the average SBC church is small, the average SBC person goes to a much larger church than the "average church" figures would lead one to believe.

So, you've got people who grew up in a small SBC church that gave 15% through the Cooperative Program. They move off from that small country church and wind up at a metropolitan church that gives 2% through the Cooperative Program. Let's say, for a hypothetical point of comparison, that 20 such churches are entirely emptied out into a single metropolitan church.

That metropolitan church, although it only gives 2% through the Cooperative Program, is actually giving a much higher dollar amount (by an order of magnitude!) than were any of those smaller churches. But that's not a fair point of comparison. The dollars given to missions by the metropolitan church must be compared to the dollars given by the association of churches that has been eviscerated by the American move from the country into the city. At that point, it becomes clear that percentages ultimately add up to dollars (or else we'd all set them really high).

This blog post does not provide an answer to the question, but it does show how the answer can be calculated. The dollar amount most important to the calculation is the per capita dollar amount given through the Cooperative Program for any given church. I'm willing to suggest that some of our larger churches do pretty well in this regard. At the heart of the question, as it deals with changing circumstances in the SBC, is the simple matter of how many members of the large, urban church that gives a small percentage through the Cooperative Program are people who (hypothetically) could not have been reached by a church giving a higher percentage to missions. Certainly, if we are dealing with transfers rather than new converts, every person who moved from a smaller, higher-CP-percentage church to a larger, lower-CP-percentage church has contributed to a larger number of dollars going to missions from that particular church, but to an overall missions-giving decline.

It would be a mistake to throw stones in any direction over these statistics. Megachurch pastors aren't fueling these developments, nor are the pastors of smaller churches. This is a matter of societal demographic trends, and we're all carried along in some ways on the current of them. We would, however, do well to consider that our convention is in the midst of transition from a convention of many small churches to a convention of fewer larger churches (and historically, the church of 200 counts as a "larger church" in the SBC). If the model for larger churches is one of lower percentage giving through the CP, then the Southern Baptist Convention's cooperative enterprises will be forced to learn to get by on much less money.


Andrew said...

So should we throw around per-capita giving instead of percentage?

I think that some people (maybe even myself) "need" a number in order to judge one's "southern-baptist-ness"...that may be shallow but that is also the (messenger) majority opinion...why else would we reward baptisms and percentages?

JamesCharles said...

I would think the widow who gave a large percentage but small amount would be something to study in this case.

bapticus hereticus said...

Bart: The dollar amount most important to the calculation is the per capita dollar amount given through the Cooperative Program for any given church.

bapticus hereticus: I think it wise for organizations to look at giving patterns from multiple vantage points, to which ‘this’ measure could be helpful, and hopefully it will be calculated using various metrics in the denominator (and perhaps numerator, too). Whereas percentage of CP giving is a rather straightforward calculation, even with designated and undesignated giving options, for both are based on church budget, per capita giving, however, will be a bit more burdensome to calculate. If various per capita measures are not computed, what might be the per capita measure that best captures SBC: n/total membership (or some subset of membership); n/total CP givers; n/total CP giving families; etc.? Ideally, data would be available, complete with demographic information, at the individual level for researchers, which could facilitate various statistical manipulations and modeling. Given technology at the church level, recording these data would not be a difficult task, even if a bit time consuming, however, for larger churches, but the information yielded at both the church and organizational level would probably be very enlightening. With data of this type, various covariates could be introduced that would control for, say, church size (at the organizational level) and salary levels (organizational and church level); thus findings from these statistical manipulations would provide greater insight on the nature of commitment to the goals of the church and larger organization.

Bart Barber said...


Good question. Some people, doubtless, will be in the thing to accuse or to exonerate and will select their calculation measures accordingly. We all know about liars using statistics.

But I think the most helpful number would be a per capita calculation using CP dollars given compared to average attendance. This is a figure that will contain (although it will not differentiate between) both failures in personal stewardship and reduced CP giving by local churches.

If a small church gives 10% through CP, but is only effective at discipling 20% of its families to give generously, and on the other hand a larger urban church only gives 3% through CP, but is effective at discipling 80% of its members to practice biblical stewardship, then that latter church may actually outpace the 10% CP church in CP dollars per capita.

If, somehow, the two are related—for example, if the larger church can show that its increased use of local funds have developed discipleship programs that have substantially contributed to the better stewardship of its members—then the church might have a case to argue that it does more for missions with a lower CP percentage than it could with a higher CP percentage. I've never seen statistics to substantiate such an argument, but there's a hypothetical for you.

And the value of that hypothetical to this discussion is that it shows the analytical value of a per capita calculation handled in this manner.

Anonymous said...

Good questions and discussion.


Chris Johnson said...

Brother Bart,

Interesting discussion,.....

How much to you think that statistics play into the mindset of giving? I see your point, and agree that the percentages have different meaning depending upon the context.

Do you think that the member of a Baptist church determines their giving by looking at statistics that are reported by the state conventions?

For instance, our folks give about 10%, we simply discuss it a couple of times a year. We tend to be more interested in how the 10% (regardless of the total dollar amount) is being spent.

Just some thoughts....


bapticus hereticus said...

Bart: ... I've never seen statistics to substantiate such an argument, but there's a hypothetical for you.

bapticus hereticus: Such is an important hypothetical that should interest those that have an interest in church financing of religious organizations and/or a social-science interest in religious-organization functioning. To test this hypothesis data at both the individual and church-level are needed, and fortunately rather recent advances in statistical modeling, e.g., hierarchical linear modeling (HLM), allow testing of this complex, important, multi-level question.

Anonymous said...

There just has to be more to life than mere existence. And I know the absolute, sure-fire way to become a complete person. God will see to it that I become complete in Him with another.

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Bart,

Thank you for an insightful article. As you know saying something like; "we spend dollars not percentages" is certainly true and clearly points out that the end result is money is needed. However, it seems that some who are advocating such statements are calling on state conventions to increase their "percentages" instead of calling on them to increase their "dollars".