The Southern Baptist Convention faces few questions more important than that of cooperative giving. Not that I'm trying to categorize it as a crisis, the lugubrious tone of some of our prophets and sons of prophets notwithstanding. In the boomiest of boom years, there are still few questions more important for our convention than that of cooperative giving. The voluntary cooperative giving of our churches makes the ministries of the SBC happen. We never take our eyes entirely off of that ball.
Nevertheless, the question does become more acute when we come to it with a spirit of fear. Most of the writing and discussion on the subject of the Cooperative Program in the past decade has revealed that perspective in the author and has engendered it in the average reader. The statistics reveal that we have passed what was the zenith (so far) of Cooperative Program giving as a percentage of church budgets, although we are nowhere near the nadir (which would approach 0% for the first half of our existence). Pressed by frequent comparisons of annualized CP numbers and gloomy forecasts, as well as by the specter of unmet needs and unsent missionaries, among those who care about the Cooperative Program there looms a growing sense of Somebody Has To Do Something.
The connection may not be immediately obvious between this context and Dr. John Mark Yeats's motion in Houston this past summer that Southern Baptists review the membership requirements established in Article III of our constitution (see a mention of this motion buried in this article). Dr. Yeats is a friend and I was immediately interested in his motion simply because he offered it and I know how astute he is regarding the operations of our convention. In fact, I confess that he and I discussed this motion several weeks before he offered it. He is absolutely correct that we have a messenger allocation formula that has not been indexed for inflation in more than a century (although other adjustments have been made to that article). The only thing the status quo has going for it is that it is the status quo. It is time to revise this formula.
I was all the more interested in his motion because we faced the same questions in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention as we initiated the process of reviewing our own governing documents. For more than a year I've sat in committee meetings and participated in discussion from every imaginable perspective on questions related to membership and giving in Southern Baptist associational bodies. I'd like to offer some thoughts that arise out of that experience—convictions about the relationship between belonging and giving among Baptist churches. This motion provides the context in which these thoughts are important for Southern Baptists to consider.
I have observed that when we are concerned about declines in cooperative giving we almost instinctively consider imposing what are the equivalent of membership dues upon our churches. In other words, there is a way of approaching Baptist cooperation by which people give in order to belong. The rationale goes like this: "We have churches who are not doing their fair share. Why should we recognize them as peers alongside those churches who sacrifice in order to carry forward our work? Let's raise the bar! Only those churches who are contributing significantly to the work through their gifts will we consider to be member churches with us."
The present state of our constitution reveals both that we have tried this style of organization and that we have found it to be unprofitable. The constitution reveals that we have tried this style of organization because Article III presently awards additional convention messengers in proportion to contributions. Pay to play. But the nature of this requirement reveals that we were halfhearted from the very beginning concerning this approach. After all, any church can earn a single messenger simply by contributing a penny, as I understand our documents. Also, parallel to the "money track" of earning messengers is the "member track" by which churches can earn messengers simply by having large membership rolls without regard for their cooperative giving. Finally, the ten-messenger cap (no church can have more than ten messengers) also reveals our initial reticence about thoroughgoing pay-to-play Baptist associationalism—we weren't comfortable with the idea that our largest givers would be able to dominate the annual meeting with messengers. This system has served us through many valleys (the Great Depression) and peaks (the 1950s). It even served us well before we had anything resembling the Cooperative Program. But, as Dr. Yeats so accurately brought to our attention, although we have not voted to change this system, it has changed by itself. The fact of monetary inflation has changed it. A gift of $250 is not today what it was a century ago. Down through the years, although we have amended this article multiple times, we have never increased the amount of the gift nor set up automatic indexes for inflation. I submit that this is the case because we have not seen value in this pay-to-play approach, otherwise, we would have given attention to maintaining it.
To be fair, we all know a great many organizations that thrive under the pay-to-play system. For example, some of my readers will be members in a country club. If that's you, then you (or somebody) is paying membership dues for you to belong. Others of you are members of the Evangelical Theological Society. Yet others belong to Ducks Unlimited. Giving in order to belong is certainly not an approach doomed to universal failure.
And yet, organizations that thrive by requiring people to give in order to belong are generally those organizations that offer defined benefits to those members who will pay their dues. The country club offers you golf and the use of their facilities. ETS members get a subscription to JETS. Join Ducks Unlimited today and you'll receive a DU-branded fleece pullover, as well as a magazine subscription and various other member benefits. The Southern Baptist Convention has never been this sort of organization. We exist not to give benefits to member churches but to provide a framework through which they can give without getting anything in return. That's bad business…and great Christianity.
And yet it is easy for those who love the Southern Baptist Convention and who want to see an increase in cooperative giving to be deceived on this very point. It is easy for us to conclude (wrongly) that the SBC does indeed have something of value with which we can reward the good churches who give the most. Three "perks" come to the forefront in these discussions:
We award messengers. As we have already seen, the Southern Baptist Convention awards proportional representation in our annual meeting according to (among other things) gifts made by affiliated churches to convention causes. This is the "perk" of convention membership. It is easy enough, as parliamentary actions go, to ramp up this scheme of proportionality by "charging" more and more to churches before we will award them messenger representation.
But we ought to ask a question: How many of our member churches actually place much monetary value upon the number of messengers allotted to them? Not many, I think. How many churches actually send all of the messengers to which they are already entitled? Of those who attend, how many of them place a high priority upon being on the floor for the actual votes that we take (apart from those few items which attract some controversial attention)? Considering the fact that a person can attend the meeting as a visitor and can do everything a messenger can do, other than make motions and vote, how likely is any church to follow the (il)logical train of thought: "It's about to cost more to have our ten-messenger allotment to the SBC Annual Meeting: We've got to start giving more!!!"
I wouldn't bet the farm on it.
We place individuals in positions of responsibility (convention officers, committee members, entity trustees, etc.). Beginning in 2006 Southern Baptists began to emphasize the idea that elected officers and appointees should belong to churches who are giving higher percentages of their undesignated gifts through the Cooperative Program. This is the "perk" of convention leadership.
Southern Baptist messengers have proven that they will elect whom they wish to elect. Statistics do not appear to play that important of a role in our elections. Any particular year may serve as an exception to that rule, but in my opinion SBC elections are becoming more difficult to predict by ANY metric. I do not observe that CP giving or any other measurable item is beginning to correlate more closely with election to convention office.
With regard to our appointees as well as our officers, the rationale seems to be (and OUGHT to be, in my opinion) simply that we entrust with the leadership jobs of the convention's business those people whom we believe to be best fitted to discharge them with excellence. This makes sense—as churches we have the greatest confidence about the disposition of our gifts when we have confidence in the abilities of those who are putting them to use.
I'm not saying that faithfulness to give is unimportant to Southern Baptists when we make these decisions. Rather, I'm simply saying that we have refused to make it the only important factor that we consider when we choose our leadership.
I do not think it is likely that many churches would make their decisions about how to give based upon this "perk." First, the preponderance of churches in our convention never have anyone in their membership who ever receives any appointment or election to any position of convention leadership. This "perk" simply is not distributed widely enough to motivate many churches. This is particularly true for most of our smaller churches. Our largest churches tend to be enterprises unto themselves. If they want outlets for leadership for their members, they have lots of options. This might be more important to those churches in the middle, but only to those churches in the middle that are meaningfully engaged in the governance of the convention. A lot of those churches are already giving at higher levels.
We hire and educate individuals as a part of the Southern Baptist Convention's family of entities. This is the "perk" of convention employment (or enrollment). Although not all of the gainful employment to be found under the auspices of the SBC and related entities requires membership in a Southern Baptist church, a good bit of it does. If a church successfully becomes an affiliated church, the members of that church become eligible to work for a few employers. In most cities and towns, this factor is irrelevant. In a few key locales, this "perk" is quite important. Also, when a church affiliates with the SBC its members can obtain an education at SBC seminaries at a deep discount.
It is important to note that this "perk" does not cost the Cooperative Program a penny. That is, entities and seminaries receive the same CP allocations without regard to how many of their employees or students are members of Southern Baptist churches. Although the amount of money going to any particular SBC seminary changes based upon FTEs, this merely affects the way that our six seminaries divvy up a static pie—the aggregate amount of money going to seminary education is fixed by the budget, not by enrollments. The other SBC entities likewise receive their allocations from the CP budget without regard to the details of their workforces. This perk makes our seminaries a little poorer, but that's about the extent of its impact upon convention operations.
A few churches might be highly motivated by this last "perk." If large portions of your church staff are receiving discounted seminary education by virtue of your church's membership in the SBC, then the church staff might push for that church to meet any heightened requirements for affiliation. Most churches in the convention, however, do not participate in this "perk" at all. Most don't have any members who work for the convention, and as students go, locally funded scholarships would be much cheaper for a church than would high "membership dues" for convention affiliation.
So, I conclude that the Southern Baptist Convention has little to nothing to offer the average Southern Baptist congregation in the way of a "perk" to generate increased cooperative giving. This is why our periodic flirtations with the concept of making churches give in order to belong have been ill-fated, not to consider the fact that they tend to inflame the negative passions of a body of autonomous and independent churches.
Here's what works better: Southern Baptists need to recognize that rather than belonging because we give, we give because we belong. If the Southern Baptist Convention wishes to see increased giving and participation on the part of affiliated churches, it ought to seek to enhance the sense of belonging among SBC churches. Here's why this works:
First, this is how the Christian life works. This is the gospel, right? I give (when I'm writing out my tithe check) not in order to belong to Jesus but BECAUSE I belong to Jesus. Of course, the gift of salvation is valuable enough to command a hefty sum. It is the pearl of great price! But I do not purchase it; I receive it as a gift. Out of my gratitude and my sense of belonging to Jesus I am motivated to give.
Second, this is how our local churches work. I remember how shocked I was as a seminary student to discover that at least some Jewish synagogues assess membership fees upon their member families. What a foreign concept to a Southern Baptist! Voluntarism is the model in our churches, and our members give to our local churches because they belong there. We all know (and bemoan) that a great many of our members give a pittance (or even nothing at all!), but we do not assess membership dues in our churches. Why? Because in a local Southern Baptist church you do not give in order to belong, you give BECAUSE you belong. This is a matter of conviction for us, not just a matter of convenience.
Third, our history has demonstrated that this has been the most successful strategy for promoting cooperative giving. The idea of requiring contributions to secure membership is a feature of the society method rather than the convention method of Baptist cooperation. Beyond the fact that Southern Baptists are distinctively committed to the convention method rather than the society method, one must take note of the fact that the convention method has historically been a revenue juggernaut compared to those Baptist entities eking out an existence by means of the society method.
In our relationships with Jesus, with our local churches, and even with our families, we give because we belong, not the other way around. The best way to get Southern Baptist churches to give more to our cooperative work is to give them a greater sense of belonging together in this work.
How to Cultivate Belonging
"OK, Barber, that's all well and good, but tell us how, exactly, the Southern Baptist Convention is going to make local churches feel a greater sense of belonging?" I'm so glad you asked!
My enthusiasm comes not because I don't see the challenges before us. Although our giving levels have been worse at some moments in our history, I don't think that our sense of belonging has ever been weaker. I'd better hasten to clarify what I mean: We've got great churches, and we get along better than people like to acknowledge in giving us credit for it. I'm not trying to say that we do not belong together or that we can't move forward together. I'm just drawing a conclusion from several measurable phenomena:
- An increasing number of our churches are hiding the fact that they are affiliated with us.
- The number of conclusions that you can safely draw about a church when I tell you that it is a Southern Baptist church is decreasing. One does not have to believe that diversity is bad to understand that diversity does not build a sense of belonging. Something else has to exist alongside diversity in order to build a sense of belonging among diverse churches. The more diverse the churches are, the more robust that something else has to be.
- Recent decades have witnessed the growth of sub-affiliations and dual-affiliations among SBC churches.
- Even among those churches that have long, historic relationships with the other churches of the SBC, active participation in those relationships has been declining. That is, the number of people interacting with sister churches at associational meetings, state convention meetings, and national SBC meetings is certainly not growing (and I'm including in this not only the official annual meetings but also the various conferences, camps, and other events that characterize our fellowship).
All of these phenomenon, unless they are offset by items that have somehow escaped my notice, bespeak an erosion of the sense of belonging that ought to characterize a church's membership in the SBC. It is no surprise to me that cooperative giving would not experience stratospheric increases in such an environment. I am aware of the challenges.
Here's Dr. Barber's prescription for increasing that sense of belonging:
First, I recommend that we embrace formally the confessional nature of our convention. Southern Baptist churches have associated with one another organically wherever three factors have overlapped: (1) doctrinal similarity, (2) geographical proximity, and (3) strategic commonality. In this Internet age, geographical proximity is becoming less important, but the cultural, linguistic, and governmental factors that often accompany geographical proximity keep it from going away entirely. Because of the factors that brought about the Conservative Resurgence, many Southern Baptist bodies have explicitly shied away from emphasizing doctrinal similarity as a basis for association. The idea that "doctrine divides" leads panicky denominational employees to try to de-emphasize doctrine in order to keep the base together. This kind of thinking is a poison pill.
After all, look at all of the new sub-affiliations (the 3:16 conference, Founders, IX Marks, etc.) and competing affiliations (Acts 29, Willow Creek, etc.). Most of them emphasize a specific doctrinal viewpoint even stricter than our Baptist Faith & Message. Several of them even adopt some methodological stackpole. Such "divisiveness" has not sapped their strength; it has made them grow!
It is not enough to give churches no reason to leave; we have to give them a reason to belong. That reason cannot be atheological if it will succeed. Churches are, at their essence, theological entities (or else they are not churches). For this reason, the SBC ought to embrace the confessional nature of our convention and do so formally.
Informally, we already are a confessional fellowship of churches. The Baptist Faith & Message already defines the work of our entities and defines the parameters by which churches participate in the convention, even though it does not yet define the parameters by which churches belong to the convention. Informally, a church has to be in agreement with the BF&M in order to participate robustly in convention work.
The time has come to take that next step and to state formally what we practice informally. My state convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, already exists as a confessional fellowship of churches. Although the Baptist Faith & Message need not be the formal statement of faith of a member church, all affiliated churches of the SBTC must, as a condition of affiliation, affirm the BF&M. This has been the approach of the SBTC since its inception, and the convention has grown both in population and in enthusiasm.
To accomplish this in the Southern Baptist Convention may require that we adopt a tiered approach to our statement of faith, identifying some subset of doctrinal ideas in the BF&M that are mandatory upon affiliated churches. After all, the BF&M was not drafted with this particular purpose in mind, and it may not perfectly articulate the items that constitute the bond of belonging among SBC churches. Of course, our periodic amendments of the BF&M could continue to adapt the document for suitable use as our statement of affiliation parameters, but the more we try to do with the BF&M (i.e., we use it as our terms of employment for seminary professors, rules of affiliation for member churches, apologetic document for interdenominational dialogue and for evangelism, etc.), the more difficult we may find that it is to craft a single document that serves all of those purposes equally well.
I'm comfortable with the BF&M exactly as it stands, but I'd prefer a confessional fellowship along the lines of some similar-but-not-identical faith statement than a continued dichotomy between our de facto and de jure parameters for convention affiliation. Accomplishing this would be hard work. The stakes would be high. Done poorly, it could cause trouble. Done well, it could be a B-12 shot in the Southern Baptist arm.
Second, we need to look to the activity of our churches to learn how to improve what we do with our convention.
- People who don't yet feel a sense of belonging to our local churches but who participate in some of our activities and consume some of our services are called "prospects" at the local church level, not "freeloaders." Our approach to them is generally not to chastise them for not giving enough but to make to them the positive case for belonging. Where belonging takes root, giving will blossom.
- In our local churches we have learned how to implement a warm welcome for people on the way in. Why don't we do that at the level of the Southern Baptist Convention? Where are the first-time attendee badges for messengers to the SBC? Why not host a meeting for them at the beginning of the annual meeting at which they get to meet all of our entity heads and hear about convention ministries? When was the last time you were given the opportunity to call a newly affiliated pastor and welcome him to the convention in the way that one of our church's members might contact a new member or a first-time visitor and welcome them? What are we really doing to cultivate a sense of belonging in those who are on the way into the SBC?
- Our local churches know that the cultivation of belonging is a process, not a one-time event. The process takes more or less time for different people, depending upon their personalities and their past experiences. Consider, for example, the ethnic diversity that the Southern Baptist Convention has been cultivating in the makeup of its member churches. We have been able to see the new affiliation of larger numbers of non-anglo SBC churches than at any previous point in our history. But just because those churches have affiliated does not mean that they already feel a full sense of belonging to the convention. Draconian pay-to-play strategies designed with anglo churches in mind (to elicit stronger cooperative giving from them) might have disastrous unintended consequences among those churches, anglo or otherwise, who are on the way into the convention.
Third, we cannot be afraid of losing some churches along the way. We do not need to go on any sort of gleeful purge, but we need to acknowledge the fact that some of the churches who once belonged within the SBC no longer belong there. For example, alongside Dr. Yeats's motion in the article that I linked above you'll find a motion to disfellowship a church in Waco, TX. That church responded to the motion by stating that they long ago considered themselves to have departed the SBC. We know that they no longer belong here. They know that they no longer belong here.
It is an axiom of human relationships: Where everyone belongs, nobody does. Relationships are defined both by inclusion and exclusion. Your relationship with your spouse is both inclusive and exclusive. Your relationship with your local church is both inclusive and exclusive. Both inclusion and exclusion define the nature of the relationship. Skittishness about exclusivity will kill the convention.
Kowtowing to the most exclusive voices in the convention would likewise destroy it, of course. A sensible approach focused upon reasonable doctrinal similarity, geographical proximity, and strategic commonality is the winning move.
Fourth, we certainly do not need to reduce further the opportunities for involvement in the convention. The "Covenant for a New Century" in the 1990s eliminated and consolidated entities, reducing the number of boards and commissions on which Southern Baptists could participate. Doing things like consolidating our entities further (combining our mission boards, for example), whatever else they might accomplish, would result in reduced opportunity for involving individual Southern Baptists. Involvement fosters a sense of belonging. We ought not to dole out positions of responsibility to those who have given no indication of a sense of belonging and commitment to the convention, but we also ought to acknowledge the potential of involvement in convention ministries to deepen and solidify the sense of belonging that participants bring into the experience.
Fifth, we need always to make the phenomenon of belonging in the SBC (that is, the degree to which a person values belonging to the convention and is publicly associated with belonging to the convention family) one factor that we consider when we define success and promote heroes. If the platform at our meetings, the bookshelves at our stores, and the articles in our newsfeeds are dominated by people who do not belong among us, whatever else they communicate verbally, we are nonverbally communicating that belonging does not matter. I'm not advocating isolationism—I'm not calling for this to be the only factor or even the most important factor. But if denominational meetings and publications do not value belonging and commitment to the SBC family, who will?
Rather than writing all of the recommendations that I have just written, I might simply have spouted off this little axiom and left well-enough alone: The best way to cultivate a sense of belonging is to cultivate a reality of belonging. Belonging is more a state of affairs than a sentiment. The sentiment ("I feel like I belong") and the state of affairs ("I really do belong here") can and do get out of sync sometimes, but the mismatch will not long endure. It is in doubling-down on the three elements of our identity as Southern Baptists (doctrinal, geographical, missiological) that we rediscover the reality of why we belong together. Feelings will follow facts, and giving will follow belonging.
For this reason, we in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention have abandoned proportional representation and membership dues. Affiliated churches receive ten messengers, no matter what size they are or how much they give. In place of carrot-and-stick we have a confessional fellowship that cultivates a sense of belonging. This is not only the way forward for Southern Baptists in Texas; it is the way forward for Southern Baptists everywhere, I believe.