Monday, January 11, 2010

The Gospel of Geography

What percentage of money given to Southern Baptist churches should ideally find its way offshore to international missions projects? Everybody in ministry—everybody—has an opinion on this question. Furthermore, not one participant in the conversation is entirely free from self-interest in the matter. The topic is ripe for demagoguery, but I think it also can be discussed reasonably, resulting in a greater effectiveness for Christ and the Great Commission.

2.5% For All of the World?

Great hand-wringing has occurred of late of the overall percentage of Southern Baptist funds that leave the shores of the Southern Baptist Convention. We hear that 2.75% of Southern Baptist funds go offshore. That figure, the implication asserts, is terribly low. Or is it?

What if we could convince every Southern Baptist Church to give 10% through the Cooperative Program? For most of my lifetime I've heard that number given as the target percentage desired by Southern Baptists for our local churches to consider. Certainly, considering what an improvement it would be over recent trends, a 10% CP gift from every SBC church would cause traffic in Nashville to grind to a halt for the obstruction posed by denominational employees cartwheeling in the streets.

So, 10% from the churches would be a considerable increase and a good goal.

What if we could convince every state convention in the SBC to forward 50% of their CP receipts to national and international causes?

I believe that the originators of the Cooperative Program had a divinely inspired idea when they suggested a 50/50 division between CP funds retained within a state convention and CP funds spent on national and international causes. Although there are details to be accounted in that division such as the costs of promoting the Cooperative Program, from its inception the Cooperative Program featured the general idea that state conventions and the national SBC should share CP dollars equally.

As a parenthetical item of interest, I note that the 50/50 calculation and the recognition of CP gifts from individual churches were never intended to include designated gifts. From time to time a fallacious view of the CP—that designated gifts to particular elements of the SBC system should count as CP giving—has entered Southern Baptist discussions about the CP. Southern Baptists are indebted to Augie Boto for his research at the Executive Committee uncovering the source of that fallacy in an erroneous entry in the Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, corrected in later editions, that misstated which gifts rightfully qualify as CP gifts.

So, with regard to the budgets of our various state conventions, I have been, am, and foresee continuing to be an advocate of the 50/50 split. A friend recently planted in my thinking a wonderful realization: It is the 50/50 division of money that recognizes state and national conventions as equal partners and denigrates neither ministry. If every state convention would forward 50% of CP receipts, the amount of money going overseas would greatly increase and we would witness expansive missions work through Southern Baptists around the world.

The budget of the Southern Baptist Convention already forwards a full 50% of CP receipts to the International Mission Board for use throughout the world.

So, where does that leave us? 10% x 50% x 50% = 2.5%, right?

Where Would Increases Come From?

The United States of America certainly doesn't contain 97.5% of the world's population, so shouldn't we want to get more of our money overseas? That's the argument that's been advanced, and it has merit. Selfishness as believers is a pernicious vice to be avoided.

However, I have heard friends employ this percentage mainly when they were speaking about restructuring the Southern Baptist Convention and various other entities in the SBC family. It seems to me that even if the diagnosis is correct, the proposed cure is a poor one. The low number in the formula above pertains to local churches, not to our convention entities.

What if we shut down everything in the SBC family except for international missions? No colleges and universities. No summer youth camps. No state church planting or evangelism emphases. No retirement homes. No seminaries. No NAMB. No ERLC. In other words, what if we scrapped entirely the Convention Method decision that we made 160 years ago and went with the Northern Baptist societal approach (which, after all, turned out so great for them)?

The resulting percentage going to international missions under that approach? Still a number well down into the single digits unless we were able to ramp up local church faithfulness to give to missions. The logjam keeping dollars in the United States rather than getting them out to "lostness" simply lies neither in Grapevine, Texas (for FBC Farmersville) nor in Nashville—it lies right under my nose.

Is 8% for the whole world really that much more moral or faithful or urgent or obedient or "missional" or Great Commission focused than is 3%? If the population of the United States of America consists of only 4.52% of the world population, then doesn't the logic presently being advanced require that your churches forward at least 95% of their income to other places and subsist on the remaining 5%?

No? Why not?

What's Good for the Goose

I suspect that we all could excel at giving other people's money to some worthy cause. It is in the giving of our own resources that we reveal our hearts. In this sense—that we should sacrifice on our own parts before calling upon others to sacrifice—it certainly is true that charity begins at home.

I've never heard an argument for state conventions forwarding less than 50% of their CP receipts to Nashville that I couldn't apply with equal vigor to an argument for my church sending less CP money to the state convention to begin with. Conversely, if I have good reasons for not giving through the CP every dime that people put in our offering plates here at FBC Farmersville, then I ought to resist the temptation to be disrespectful toward people who spend CP dollars here in the United States rather than sending it all overseas.

The Missiological Value of Money Kept

Once upon a time, no nation on the planet was more effectively engaged in the sending out of missionaries than was the United Kingdom. The vitality of Christianity in the United States over much of our history has been to some degree a result of factors unique to the USA but also to some significant degree an impact of the evangelical fervor exported to our nation from the British Isles. London was formerly the world center of Christianity. Today? Not so much.

When the churches at home decline, there is no percentage of giving that can sustain the missionary enterprise abroad. Now, at this time, we Southern Baptists are at precisely the wrong moment in our history to be abandoning the spread of the gospel at home, even if we do so in the seemingly altruistic desire to spread the gospel more effectively throughout the world. If we were in a strong position at home, that would be one thing. But we are not.

This is not an argument for the status quo. I'm all in favor of a discussion about how we can use our money more effectively both at home and abroad. By all means, let's have a vigorous discussion about whether CP money spent within the borders of the US is apportioned and applied effectively. If we can do more ministry with less money, then I'm all in favor of that.

Unfortunately, that's not the way that the percentage discussion has gone among Southern Baptists. Rather, as it has transpired on a popular level (not necessarily in line with the way that prominent figures have framed it), it has been laced with foolish unstated presumptions that money kept within our shores is a bad thing and money sent abroad is a good thing. Yet, but for ministry performed within our shores, there would be no money at all going abroad from the United States.

Occasionally in the summertime I'll put ice water into the large orange cylindrical cooler that we own. It's always easy to get a cool, refreshing drink while the cooler is full. Just push the spigot button and the vigorous stream of water will knock the cup out of your hand. But later, when the water level has dwindled to near the bottom of the cooler, it's not so easy to fill the cup. This percentage discussion, it seems to me, amounts to a suggestion that we ought to open the spigot wider or tilt the cooler more aggressively, when the real problem is that we need to refill the reservoir.

The beauty of the Convention Method—a beauty recognized by prior generations yet seemingly lost on many today who seem infatuated with Societal missions—is that it recognizes the value both of keeping churches healthy at home and of using that health and strength to spread the gospel abroad. We need to hear more about the value of the Convention Method these days.

What we desperately need is a spiritual awakening in the United States of America. What we desperately need is a reformation among our churches (which will contribute greatly to the spiritual awakening that we need). Apart from that, it makes little difference what percentage of our ever-dwindling resources we send overseas. With such an awakening, the impact of our sacrificial offerings on the spread of the gospel will be more than you could imagine.


David R. Brumbelow said...

That's what I was about to say :-). You said it well.

I believe all a healthy church does can be considered missions. As we strengthen missions at home, we ultimately strengthen missions and mission giving around the world.
David R. Brumbelow

Andrew said...

I think that one factor missed in the 975.% vs 2.5% discussion is the effect overseas of money spent within the USA.

1) Mission programs (NAMB and LifeWay) prepare children to be least they did when I was a child!
2) Seminaries train missionaries
3) Political pressure from ERLC encourages Congress to put pressure on oppressive governments.

I will be the first to point out that some fat should be trimmed...most notably from many churches' budgets, but we need to keep in mind the compounding effect of how we spent our money...for Kingdom good or selfishness

Bob Cleveland said...

I don't think there is a "good answer" for this. Ask the local church what all they really should be doing, and they could spend 100% of tithes from every member (which they'll never get, but..) on local causes. If they did everything they could do to spread the gospel where they are.

Ditto for the State.

Ditto for the USA.

So the only possibility seems to be to set a goal and shoot for it. 10% tithe, 10% to CP, 50/50 split seems fine, then do it and do all you can with all you get.

Like I said, no "good answer" but let's do all we can with what were get.

HAHAHHA .. .Security Word: "obilme".

So bill me.


David Rogers said...


In theory, I don't disagree with your reasoning here. However, I think the real issue behind the percentages, whatever they may be, is how well the money is being spent, both at home, and overseas. If the churches at home are spending an inordinate amount of their income on things that could not really be considered needs, or that cannot really be demonstrated to effectively and efficiently contribute to the authentic discipleship of the people around them, it is money not well spent. By the same token, if money being spent overseas, is, in the long run, contributing to unhealthy dependency, or being used for strategies that are not effective for long-term discipleship among the nations, we should question this as well.

Having said that, I think there is a good point to made regarding a lot of churches in the States living "high on the hog," relatively speaking, when compared to needs around the world. What are the best formulas and percentages to correct this, though, I am not sure.

Tim G said...

The money line in your post is...
"When the churches at home decline, there is no percentage of giving that can sustain the missionary enterprise abroad."

We need to wake up!

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, where will the foreign missionaries come from to re-win the US? China? Eastern Europe? The Middle East? Maybe we need to continue funding and increase our funding overseas because in time, they may be the ones to bring our lost nation back to it's knees and into revival!