I have watched with interest a number of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders raising the Florida Baptist Convention (FBC) as the model for state conventions of the future. For those who do not know, the FBC is selling their state convention building, has dramatically down-sized staff and regionalized them, and has cut ties or greatly reduced funding for several ministries. The FBC now utilizes 51 percent for SBC and utilizes 49 percent for Florida.
My position on the FBC is simple— I don’t have one. Florida Baptists know what is best for them, and I do not. They know what is best for their churches and ministry; I do not, which leads me to say that the opposite is true. State conventions and the needs of each state are not uniform. To say that all state conventions should follow Florida is a misguided conclusion simply because each state is uniquely different.
There is another assumption that underlies those who push for reduction in state convention ministry. Some people assume that state conventions need to reduce ministry so more funding goes to the SBC. These same people believe that state conventions should minimize ministry to, and with, the churches and send more money to the SBC so national and international causes will receive more funding.
As one who has always pushed for more funding to go to international missions, I find the intent well stated. Southern Baptists have always had a heart to reach the nations, but there needs to be a reality check. In recent years, the SBC has had opportunity to restructure in order to send more money to the International Mission Board (IMB), but they did not adjust.
The North American Mission Board (NAMB) cut staff and ministry dramatically in order to focus on church planting. Southern states returned more than $5,000,000 to NAMB from their budgets. The SBC Executive Committee reduced its budget. State conventions have reduced staff and forwarded additional monies to the SBC as a whole. These modifications provided opportunity to adjust the percentage annually that goes to the International Mission Board (IMB), but the adjustments were not made.
Where NAMB, under assignment from the SBC, once was a catalyst for personal evangelism research and development, materials, and training, these areas are no longer priorities for NAMB. These functions are now left to the state conventions. State conventions now carry the load of assisting churches and developing personal evangelism strategies and training. While state conventions are glad to take on this mantle, and always have been major contributors, they do so at greater expense and with little partnership with NAMB.
In Oklahoma, we have a robust focus on developing evangelism materials and training. Connect>1 is such a focus. I am more convinced than ever that personal evangelism must return as the focus of our local churches. Personal evangelism includes every step from relationship building, invitations to Sunday School and church, evangelistic events such as Vacation Bible School and sport camps, to sitting down with someone in a coffee shop to present the Gospel. The BGCO is very instrumental in assisting Oklahoma Baptist churches in training and materials to achieve greater evangelism impact.
Another assumption is that state conventions have yet to evaluate and streamline their efforts. Oklahoma reduced the size of its state convention and streamlined its structure several years ago to allow additional monies to be returned to NAMB. Most state conventions have done the same. However, the Oklahoma convention has a clear responsibility to equip the local church and extend its cooperative reach. Oklahoma Baptists believe the state convention has a vital role in the “together ministries” with their churches.
Let me illustrate. No other state has Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center where, in the summer alone, more than 50,000 students hear the Gospel. Oklahoma Baptists have one of the largest Baptist Collegiate Ministries (BCM) in the SBC. I personally believe the university campus is one of the largest mission fields in the world. Oklahoma Baptists are not backing away, but increasing their focus on evangelism and discipleship on these campuses in Oklahoma. From the decisions at Falls Creek and BCM come the mission volunteers needed to resource missions nationally and internationally. Oklahoma Baptists believe in these two ministries and demonstrate that belief through funding. A move to a 50-50 split of Cooperative Program funds would require a major shift away from Falls Creek and BCM ministries.
Disaster Relief (DR) is primarily funded, volunteers are trained, and ministry is accomplished through the work of state conventions in partnership with local associations. NAMB serves a valuable place in coordination, but the equipment and trained volunteers come from a partnership of the state convention and associations in the states. The BGCO DR ministry has trained over 7,900 volunteers and has an estimated $2,300,000 in equipment. The Oklahoma convention and associations have together given money to place Disaster Relief equipment across the state, which is one of the most effective and productive partnerships among Baptists. Because of the Cooperative Program and state missions offering, the Disaster Relief ministry is offered to those in need without cost. All gifts given specifically for victims of a disaster are provided without administrative costs.
In order for the BGCO to follow the Florida model in percentage sent out of state, most, if not all, support for Oklahoma Baptist University, Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children, and Baptist Village Communities would have to be eliminated. I have travelled this state for over 20 years and find little support for walking away from these vital ministries.
Last year at the “SBC and the 21st Century Conference” at Midwestern Seminary, SBC President Ronnie Floyd called for an elimination of duplication of ministry. I could not agree more. What is needed is greater cooperation at each level of SBC life. I am convinced there are efficiencies to be gained. Cooperative Program ministry efficiencies are gained when the mission and ministry strategy and funding are managed at the closest point of ministry. This is why NAMB and state conventions must work closely. NAMB needs to work from the field forward, not the other way around. State convention leaders and staff work with the churches and know their states intimately. Southern Baptists are best when they work together freely and equally. Partnership between state conventions and national entities, not just funding, is weak and must be strengthened to accomplish greater Kingdom advance.
I would suggest that if the SBC is going to get serious about funding international missions in a greater way, all levels of the SBC must make major sacrifices. Seminaries will need to reduce their share and streamline their ministries. NAMB will need to reduce its share since their ministry has greatly narrowed and states also carry some of NAMB’s ministry assignments. State conventions have, and will need to find, every opportunity to streamline ministry and missions and reduce cost, thus providing opportunity to send more funding beyond the state level. In addition, the IMB will need to be good stewards of the additional funds.
In the end, those of us who direct the use of Cooperative Program funds must remember the money comes from the people through the churches. Cooperative Program percentage divisions are made at the state convention level. More messengers attend state convention meetings than attend the SBC annual meeting. That is not negative to the SBC, just reality. So when state conventions determine Cooperative Program percentage division, more of the churches and messengers are involved in the process.
One of the most pressing issues that gets lost in the SBC-state convention division discussion is biblical stewardship. Southern Baptist leaders sit and argue over a fixed pie. The best solution is to grow the financial pie and that begins with training followers of Christ to be faithful in giving their tithes to the work of ministry through the local church. Then, and only then, does the pie enlarge. In Oklahoma, increased personal stewardship will raise all the Cooperative Program boats. With the average Oklahoma church giving 8.8 percent of undesignated gifts through the Cooperative Program, state, national, and international missions will see significant funding increase as personal stewardship grows.
Let me end where I started. Each state has unique needs. There is not “one size fits all.” If Florida wants to take the path they are walking, then let’s all applaud them. But let’s not guilt those state conventions who have robust missional ministries and, thus, take a different path. Our ultimate goal is to spread the Good News from the front door of the church to the ends of the earth.