The Cooperative Program is a way of polity. In other words, it is a ethos of cooperative work among Southern Baptists that just happens to work best with a certain financial pathway.
It is Cooperative Planning. The Cooperative Program ideal means that none of us get precisely the budget we might plan all by ourselves. Rather, we join forces with sister churches who are around us and plan a consensus strategy and a consensus budget for the work we are going to do with one another.
This kind of vision is difficult for some of our Southern Baptist churches to embrace. I think one reason is because it demands a high level of respect for sister churches, and sometimes we tend to get so wrapped up in our own little silos that we lose sight of intercongregational fellowship and partnership in the gospel. This is made more difficult when Southern Baptist bodies grow very diverse doctrinally, methodologically, doxologically, and otherwise. We can work together through a great deal of diversity, but there has to be some unifying basis around which we gather and work. Our confession of faith is probably the best provision for that need.
Working in this way requires that our mutual respect for sister churches should facilitate a quest for a common plan. We have to be ready to submit our personal visions, plans, and objectives to the communal negotiations of the family of churches and work toward some consensus plan that lies within the realm of the possible outcomes.
To disagree with the budget of one's state convention and then summarily pull out of the Cooperative Program without having at least attempted to step up to the mike and influence the common plan toward some superior alternative is to betray this communal, cooperative planning mindset. It is a go-it-alone approach that views missions not as our common business but as our individual pursuits.
It is Cooperative Fundraising. The entities that benefit from the Cooperative Program have historically agreed to forego direct solicitation of the churches for anything other than the Cooperative Program. There have been, of course, exceptions (like the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering), but the general agreement is that Southern Baptist entities cooperate with one another in raising money toward the common good through the Cooperative Program.
Five years ago I tried to describe the lay of the land before we had the Cooperative Program in a post entitled "The Year 25 BCP." When our entities were counting on direct funding from individual churches rather than upon the common stream of the Cooperative Program, increasing amounts of money were lost to the professional fundraisers.
Cooperative fundraising benefits us all because the moneychangers all take their cuts and we therefore benefit from the relative lack of them in our system. Right now those churches who just give large sums of money directly to the IMB are getting illegitimate benefits. They know about the IMB because of CP-funded promotional work, but they give around that stream. When the Cooperative Program dies, the funding for the fundraising will have to come out of those funds being raised. As the competitive environment becomes more threatening, entities will lose higher and higher percentages of their received gifts to cover fundraising overhead.
It is Cooperative Giving. We had one transitional year when our church delved into a little bit of direct giving to entities. We were, at that time, still in the Baptist General Convention of Texas. When the BGCT capped the amount of CP dollars that could go to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, making sure that our church's CP dollars could not flow through to SWBTS, we started to give some amount of money directly to SWBTS in order to offset that spiteful act.
I quickly discovered that a lot of perks and benefits come from direct giving. We had never been recognized before, but suddenly the same level of contribution, given directly to the institution, qualified us for the President's Club. I got invited to soirees. Our church's name was printed on fancy programs.
But as soon we were able to do so, we returned to a thoroughly Cooperative-Program-focused giving strategy. Our church didn't get the same level of recognition, but we weren't in it for the recognition to begin with. We just wanted to be found faithful to do our part in giving to support our common Great Commission work. We give not only as an obligation to our Lord in fulfilling the Great Commission, but also as an obligation to our sister churches, that we should not leave others on the hook for more than their fair share of the burden of what we have planned together.
It is Cooperative Work. The Cooperative Program is built around the idea that it takes a multi-homed approach to accomplish the work of the Great Commission. It's wonderful that we have an International Mission Board. Now, who's going to train the missionaries? We're going to need seminaries for that, and they're going to have to produce students who aren't up to their eyeballs in educational debt. By the way, where will the seminaries find those students? They're going to be the students who surrendered to missions at Falls Creek and at other Baptist encampments maintained mostly by state conventions and operated either by them or by folks like our friends at Lifeway. How did they get there? They fell under the influence of pastors or youth pastors or other people at a local Southern Baptist church, which was probably planted once upon a time by a state convention and whose leadership probably attended a seminary. That local church, by the way, will provide the funding for every link in the chain.
The Cooperative Program is simply what you get when you fully realize that none of these parts will thrive without the others. We work cooperatively because we cannot succeed otherwise.
Do you see why I think it is so important that the leaders casting the vision for our convention should be proven supporters of the Cooperative Program? It is more than just a question of accounting. It is more than just dumpster-diving through ACP records to ferret out who gave what when.
Promoting leaders who have a passion for a Cooperative-Program-centered vision for our future means promoting leaders who buy into a whole philosophy of cooperation. It will affect the way that they raise funds. It will affect the way that they view their relationships with one another and with the state conventions and local associations and churches. It will affect the way that they envision the interface between the cogs of their work and all else that happens in Southern Baptist life.
Having this CP-vision is therefore among the most important qualifications for a person who would serve in a role like the IMB Presidency. At least I think so. Whatever bold vision a man might have for the future of the IMB, the power to achieve it will be found only—mark my words—only in his ability to bring Southern Baptist mules (a deliberately chosen metaphor!) together and yoke them into the same harnesses and get them coordinated in the traces. The only approach that has ever accomplished this objective well has been the approach that we call the Cooperative Program.
The best bet for a leader who will successfully accomplish that approach is the man who has already demonstrated an appreciation for it. May the Lord give us that man.