When a patient goes into cardiac arrest, a Code Blue is sounded, and the medical team drops everything else to attend to the immediate need. They do not thump the patient on the chest to restart the heart—rather, they apply the paddles to shock the heart. Nothing else matters to the team until the heart starts beating again.
A careful reading of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report provides evidence that this team appointed by Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Johnny Hunt worked with the same kind of urgency. The case for their recommendations is based on the reality of lostness in America and the world.
Of the 7 billion people on Earth, 6 billion are lost, and 3.5 billion of them have never heard the Gospel of Jesus. More than 6,000 people groups are without a Christian witness. The picture in America is almost as grim. Consider that every generation following the “greatest generation” of World War II has become less Christian. It is estimated that the World War II generation was 65 percent Christian. Today, only 15 percent of the Millennials claim to be followers of Christ. In 2008, our churches baptized only half as many teenagers as in 1970.
Reaching America and the world demands people and resources. Moreover, it requires that these components be placed where the greatest needs exist. Consider the giving patterns of Southern Baptists, and it is obvious the resources are dwindling. The average church member gives only 2.5 percent of his income to the local church and beyond. Commitment to the Cooperative Program (CP) by churches has declined from more than 10 percent in the late 1980s to an average of 6 percent. The amount of CP dollars retained by state conventions for ministry and missions averages 63 percent (60 percent in Oklahoma). The challenge of the committee is to raise the level of giving at each point and push more dollars to focus on the unreached in our nation and internationally.
The report lays a solid theological foundation for a Great Commission Resurgence among Southern Baptists. Right theology will undergird and guide right missiology. The report reminds us that the central truths of Scripture must drive us to focus on Great Commission ministry. Every person is a sinner, alienated from God and without hope. But God saves sinners by grace through faith in the atoning death of our resurrected Savior. Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.
The report makes clear that the local church holds the central and primary place in the work of the Kingdom of God, and thus, it must hold that same place in Southern Baptist life. Every work beyond the local church exists solely to serve the local church as it fulfills its mission for Christ. Indeed, I would propose that in a missional resurgence, the central place of the local church is incontrovertible. Shifts in denominational structure and resources will have little impact if the local church is not the epicenter of the resurgence.
These realities and convictional truths form the foundation on which the committee formulated the rationale for the seven recommendations to the SBC. I do not think it is a mistake to say that they expect their recommendations to be more than a thump on the convention chest—the intent is to apply the electric shock of the paddles to stimulate the heart of our people to once again beat in rhythm with the heartbeat of God for our nation and all the nations of the world. I applaud the theological and missiological underpinnings of the report. It clarifies for all of us the reasoning of the task force that resulted in the direction incorporated in their recommendations.
Also, I am appreciative that the tone of the final report is much different than that of the interim report. The derogatory implications have been removed. It seeks to reach out to associations and state conventions that partner in serving the churches for the sake of the Gospel. It is clear that Chairman Ronnie Floyd and the task force have listened to Southern Baptist leaders from across the nation. They have made an intentional and concerted effort to reflect the thinking and input from these leaders. They certainly gave me and my colleagues in the state conventions opportunity to express our views. I believe the report is stronger now that it embodies the collective wisdom of these leaders.
The first two recommendations detailing the mission statement and core values should gain enthusiastic response by Southern Baptists. They capture the essence of a people dedicated to the Great Commission.
The third recommendation proposes a new language and structure that terms giving to all SBC causes “Great Commission Giving.” The rationale for this is a call for us to celebrate any dollars given by our churches to our mission, whether associational, state, national or international. While expressing strong support for the CP as the major conduit for supporting our cooperative work together, the task force wants us to applaud any designated giving. In discussions regarding this recommendation, they have stated that churches that choose to designate rather than give through the CP need to be applauded. They believe this will lead those churches to choose to give to the CP.
I personally believe that designated giving—not CP giving—is the real focus of this recommendation. The gifts of churches to the traditional mission offerings are already applauded on our annual church profile, by state papers and in communication from each entity.
At issue here, I think, is the acceptance and affirmation of those who prefer to designate money around state conventions, certain entities or the SBC. Churches are free to give their dollars in any way they desire, but I do not believe it helpful for this kind of giving to be highlighted. The greatest recognition should go to those who support the overall work we do together. It is no different than the local church in this circumstance. While we appreciate those who give to special programs through designated giving, the reality is that the church cannot be sustained through designated offerings. The greatest growth and most significant impact experienced by Baptists followed the adoption of unified budgets in the local church and at each level of our work.
In addition, I do not think praising churches that designate their giving will enhance their willingness to gain an epiphany and support the CP. I well remember hearing many, during the conservative resurgence, suggest that “when we get our theology right,” they would give generously to the CP. It did not happen then, and I don’t think it will happen this time, either. I do not support this recommendation because I feel it will ultimately lead to a de-emphasis on the importance of the CP. If Recommendation Three passes, I pray that the task force is right, and there will be a surge in CP giving by those who today choose to give little to the CP and instead focus on designated giving. I have my doubts.
The fourth recommendation focuses on the work of the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and revisions in its focus and operation. The task force calls for NAMB to focus its energy, personnel and resources in the most unreached parts of the United States. The North, Northeast and West need a convergence of effort and resources. At the same time, it is clear that if we do not reach the cities, we will not reach America. There is also a call for NAMB to center its efforts on evangelism, leadership development and church planting. In fact, the challenge to NAMB is to focus 50 percent of its ministry efforts to assist churches in planting healthy, multiplying and faithful Baptist congregations in North America. I agree wholeheartedly with these emphases—indeed, I greatly affirm them.
Changes of this kind do not come without a price. In order to accomplish this transformation, NAMB is being asked to drop the cooperative agreements through which it now strategizes and partners in funding cooperative ministry through state conventions. These agreements have been the anchor to the partnering efforts between NAMB and state conventions; and frankly, most of the funding and ministry is already directly related to evangelism and church planting, the emphases set forth in the task force report.
The financial impact of this recommendation is significant. The old line states like Oklahoma are asked to absorb responsibility, over a seven-year period, for providing the dollars that are a part of these agreements. If all the funding made available by these agreements was stripped away, over the next seven years, the BGCO would need to increase our budget by approximately $1.4 million. I assure you that would be extremely difficult to do without some combination of decreased ministry and personnel; reduction of the portion given to Oklahoma Baptist University, Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children, the Baptist Foundation of Oklahoma and Baptist Village Communities; and probably a reduction in the percentage sent to the SBC. The task force has embraced the idea that state conventions may need to return to the 1925 concept of shared ministry items with the SBC, meaning that funding for those items would be taken off the top before calculating the percentage division of CP dollars between the state and the SBC.
As the leader of our work in Oklahoma, I assure you we will make every effort to release as much money as quickly as possible to support the ideal of reaching the unreached parts of our nation. However, I want to go on record up front to stress that the Great Commission is also applicable to Oklahoma, and we will not ignore our responsibility here. Some short-term adjustments may be needed in several directions, but in the long haul, we support every effort to impact lostness across North America and beyond.
Recommendations Five and Seven relate to the International Mission Board (IMB). The fifth recommendation removes the geographic limitations on the IMB so it can be involved in reaching unreached peoples wherever they are found. The “group think” on this subject is that the IMB already has the expertise to reach people groups from around the world who have come to America. This is true. IMB has done the research and has strategies from the field that can enhance efforts to reach these groups within North America. My first reaction to this was to wince. Does the recommendation call for IMB missionaries to be appointed within North America? I still am not sure, but the retiring president of the IMB says that will not happen. If the concept is to utilize the IMB’s expertise and training facilities to instruct NAMB and state convention staff, church planters and other ministry personnel, then I think this is awesome. I just hope we will not divert international missionaries from the world arena to North America.
Recommendation Number Seven seeks to reduce the monies utilized by the Executive Committee and redirect them to the IMB, thus moving beyond the 50 percent of SBC dollars currently going to the IMB. Increasing the percentage of SBC dollars given to IMB as proposed would be more symbolic than effective, but it is a good statement of our heartbeat for reaching the nations. It will be a challenge for the EC that will require reductions in staff and ministry.
I have saved Recommendation Six for last. It calls for state conventions to take the lead in stewardship and Cooperative Program promotion. Since the inception of the SBC, state conventions have led in this area. The EC, Woman’s Missionary Union, and the mission boards have also contributed to the promotion of CP. In recent years, the EC has spent significant dollars and given leadership on a national level in promoting these two areas. With this change, states will be asked to invest more dollars into this effort. At stake will be the ability of old line states to help the newer conventions in promotion. It will cost more dollars on the part of old line states to accomplish this.
The report of the GCRTF concludes with a section called Challenges. These challenges are addressed to individual Southern Baptists, the local churches, associations, state conventions and the SBC itself. I personally think it is at the heart of the Great Commission Resurgence. Frankly, if the recommendations were defeated and the challenges were taken seriously, a Great Commission movement would break out among us. The challenges are worthy of thorough review and careful consideration for implementation.
I want to close with some heartfelt conclusions. The urgency of the report is well taken. It should not be ignored. We do need to have the paddles applied rather than a perfunctory thump on the chest. My hope is that regardless of our acceptance or rejection of the individual recommendations, we will not sidestep the clear call of the task force to move from business as usual into an exigency mode. Although I am well aware of the hardships and financial pressures that will fall significantly on state conventions, I will rise to support the focus and clarion call for Southern Baptists at every level to step up to the plate. I am unwilling to allow my issues over structure to cloud my total agreement with the passion and commitment to the mission of penetrating lostness wherever it is found.
In the end, I trust our system. If the convention approves this report and its recommendations, the boards of the SBC and states will take primary responsibility to work through the details. Negotiation and revisions will become the order of the day. People at the appropriate levels of our work will be able to shape the implementation efforts. I am convinced we will be able to find common ground. Every aspect of the Acts 1:8 continuum must be addressed.
The moment cannot be missed. Code Blue has been sounded. We must arise and set aside our differences for a higher calling—the call to reach those lost in darkness, whether in Oklahoma, New York City or East Asia.
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Anthony L. Jordan is executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.