Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Is "cooperation" solely defined by the Cooperative Program?

No. It's not. Unless one wants to deny that there was any cooperation among Southern Baptist churches for the first fourscore years of the SBC.

The Cooperative Program, that scheme of giving that provides almost all of the revenues that enable state conventions and their related entities to operate and which provides a lesser proportion of the revenues of our seminaries and mission boards, is our primary denominational funding plan. I support it. All my churches have participated in it. It should be a part of every SBC church's budget.

That said, the CP isn't a perfect program. It has serious flaws. It is in some ways sclerotic and ineffective. And, it is not the sole means by which SBC churches cooperate.

Back in the early days of the Conservative Resurgence, SBC moderates and liberals fairly well deified the CP, crowned it king in denominational life. It was a sacred cow. That a church should give a tithe to the CP was Southern Baptist financial soteriological orthodoxy. When presidents, beginning with Adrian Rogers, gave low single digit percentages, they were condemned as being unworthy of the presidency and branded as uncooperative.

Decades later, we see the same arguments, the same percentages, the same CP shaming, and even the same langues used. Such didn't work well back then. It doesn't work well now.

A few observations about the Cooperative Program.

1. The adoption of the CP didn't end societal giving. In time, it gave state conventions a reliable revenue stream for their administrative structure, schools, orphanages, and other ministries. It gave the SBC seminaries and mission boards a reliable, year-round source for a portion of their funding. We have had for these 81 years of the CP's existence, a dual system. We never stopped having a dual system. There is no proposal I know of that would end the dual system that we have had. That churches vary in their giving to the CP and various direct entities has always been the case and is to be expected.

2. A church is certainly cooperative with a low CP percentage. If Bellevue or Summit Church give less than the SBC CP average (a little over 5% of undesignated offering plate dollars) they should not be branded as uncooperative or less than fully cooperative. My view is that every church should participate in the CP and thus cooperate with the market basket of SBC and state convention ministries. Nonetheless, a church that gives heavily to IMB through the Lottie Moon offering is cooperating with tens of thousands of other SBC churches as does a curch that gives heavily to Annie Armstrong. A church that includes their local association cooperates with dozens of churches.

3. The CP is a take-it-or-leave-it giving option. By that, I mean that the allocations are fixed at the two levels, state and national, and that's the way it is. A church's CP money is spent this way and no other way. In some states, various giving options were and are available but most states offer none.   Anyone can propose that the allocation formulas be changed but the easier route has been for churches to change their internal budgets to give less to CP and more directly.

4. An accumulation of practices have hurt the CP.  Some one can make the case that the decades-long practice of electing SBC presidents who are pastors of sub-average CP giving churches has been deleterious to the CP. Perhaps so. But this is likely outweighed by long accretion of unhelpful practices of state conventions. These include: the confusing accounting that disguises the reality that most CP dollars stay within the states and do not go to the mission boards and seminaries; the practice of states of accumulating staff when revenues increase as well as spending heavily on centralized administrative buildings; the lack of the will or the interest in forcing legacy institutions out of dependency on CP revenues; the slowness in recognizing changes in church practices that have left some state ministries without sufficient support to justify their continued existence. Some of these practices are changing. Good.

5. Unhelpful promotion practices have alienated churches from the CP. These include: percentage shaming of churches, an expectation of entitlement on the part of certain ministries, and the use of CP nostalgia as if it offered something attractive to the churches.

It is likely that we will have as our SBC president another megachurch pastor whose church is a less than average CP giver. One of the three candidates gives a little above the average. My guess is that he will not be the new president.

Whatever the outcome, the decades ahead for the SBC will not see a return to the CP giving patterns of the mid to late 20th century. So far as I am aware, no state convention, no seminary, and neither mission board  is planning their future around increased CP revenues. But the CP will continue to be the largest single income stream for our state conventions, the seminaries, and mission boards.

The more we recognize and accommodate the new giving patterns chosen by autonomous SBC churches, the better results we can have in doing God's work here and around the globe. We have the opportunity to foster greater cooperation among churches in Kingdom work but not if we use the Cooperative Program as a club and declare that it is the only acceptable way for SBC churches to cooperate.

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