Editor’s Journal: The Cooperative Program: True to Form
By all accounts, Robert S. Scales led one of the most dynamic congregations in the Southern Baptist Convention. Trinity Church was the first Oklahoma congregation to racially integrate, organize outreach to the community of Oklahoma City and plant churches across the city, state and the world. Each year, hundreds of young people were active in Bible study, and many missionaries emerged from Trinity’s ministry.
Yet, as the Southern Baptist Convention aged, Scales privately worried that the work of the local church might come to be seen as a disconnected appendage to the work of the overall SBC program. In a personal letter, even W.A. Criswell told him that it was critical that the agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention never become disconnected from the churches or the Cooperative Program would not survive.
Scales was determined to not allow that to happen.
The year 1971 proved to be a decisive year in the life of the SBC’s Cooperative Program. SBC president, Carl Bates (pastor of Charlotte, N.C., First) joined Robert Mills of Georgetown College, then chairman of the Committee on Order of Business, in pleading with SBC leaders to help in planning a closing service with the theme, “World Missions—The Challenge of the Cities.”
Personal correspondence to then Christian Life Commission president Foy Valentine indicated that both Bates and Mills felt an urgent need to communicate to the messengers the critical importance of each Convention agency and the overall work of the Cooperative Program. In a Nov. 23, 1970 letter, they stated “our people need a deeper understanding of the inter-relatedness of all our agencies in presenting a united front to advance the cause of Jesus Christ.”
Judging from the numerous letters to the editor in The Baptist Messenger around this time, there was a certain awareness that a distinct unrest might be organizing across Oklahoma and the entire SBC. An overall malaise seemed to be developing which clouded the original purposes and goals of the SBC at its founding. Bates and Mills admitted as much in the letter to Valentine: “There are many who feel that this unity of purpose needs to be demonstrated in an impressive manner.”
They desired an “inspiring climax” to the annual meeting and wanted all program plans to reflect a deeper commitment to “win the cities” for Christ. Such a programmatic feat would reassure all Southern Baptists that the agencies and entities served together as one united front for the advance of the Gospel in the United States and around the world. They asked “the Foreign Mission Board, the Home Mission Board, the Sunday School Board, the Seminaries, the Radio and Television Commission, the Christian Life Commission and the Woman’s Missionary Union to all join together in planning this service.” Fretting that young people might be slipping away from the denomination, students from across the nation were featured for the first time on the program with what was dubbed by some as “a new-fangled multi-media presentation.”
By year’s end, however, the entire idea was off the table. The very suggestion that all SBC agencies should appear together at one time in one place had aroused the ire of two important SBC icons of the day: Baker James Cauthen, executive secretary of the Foreign Mission Board (Now the International Mission Board) and Arthur Rutledge, executive secretary-treasurer of the Home Mission Board (Now the North American Mission Board).
They were not going to give up their unique place on the program without a fight, and they were not timid as to why this was the case. In a three-page letter to Bates and Mill, Cauthen stated: “I cannot tell you the pain and disappointment it brings to my heart to realize that your Committee is recommending that the work of all the agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention be presented in a two-hour period on the closing morning of the Convention.” Cauthen went on to say, “concern for foreign missions fills a very large place in motivation for giving through the Cooperative Program.” He felt that “if the Convention eliminates its Foreign Mission Night, the Cooperative Program will become weakened with resulting loss to all work supported by the Cooperative Program, both in the states and the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The next week, a letter arrived from Rutledge. “I am disappointed because I have the feeling that it is foreign missions and home missions that have held the Southern Baptist Convention together, more than perhaps any other common commitment of our Convention, and yet these two agencies are given a total of but two hours out of the entire week,” Rutledge said.
Mills summarily resigned as chairman of the order of business committee and Scales stepped into the role for the second time. He had no idea the controversy awaiting him as he worked to organize and manage the upcoming proceedings of the 1971 annual meeting in St. Louis, Mo.
In a Jan. 27, 1971 letter, he delivered some bad news to Marie Mathis—the person originally designated by Bates and Mill to coordinate the entire event. It was a no-go. The letter began with a blunt admission of “Well, here we go again!” Scales confessed “there was some static about the first suggested order of business.” That was putting it mildly.
By the time Scales finished his service as chairman of the Committee on Order of Business, he realized that the sheer size and scope of the agencies of the SBC required that something be done to simplify the way Southern Baptists learned of their work through the CP. The key: young people. Without them, Scales saw a time when the SBC could program itself into irrelevance. That year, he helped organize a joint commissioning service for home and foreign missionaries, trusting that the sheer sight of such might energize a newfound appreciation for the capacity of the CP.
By and large, he was successful. Post-convention correspondence from pastors and Convention leaders and response in state papers proved that his diligent work over a two-year period had resulted in a greater awareness of what the SBC actually did with the money entrusted to it. Many, Scales discovered, did not know. Frankly, neither did he until he saw the impact of the day-to-day operations of Convention agencies.
In an age when “new-fangled” technology dominates a still-crowded Convention program, Scales’ vision to both involve and inspire future generations regarding the genius of the CP remains an ever-present need. To this day, the sermons and papers of Robert S. Scales remain one of the most valuable resources and challenges for a new generation of Southern Baptists to invest their lives in their churches and extend their reach through the CP.
Today, Trinity exists as a shadow of its former self. Its current pastor, Jeremy Stowe, 31, no longer preaches to thousands. Since his arrival a little more than a year ago, attendance barely tops 100 each Sunday, and the CP, once championed by Scales, struggles for life. Following Scales’ 20-year plus pastorate, the church was unable to recover its founding vision of reaching its community and city with the Gospel.
“Our church is a living relic of what can happen to any congregation who sees its future in terms of only a programmatic emphasis,” Stowe says. “The strength of the SBC rests not with its infrastructure, but with its capacity to reach the world for Christ beginning at home through an intentional effort to maximize our resources together for the health of local congregations.”
Stowe is committed to a Gospel renewal guided by Scales’ biblical focus where the CP is an active tool for real cooperation in places where ministry is difficult. For Trinity, that mission field begins with the 114,894 un-churched persons who live within a five-mile radius of its building.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.