Editor’s Journal: CP: Its genius and risks
It was Albert Einstein who allegedly declared, “the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.” Whether or not he actually uttered the phrase is the topic of much debate (he probably did not). The fact remains, however, that the power of compounding money is one of the most remarkable economic realities on Earth. The almost unobservable power resident in an accumulation of money over time from many sources results in the possibility of a measure of wealth for even average people earning average wages.
This financial fact was first discovered by Southern Baptists when a failed fundraising campaign (the 75-million campaign of 1919) surfaced an idea that enabled local congregations to combine funds toward a unified goal. The result was a financial feat that the predominantly rural, working-class denomination of the early 1900s could scarcely conceive. During a time of financial unrest, the Southern Baptist Convention worked its way to a sound financial footing that gave birth to a vision of combined missionary zeal that resulted in an enduring and expanding system of missionary finance.
When the Cooperative Program was first introduced by M.E. Dodd in 1925 it was the solution to a long-standing problem in the SBC. For years, areas of critical ministry had languished under the weight of a very active Southern Baptist calendar. Seldom did a Sunday pass that a “denominational servant” (as the saying goes) was not present in the public worship of the congregation asking (often begging) for money. As any good fund-raising specialist will tell you, making “the ask” one time too many will result in the drying up of a funding stream—no matter how committed or passionate the donor.
At its heart, the Cooperative Program was designed to be the invisible scaffolding of all Southern Baptist domestic and international missions outreach. Reviewing its growth patterns through the years reveals not only the success of a combined economic experiment, but also a divine blessing as little has become much in the mercy and providence of God.
Over time, all human endeavors can fall victim to mission creep. Authors Colin Marshall and Tony Payne compare it to a trellis and a vine in their new book, The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything. A trellis is little more than pieces of wood arranged to support a vine. A growing vine soon overtakes the trellis, obscuring it behind luscious green leaves, shoots and flowers. Or not.
Some trellises are ornately constructed in such a manner that it becomes the focus of admiration and care rather than the vine. When that happens, a certain irony manifests itself. For what practical purpose would someone build a trellis as a stand alone item if there was never a vine in view? The obvious answer is for no reason other than a horticultural accident or misdirected priority.
The Cooperative Program has been the SBC’s trellis for 85 years. It has developed and supported some of the finest theological seminaries in the world with tuition rates so low that pastors can actually graduate without debilitating debt. Many state convention-supported colleges and universities have blazed a path toward academic renewal grounded on a Christian worldview as they educate the nation’s future leaders. Long before adoption was the viable force it is today throughout the SBC, children’s homes were caring for orphans state by state. Baptist hospitals were founded on a Christian ethic of healthcare where the teachings of Jesus shape approaches to healing with an unapologetic pro-life approach. The elderly are treated with dignity through the work of retirement homes and senior adult care facilities. State conventions continue to quietly serve local churches in ways that build a network of congregations in friendly cooperation with one another for the purposes of planting new churches and revitalizing dying congregations. The North American Mission Board is home to the largest all-volunteer disaster relief force in the nation. Ask United States government agencies to identify the most effective disaster relief force in North America, and they will point to Southern Baptist disaster relief administered under the auspices of Baptist state conventions without hesitation. The SBC’s International Mission Board facilitates and supports a growing army of servant leaders who are strategically deployed like no other missionary force in the history of Christianity.
Today, the CP stands in danger of destruction through the sheer abandonment of many who see it not like a trellis to a vine, but like a welfare system in a non-productive economy. To be sure, the Cooperative Program has many visible cracks, resulting in a withering vine. Yet, is the answer to repair or replace the trellis? The answer depends on your perspective.
Some see the CP trellis as only needing a fresh coat of paint for the vine to grow. Others see the trellis itself as the very impediment causing the vine to die. In the words of Marshall and Payne, “perhaps trellis work has taken over from vine work. There are committees, structures, programs, activities and fundraising efforts, and many people put lots of time into keeping them all going, but the actual work of growing the vine falls to a very few.” The growth of the vine is not the direct result of the trellis, but without it the vine does not grow upward as it should. Something must be done before the entire trellis of the Cooperative Program collapses entirely.
The Cooperative Program was not designed and must not remain (as it is for some) a way of avoiding the danger, risk and inconvenience of active, personal ministry in and through a local church. Too often, the offering in the envelope becomes the means to assuage a guilty conscience. Worse still is the church that is unaware that it is denominationally enslaved to the point that they are, for all practical purposes, immobilized by simply giving money (and often lots of it) when personal sacrifice is demanded of every disciple of Jesus.
Some Southern Baptist congregations have fallen prey to a dangerous dichotomy that enables them to feel self-assured before God through donated money that is not directly connected to Christian evangelism and missions. Certainly, the missional understanding of what money given by the church is to accomplish is ultimately the prerogative of each local congregation. Nevertheless, few Christians across the modern evangelical spectrum ever even think about leaving the comforts of home to relocate to a dangerous field of service. If the statistics are accurate, it takes nine Southern Baptist congregations to produce one International Mission Board missionary. This amounts to little more than financing a fantasy and naming it missions.
Every person born again by the Spirit of God is a missionary. The only remaining question is whether one will go or send. Those who send, however, are not to be simply occupied with their own interests—totally disconnected from the mission of God. The center of God’s will for every Christian is that they live radically dangerous lives for Jesus Christ. When the vine of the church is healthy and growing, immediate concerns and pressures give way to long-term investment; mere management recedes and ministry takes the lead—not administry, but ministry with real people outside the Baptist bubble.
The Great Commission Resurgence was originally conceived as a church-based call for reform—a way to refocus the Cooperative Program and strengthen it for decades to come. It has descended into the depths of political partisanship and childlike bickering to such a degree that ministry partnerships across the SBC are obviously viewed more like political structures with special interests vying for their share of control. Unless a new vision like the trellis and the vine takes over the denominational infrastructure, the Southern Baptist Convention could eventually cease to exist —cannibalizing itself through hubris.
Perhaps that is the will of God. Christian martyr Jim Elliott once said, “American believers have sold their lives to the service of Mammon, and God has His rightful way of dealing with those who succumb to the spirit of Laodicea.” Has the Laodicean worldview finally overtaken the SBC? June 15-16 will reveal the answer.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.