All Christians share in the call of Acts 1:8 to evangelize their city, state, nation and world while churches employ diverse strategies to support missionaries in each of these fields. Since 1925, Southern Baptists have sponsored missionaries in a unique way—partnering together with voluntary contributions through the Cooperative Program that are used to advance the Gospel by funding missionaries and other Kingdom mission work. While we celebrate the wonderful work of independent missionaries and parachurch organizations, the way Southern Baptists cooperatively fund missions has proven to be superior for at least four reasons.
A pastor recently shared with me about his time as an independent missionary and the sorrow he felt when he had to leave the mission field prematurely. He made frequent trips to his home state for months at a time to solicit financial support, but eventually, many pastors changed positions, churches adjusted their budgets, and key supporters passed away. The independent missionary was forced to leave the mission field not because of the loss of God’s call, but because of the loss of fundraising dollars. He was unable to independently raise enough money to continue his important mission work.
This pastor’s experience is not unique. A survey completed by 15,087 missionaries discovered that 43 percent were unable to fulfill their long-term commitment to the mission field.[i] The Association of Baptists for World Evangelism stated, “The single greatest reason that these missionaries returned wasn’t a disqualifying sin or a health problem. It was lack of funding. The single reason most missionaries don’t last on the field is because they aren’t able to sustain their support.”[ii]
While this is the case with independent missionaries or those sent by organizations with a “raise your own support” model, the Cooperative Program ensures Southern Baptist missionaries do not face the same plight. The SBC’s 3,600-plus international missionaries are fully funded, receive ongoing training and are cared for physically, emotionally and spiritually while on the field. While 43 percent of independent missionaries leave the mission field prematurely, only 7 percent of Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB) missionaries are unable to complete their term of service. When you support missionaries through the Cooperative Program, they are six times more likely to remain on the field than their independent counterparts.
Southern Baptists send missionaries to the field with the primary assignment of sharing the Gospel with unreached and unengaged people groups. The ability to focus singularly on this task resulted in 728,589 Gospel conversations and more than 178,177 people led to Christ in 2022.[iii]
Our independent missionary brothers and sisters do not have such a privilege. Added to the call of sharing Jesus is the pressing responsibility of communicating with donors, sending request letters, making social media posts, writing newsletter articles and demonstrating the fruit of their labors to garner support for their important work. For many, this requires regularly leaving their mission field to seek additional funds from churches and individuals. One independent missionary I spoke with was in the midst of a three-month trip to the U.S. he takes every two years to speak in as many churches as possible. He hates that raising support takes him away from the mission field, but he sees no better option for an independent missionary. Another missionary, who served in the Far East with a U.S.-based parachurch organization, shared he was envious of SBC missionaries because 25 percent of his time was spent not on sharing the Gospel, but on raising money so he could stay on the field.
Some outstanding missionaries are not skilled fundraisers, and some accomplished fundraisers may be ineffective missionaries. Funding missionaries through the Cooperative Program allows those sent by Southern Baptists to be singularly focused on telling people about Jesus.
Imagine attending a fried chicken church potluck where participants bring whatever side they want. You would be quite surprised (and likely disappointed) if the buffet table contained seven crockpots of green beans and only one bowl of mashed potatoes. When everyone provides their own dish without an overall plan coordinated with others, there is the possibility of a lot of one dish and a shortage of another.
If our approach to missions is for every church to function independently, it could result in them all serving green beans and no one providing mashed potatoes. Mission fields that are easy to access, speak a common language and are not under government persecution stand to receive more missionaries and financial support. One blog writer compared independent missions funding to a “beauty pageant” where individuals and churches are tempted to support the most compelling speaker with heartwarming pictures.
Where does that leave the missionary called to an unengaged people group in a hard-to-reach place where publicly acknowledging Jesus could lead to death? The task of learning the culture, translating the Bible, and earning the trust of the people will take years. Returning to the U.S. frequently to secure donors could raise suspicion among the people served. Who is going to support that missionary during the decade it takes to make inroads with this group of people with no Gospel witness? The answer is Southern Baptists, and the reason is the Cooperative Program.
Partnering to support missions through the Cooperative Program fuels a prayerful and strategic distribution of missionaries to the spiritually darkest parts of our world.
Missionaries supported by the SBC Cooperative Program are fully funded with a place to live, medical care for their family, transportation and ministry supplies for sharing the Gospel. This will cost far less for missionaries in Cairo than it does for missionaries in Dubai. Funding missionaries through the Cooperative Program ensures an equitable distribution of resources so that each missionary has a comparable standard of living. What costs $20,000 in Egypt may cost $80,000 in the United Arab Emirates. However, there is not an added fundraising burden placed on the missionary who is serving in a country with a higher cost of living.
Giving through the Cooperative Program not only ensures equitable treatment, but it protects the church’s investment. I recently heard of a church directly supporting an independent missionary until learning the missionary had been off the mission field for four years without notifying the church. The structure of the SBC eliminates the need for individual churches to monitor the status of each missionary they support and instead delegates that responsibility to trusted leaders who have continual contact on the field with the missionaries. This helps churches know their missionaries are preaching the Gospel, are actively serving and are effective in their work. In short, churches that use the Cooperative Program as their missions-giving strategy can be confident their resources are being used appropriately.
A common argument for independently funding missionaries is that it prevents money from being used as overhead. But does it? Independent missionaries certainly have overhead expenses in sending newsletters, receiving contributions, issuing tax statements, travel expenses to solicit support and much more. Additionally, contributions that are used for their salary during the months they are away from the field to fundraise is overhead. Missionaries that go through parachurch organizations often have a portion of the funds they raise retained by the organization to cover overhead. This is in addition to the time and money spent by the missionary in seeking donors who contribute on their behalf to the parachurch organization.
Southern Baptists believe there is greater financial efficiency in centralizing overhead costs for all missionaries instead of each missionary independently funding their own, often leading to a duplication of efforts.
Regardless of the way they are funded, every Christian should celebrate the sending of more missionaries to unreached people groups. Doing so through the Cooperative Program results in missionaries staying on the field longer, allows them to singularly focus on sharing the Gospel, utilizes a strategic approach to send them to unreached people groups, and ensures the church’s investment is being used as it should. The result is a beautiful partnership that allows churches to do far more together than we could ever do apart. If you would like more information on the Cooperative Program, visit sbc.net/cp.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following video explains how Oklahoma Baptists implements its Cooperative Program giving