By Jon Akin
I love the Cooperative Program because through it my church gets to join with other churches annually to send out and support over 5,000 international missionaries, train 16,000 seminary students, and plant 3,000 churches. Yet, I also recognize that it has some limitations. Baptists created the SBC in order to get the gospel to the unreached places of the world, and when the CP was conceived, the goal was to split the dollars 50/50 between state and national conventions. Unfortunately, far too much money has been kept in state conventions where there are a lot of churches and tons of Christians instead of getting to the places that have little to no access to the gospel.
In 2013, almost half a billion dollars was given by churches to the CP ($486.8 million) and almost $300 million of those gifts were kept in the state conventions ($298,850,365). Only $188,001,275 went on to the national convention to fund missions and ministries. While this is discouraging, it also shows the tremendous potential we have currently to fund a lot more international missions, national church planting, and theological education.
If by decree tomorrow (impossible by our polity and rightly so), every state convention moved to a 50/50 split, then that would mean $55.4 million more to the SBC and $27.7 million more given to the IMB. That’s without any increased giving at all! (Now, it should be noted that not all state conventions are the same. There are pioneer areas where more resources need to be kept in the states.)
If our convention exists to propagate the gospel, then the fact that the majority of our resources remain in places with more Christians and churches is problematic. For example, there are about as many Baptist churches in Tennessee (3200) among 6.5 million people as there are believers in Turkey (between 3,000 and 3,5000) among 70 million plus people, and yet Tennessee keeps 60% of the CP dollars in the state.
Tim Challies sarcastically tweeted recently, “Observation: There are more Baptist churches in 1 square mile of South Carolina than in the whole of Canada.” Canada has over 34.8 million people while South Carolina has 4.7 million people, and yet South Carolina keeps 58.6% of CP dollars in state.
Please hear my heart. I’m not saying that there aren’t lost people in Tennessee and South Carolina who need to hear the gospel, and I’m not saying that we don’t need to plant more churches here. I pastor in Tennessee, and since I came to my church we have increased our CP giving from .006% to 7.4%. We are thankful to partner with Tennessee Baptists (and we are grateful for Tennessee leadership that is encouraging a move to 50/50). But, I also think that we can rely more heavily on thousands of churches with millions of Christians in these states to reach their neighbors for Christ, and we can then get more resources to the places with less access to the gospel.
The GCR recognized these discrepancies and challenged state conventions to move to a 50/50 split. There have been some positive signs as many state conventions committed to doing just that. However, negative signs have started to creep up as well. Some state conventions have decided to ignore this challenge. Other conventions that committed to move to 50/50 are inching along at a snail’s pace of percentage points per year. The Tennessee Baptist Convention delayed a vote on the Vision 2021 Team recommendations that laid out a 5 year plan for getting to a 50/50 split due to the expected trauma from the changes (though I am hopeful this will pass at this year’s convention). It seems that California Baptists initially committed to moving to a 50/50 split, but then the executive board of the state convention rejected implementing that motion in favor of moving to a 65/35 split by 2018 and then re-evaluating.
There are all kinds of reactions to this. Some believe that things don’t need to change all that much other than that churches need to give more to the CP. The problem is that the CP is on a 20-year decline, so churches don’t seem to be as excited about it as they once were. We can’t continue to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. Others say that regardless of the uneasiness one may feel about the allocation of funds you still need to be part of the process, continue to give to the CP through your state, and trust that things will change in time. You can’t change the process if you are not a part of it. Yet, others have looked at these realities and decided to give straight to SBC causes and reduce the amount they send to their state convention. Others give straight to Nashville and don’t participate in their state convention at all.
But, what if there was an alternative? What if a church genuinely values what the state convention is doing, wants to be a part of the process, wants to support its missions and ministries, but wants to move more quickly to 50/50 so more money gets to the nations? Is there an option for them? What if churches could give their CP dollars straight to the national convention and tell them to send 50% of my dollars to my state convention to help fund their mission efforts? (Yes, some logistics would have to be worked out to avoid the state convention then splitting that up and sending some back to the SBC). The good news is that a church can do that. The Headquarters of the SBC are not in Nashville; they are in each local church. You get to decide where your money goes and how it is spent.
If churches did that now, then more money would get to the places of greatest need more quickly. If a lot of churches started to do that, then maybe it would faciliate change more quickly. Maybe it would also give churches more confidence in the CP and they would give a higher percentage.
Many say we need more giving from local churches and the state conventions, and then all would be ok. Yes, we do need churches to give more. Both/and is the answer here not either/or. But, all of us pastors know reality. Giving in our local churches doesn’t increase until people see a compelling vision to give to and are excited about where their money is going. That’s not just true at a local level; that’s true for the CP as well. We need some visionary leaders in local churches and in our conventions who will lead boldly so we can continue to fund the propagation the gospel.
What concerns me the most was recently talking to a key leader in the SBC about these issues and him telling me, “we’ve been discussing this for 20 years.” I don’t know if my suggestion is the right way to go, but I do know that we can’t afford to discuss this for another 20 years.
We will talk more about these kinds of issues at the Baptist21 Panel on Tuesday at the SBC. Register here.