Southern Baptist Convention


Note: I am a long-time supporter of the Cooperative Program of the SBC. It is a hallmark of how Christians and churches can cooperate toward the goals of the Great Commission. Here is an article which hopefully sheds some light on how cooperation can work when done right.

One of the key concepts in Southern Baptist life is represented by the word “cooperation.” It is the desire of our churches to work together to accomplish more as a fellowship than one congregation could do alone. Today is Cooperative Program Sunday—a day when Southern Baptists celebrate the spirit of cooperation with one another. The idea of the Cooperative Program dates back to 1925, when our convention chose to look for the right kind of method to accomplish more toward missions, evangelism, and church growth—doing it together.

This is the foundation on which not only the convention is based, but also our state association and the local association. It is our privilege to serve together, combining our efforts as well as our financial resources to work toward completing the task of evangelism and missions. Cooperation allows the stronger churches to support the struggling churches, and all of the churches to work together in the fields that are ready for harvest.

Next week, we have an opportunity to put feet to our cooperative spirit by joining one of our struggling sister churches during the evening worship service. Join me as we worship together with other Kaskaskia Baptist Association churches meeting together in St. Elmo for an evening or worship, prayer, and support.

“Everyone should look out not only for his own interest, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)

In the late 1980s Southern Baptists set aside the Fall (’89) and Spring (’90) for simultaneous revivals. The object was for churches to engage in these revival efforts in one fell swoop with the theme “Here’s Hope Jesus Cares for You”. The convention even partnered with her publishing arm (Holman Bible Publishers) to prepare themed New Testaments (NKJV) to be given out by the churches in the effort.

I do not know the full results of the revival effort, but I do know that the sentiment presented in the theme is one that bears remembrance during this Christmas Season—Jesus Christ is the Hope that is available to all mankind. Whether we find ourselves in distress or over-extended this Holiday, we can find all Hope in the One who cares most for us. He cares so much that He offered His own life in place of ours. That’s why He came on the very first Christmas, and why we can still say, “Here’s Hope! Jesus Cares for You!”

Or whatever you want to call it.  This will sound suspiciously like a rant, and may I apologize in advance for that. Now, on to the show:

I just received an e-mail from our wonderful state Baptist offices. You have them in your state too.  Some of you may even have more than one form. And within the confines of the attached invitation, I discovered that there are those who don’t really understand Southern Baptist Life. (Admittedly, such life has morphed and transmuted and otherwise distorted itself over the years that perhaps I’m the one who doesn’t understand, but let’s go with this for now.) I learned in reading that missive that the event advertised is a free event “provided through generous donations to the Cooperative Program.” (emphasis mine)

I love my fellow workers in this not so southern state where Southern Baptists are still seen as interlopers on northern soils, but to misunderstand the Cooperative Program (or even to change it to fit a form that those outside the SBC would recognize) is to reach a total misconception of who Southern Baptists have historically been.

A Quick History Lesson

The Cooperative Program (CP) was developed in the mid 1920s as a response to the Southern Baptist charge to help churches to fund the various missions/ministry efforts chosen by the convention, and to do so outside of the Society concept. In the old society method, representatives would come to churches to sell their particular cause. If a particularly good communicator showed up, a church might remove support from a prior ministry and funnel those funds toward the nice speaker’s cause. Another difficulty arose when so many good/worthy causes were presented to the churches: so much was being sent to these efforts that churches were having trouble keeping up with local on-going needs. On top of this, pastors were asked to relinquish their pulpits so often that they rarely had ample opportunity to preach the Word.

And so the CP was born. This new concept (growing out of a unified effort of fund-raising previously devised by the convention) was indeed that–a new concept. Simply put, the idea was to ask churches to designate an amount–whatever amount deemed appropriate to the local congregation (eventually the SBC narrowed its encouragement on a goal of 10% of undesignated gifts to the church) to send cooperatively in order to pay ongoing costs of the Convention.

Until recent years, this method has been the well-worn practice of Southern Baptists. During the last couple of decades (has it really been that long?), we have changed and whittled the CP to something that it is not. It has only been in the last few years that churches have been allowed by convention ruling to include designated giving in their CP funds. We have always been given the privilege to designate gifts, but for a gift to be considered CP, it was given with no strings attached–if you were dissatisfied with where CP money was spent, you made a trek to the annual SBC meeting and voiced your opinion as a duly elected messenger (not delegate–that’s a whole different post), hoping to convince the budget and finance committee of the convention to redirect funds to a more appropriate recipient.

Semantics at Its Best

Now we get down to the nitty-gritty of my tirade. We must begin to understand what the CP truly is. It is not an offering that we give to. We have plenty of those–one at Christmas (named in memory of the late Lottie Moon) which is designated for the use of the International Mission Board’s ministry budget–every penny is to go to the work our missionaries are doing overseas; another (memorializing the champion of missions Annie Armstrong) is designated for use by the North American Mission Board; and others set up by various state conventions and local churches to benefit a variety of needs. All of these are good. But the Cooperative Program is not like this.

Instead of seeing CP as a special offering to which we give, we must reorganize our thinking to see it as a conduit through which we finance the work and ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s how we as Baptists get things done.

My point in all of this is that we need to educate our state and national Baptist employees and team members to use the right language in order for all of us to understand that we have the concept right. Perhaps then people will cease in trying to designate their “tithe” or trying to control their church from the grave by bequeathing a large sum of money to the church “to be used for ________” (fill in the blank).

Why do these words get me bothered? It’s because one says one thing and the other says an entirely other thing. So don’t donate generously to the CP, but give generously through it!

I’ve been Southern Baptist all my life. There, I’ve said it. I grew up in the home of a Southern Baptist preacher (then started one just like it). I’ve served in Southern Baptist churches my whole adult life. I’ve been a music director, a youth minister, a “minister of youth/music”, an associate pastor (with responsibilities for youth and education with the possibility of music), a bi-vocational pastor, an interim minister of missions, a career missionary, and am now serving as the pastor of a nice rural/village-type church (which is Southern Baptist even though we’re not in the South). These churches have been located in a variety of states–Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois (with a few years overseas). I’ve preached in churches from all those states mentioned, plus Wyoming and Arkansas thrown in–and they’ve all been Southern Baptist churches.

In all this Southern Baptist experience, I’ve learned something about our convention–we can do some pretty stupid things. There, I’ve said that, too! Over the past year we have been locked in a knock-down, drag-out fight over whether or not we should change the name. (I’ve even tossed in my two-cents’ worth–which is probably an inflated price. You can read it here.) Most of our church members don’t really care one way or another, “it doesn’t affect us” is the prevailing thought. For a number of months a special task force (the Baptist word is Committee) has been studying whether it would be a positive thing for our convention to re-dub herself with some name less regional or baptist sounding than our traditional “Southern Baptist Convention” (which is, btw, a denomination that has been working to build itself a good name after a rocky start over 150 years ago, and I think we’ve done pretty good as cases go) or leave well enough alone. The preliminary soundings of what the committee will suggest at the SBC annual meeting this summer gets us to a new high (or is it low?) in stupidity. All the time, effort, and resources have been spent with the following conclusion–The official name will remain Southern Baptist Convention, but churches will have permission (if the vote goes right) to call themselves “Great Commission Baptists” if they are afraid they will be offensive to their geographical region by being a part of something that is Southern. (Reminds me of when Kentucky Fried Chicken tried to re-invent itself by going by its initials-KFC-and everybody knew that they were still eating FRIED CHICKEN–which may or may not have originated in the Bluegrass State.)

If you missed it, we’ve spent all this energy to do nothing–and we’re allowing ourselves to vote on it!

That said, with apologies to the Bard, I’d like to present a few altered lines from a famous speech in a play:

(New Church Start somewhere outside of the deep South):

O SBC, SBC! wherefore art thou Southern?
Deny thy region and refuse thy roots;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my CP dollars,
And I’ll no longer be a Community Church.

‘Tis but thy region that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Baptist.
What’s Baptist? it is nor FMB*, nor HMB,
Nor Sunday School Board, nor Annuity Board, nor any other part
Belonging to a church. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a denomination
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So SBC would, were he not SBC call’d,
Retain that dear doctrine which he owes
Without that title. SBC, doff thy Southern Baptism,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Have a great day–whoever you are!

[*All name changes have been ignored for the purpose of this post.]

I’ll chime in just for the sake of discussion. It seems that Bryant Wright, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has convened an elite study group to consider the need or possibility of changing the name of our convention. I will start the discussion with a couple of disclaimer-type statements:

  • I’ve been Southern Baptist since riding in the womb. My father has been an SBC pastor for his entire adult life. I’ve served in a variety of ministry capacities in Southern Baptist Churches or ministries for the last 30 years. I was educated at several different Southern Baptist institutions of higher learning. In short, if you cut me I would bleed blue (or whatever color it is that Southern Baptists bleed).
  • With this in mind, you should know that I really couldn’t care less one way or the other what the convention decides to call itself–as long as it has something to do with the building up of the Kingdom of God.

I have heard some (if not all) the reasons for changing/not changing the name of the old behemoth we know as SBC and have found sound reasoning behind arguments on both sides of the issue. As a matter of fact, this isn’t the first time such a suggestion has been made, and so far those who desire the tradition behind the old moniker have prevailed in keeping the name the same.

My reason for jumping in is not to tell anyone what he or she should think on the matter (as I’ve said, I don’t really have a strong opinion one way or the other), but just to drop a couple of cents into the bucket as they were voiced to me by a couple of the members of my church. Understand that these men are not ministers (as I understand most – or all – of the study group to be) and that their reactions would be considered knee-jerk reactions–saying what they thought in immediate response to hearing that someone is even suggesting that our convention change its name.

First reaction of one man: “Why?”

First reaction of another in the room: “It seems to me they’d find better things to talk about.”

I don’t know if these statements will have any bearing on the committee’s study, but I think it would be good to note that these men are members of a Southern Baptist Church that is over 100 years old and has always been a Southern Baptist Church. The church is located outside of the region designated in the name of the convention to which we belong, and is in fact located in a part of the nation where to identify your church as Baptist garners an assumption that you are to be identified as American (not Southern) Baptist.

 1I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and byhis appearing and his kingdom: 2preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, andexhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1-2; to contextualize, read on through verse 5)

 

Numbers. They are a tricky lot. I’m not sure that I am fully aware of how much we, as preachers rely on them. In my life as a Southern Baptist preacher, they tend to knock on (down?) the door more often than I would like. Perhaps it would be different if I were, say, a professor of mathematics like my brother. Numbers are his stock and trade. He likes them, and they like him. It’s a mutual love society when the two of them get together.

 

Me? I’m still haunted by the conversation that I had with the Blushing Bride’s cousin shortly before he lost his battle with cancer. He’d asked about the book I was reading at the time (Simple Church), and I tried to get the gist out in 150 words or less. His response seemed cynical with a touch of wry. You must understand that when one battles with cancer the battle shows up in, of all places, the struggle with faith. And I must admit that the fight with cancer often produces (cynicism aside) a rawer, if not more genuine, faith than the most holy (holier than thou?) of priests/ministers/preachers of the gospel.

 

And to this day, what he said still gives me pause: “So, it’s all a numbers game then.”

 

While that was not the intention of the authors of the book, and I pray that it is not my intention as a local pastor, I can’t help but occasionally check my motives. We like the old joke:

 

“How many are you running in Sunday school?”

“Well, we’re running about 500, but only catching about 85.” (It’s okay to laugh, after all it is a joke.)

 

But the truth of the matter is—we get so caught up in the statistical data that we forget why we’re here. I wonder if the God we serve is not nearly as enamored by the number of baptisms we had last year as He is the number of Christians who are actually showing signs of growth. Of course we can’t quantify closeness to God with our calculators and spread sheets. Unlike God, we cannot see the hearts of man (at least without open heart surgery, and then we only see the organ, not the motive).

 

I have a constant fear that I will strap myself so closely to the quantitative measure of my ministry (and thus, be jealous that I have not become the leader of a megachurch) that I throw all godliness to the wind in favor of the next big show, the trite tidbit of mediocrity that looks good to the gathering crowds. Then is when the preacher ceases to be the preacher and becomes the entertainer, the minstrel in black-face.

 

Numbers are numbers. They can be tools that are helpful, but they must never become our goal. We must remember: we are not here to please men, nor to impress them with our show, our expertise, or our ability to draw a crowd. Our purpose is to become more like Christ daily. How is my “becoming” going? Am I caught up in the numbers game? Or am I simply caught up in Jesus?

[Excuse me for a moment while I rant about SBC Politics]

In recent years, and especially recent months–in regards to the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR), the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF), and the tome-like report from the task force which includes a more voluminous response in Baptist papers and Baptist blogs all over the world–I am discovering greater and greater misunderstanding of the concept of funding missions through the Cooperative Program (CP).

As simple as it may seem, the difficulty boils down to an exchange of words (more precisely prepositions) that re-orders the whole CP issue. I understand that what I’m about to say will be viewed by some as hair-splitting, but it finds it’s source at the very root CP historically, and Southern Baptism at its core.

From its inception, the designers of the CP had in mind an effort to unify Southern Baptists  and free local pastors from the constant demand from cause representatives (mostly good, worthy causes) who desired two minutes here, five minutes there, and the full service over there, to pitch the local church on supporting this ministry or that. In addressing the outcry from local pastors, the Cooperative Program plan of giving was born. Local pastors could continue to invite whomever they desired into their pulpit to present their ministry, but by giving through the CP toward missions efforts of all stripes, Southern Baptists could join together to support everything from Scripture translation to missionary work in foreign lands. The distribution of those cooperative funds would be determined as the Convention met annual and approved whatever budget they deemed appropriate for the SBC.

The concept of giving through the CP was changed as people began to talk about giving to the CP, turning this unifying concept of giving into just another special offering. Today as I was reading some commentary on what might happen in Orlando as the SBC meets for her annual meeting, I noticed once again that a prolific Southern Baptist voice in the blogosphere had missed the point of CP altogether.

Perhaps it is a result of the greater influx of leaders whose roots are firmly planted in historic Independent Baptism rather than historic Southern Baptism that causes this misunderstanding, but I see it as one of the main reasons that we are struggling with just such a dilemma today–namely, how can we as Southern Baptists find a more effective way to embrace the Great Commission and be a true Kingdom force in the coming years (which is after all the point of the GCR and the GCRTF)?

Just my thoughts, what are yours?

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