To give or not to give – that isn’t the question.
The Cooperative Program has been Southern Baptists’ unified giving plan for more than 80 years as churches faithfully allocate funds for collaborative missionary efforts. But a rapid decline in the average portion churches give through CP raises the question of whether church priorities are changing.
In trying to reconcile Southern Baptist tradition with new missions strategies, many churches are now hedging the traditional norm of 10 percent through CP and asking instead: How much? Ultimately, the answer likely will determine whether Southern Baptist ministries stay on course in cooperatively funding a worldwide missions enterprise.
In an effort to learn how churches strike a balance in missions budgeting, the Southern Baptist Texan newsjournal solicited the comments of Texas Southern Baptists in an online survey. The survey covered churches where traditional CP giving was the norm and others where CP and church-based missions were emphasized.
The respondents included pastors, missions leaders and laymen whose churches are among the several hundred in Texas that embraced the Acts 1:8 Challenge – the new Southern Baptist Convention initiative to assist congregations in implementing a comprehensive missions strategy involving their community, region, continent and world.
The majority of churches responding to the survey average 50-150 in attendance, and all consider themselves committed to local and international missions.
As longtime Southern Baptists, most of the survey participants have been exposed to the scope and mechanics of the Cooperative Program over the years. Five of the churches are well over 100 years old while eight were formed between 1900 and 1950. Nine of the surveyed churches were formed between 1951 and 2000, while four are recent church plants.
In addition, 72 percent of respondents attended Southern Baptist churches as children, 60 percent participated in a missions education program like Royal Ambassadors, and 68 percent were educated at Southern Baptist seminaries. Despite familiarity with the SBC’s missions-giving mechanism, some of these churches are effectively defunding the Cooperative Program as they shift resources to a direct missions strategy.
Figures from the Annual Church Profile of Southern Baptist churches show congregations have consistently decreased undesignated Cooperative Program rates from 10.6 percent in 1984 to 6.7 percent in 2005. The trend of decreasing funding through the Cooperative Program is not isolated to a particular area or region. Most churches affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention now average 7 percent in Cooperative Program giving, regardless of whether the congregation numbers 100 or 10,000.
Seventeen of the Acts 1:8 congregations are beyond that average level, with seven of that group giving between 10 and 15 percent through CP. Four give between 2 and 6 percent through CP, and another five chose not to answer the question.
With the face of the typical Southern Baptist congregation changing from traditionally churched members to non-traditional and formerly unchurched, newer members lack knowledge of the Cooperative Program, one pastor observed. While his church gives more than 10 percent through CP, it can no longer be assumed that most members understand the Cooperative Program.
“That’s changing rapidly as many of our newer members don’t have a clue as to what the CP is or does,” he said.
With fewer Cooperative Program champions, this pastor finds “education and explanation are a continuing work.”
As long as churches are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, what is the danger? Does it matter if Southern Baptists choose to fund direct mission strategies over the Cooperative Program? According to “One Sacred Effort: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists,” a book by David Hankins and Chad Owen Brand, great peril exists in abandoning the Cooperative Program altogether. The authors list several reasons for addressing the growing imbalance in missions giving.
“Some mission endeavors, while enthusiastic and well-intended, do not have a coherent plan for accomplishing their aims. They may not lack for enthusiasm, but they are not given to strategic planning or reliable reporting,” the authors write. “The Cooperative Program undergirds a thoughtful, coherent, intentional strategy for systematically reaching the goal. It has the advantage of ministries based on sound, baptistic theological premises with oversight by committed leaders who are accountable to the churches for the resources utilized, the goals attempted, and the results achieved.”
While a cooperative missions emphasis has been a historic characteristic of most Southern Baptist churches, more churches are looking for ways to fulfill all of the Acts 1:8 challenges that include:
- Increasing missions involvement through preparation of mission teams;
- Bringing mission awareness to the entire church body;
- Praying for a worldwide vision;
- Increasing support of CP and other SBC cooperative missions;
- Participating in mission trips;
- Telling the gospel story;
- Sending members out as vocational missionaries; and
- Multiplying efforts through church planting.
About 92 percent of the survey participants said they are involved in local mission projects such as intentional and servant evangelism, prayerwalking, food and clothing pantries, and job training. Church planting is also a priority for many survey participants. Most of the respondents are planting churches, financially supporting new plants in their association, partnering with a new church or planning to incorporate church planting into their missions goals.
For state and international efforts, survey respondents encourage church members to personally encounter missions by offering them short-term trips, hosting missions conferences, signing up for vocational missions and sponsoring training classes.
Additionally, the majority of the churches frequently host full-time and volunteer missionaries during worship services for a time of testimony and report.
In preparing for missions, three major factors contribute to a church’s level of mission involvement: pastoral leadership, continual emphasis and education, and action.
Trends in missions giving are also reflective of the increasingly hands-on approach many churches are taking, with 72 percent of survey respondents indicating they would like to increase funding mission projects directly. Half that many would encourage increased giving through CP.
To clarify intentions in the giving balance between the Cooperative Program and direct missions strategies, survey participants were asked a hypothetical question: How would you divide mission expenditures between the Cooperative Program and directly-funded mission project if you allocated 20 percent of your budget to missions?
Despite the trend of decreased giving through the Cooperative Program, nearly half would split such a budget equally between CP and direct mission efforts. Well more than a third of the respondents indicated they would allocate 15 percent through the Cooperative Program, and a few preferred to give 5 percent through CP and 15 percent to direct mission projects.
Preparing a church budget can often become a balancing act. But as churches grow, statistics indicate the gap between continued participation in the Cooperative Program and increasing participation in personal mission endeavors grows wider each year.
To help reverse lowering percentages in local church CP giving, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee brought a recommendation to the 2006 SBC annual meeting, encouraging tithing among believers and increasing proportional Cooperative Program gifts among Southern Baptist churches and state conventions.
The original recommendation asked churches to forward a specific 10 percent of undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program. After much debate, that language was amended without reference to a specific target amount.
As an answer to the decline in Cooperative Program funding percentages, the recommendation called for churches to increase their CP percentages for five successive years beginning in 2007.
“The challenge for us seems to be convincing all of the people that we must look beyond our local needs and raise our very limited giving to a percentage that will reflect our stated priorities,” said one respondent, striving to lead his church to balanced giving. “My goal is to see this reflected in our church by eventually designating 20 percent of our budget for missions, including giving through the Cooperative Program and support for mission trips by our members.”
Acknowledging the comprehensive scope of the Cooperative Program for all Southern Baptists, most survey participants cited specific examples of how they personally benefited from the unified giving plan. Examples of the effective nature of a unified giving strategy included references to church-planting funds, subsidized seminary tuition, associational work, missions training and education, missionary support, and vision casting.”
“The Cooperative Program supplements the tuition costs of our students in six Southern Baptist seminaries,” Morris Chapman, president of the Executive Committee, said. “In fact, almost every pastor now living who went to a Southern Baptist seminary received an outstanding theological education at a fraction of the actual cost. The Cooperative Program makes it possible for us to raise our voices for religious liberty and a moral and ethical culture in America and beyond.
“I am praying that the heightened discussion of the Cooperative Program has created a moment of reflection in the heart of every Southern Baptist, and that we shall find ourselves taking a fresh look at the worth of cooperative missions supported through the Cooperative Program,” Chapman added.
David Lino of Faith Family Church in Kingwood put it on a more personal level. Calling the Cooperative Program a unique, God-used strategic effort, he believes those who criticize loyalty through CP as well as folks who “just give it verbal allegiance” need to imagine what the Southern Baptist Convention would look like without it.
“Where would their churches be if there never had been a Cooperative Program?” Lino asked.
This article first appeared as part of a special report on giving published by the Southern Baptist Texan newsjournal.