Before I say some things that might rankle some feathers here, let me say that I am a supporter of the Cooperative Program. In the nearly 30 years that I have been a pastor, I have served 4 churches (3 as “senior” pastor). Two of those churches gave 20% or more through the CP. My last two churches have hovered in the 12 percent range. I say all that to point out that I am not saying what I am going to say to excuse my own CP failures. I’m not sure what you consider an acceptable CP standard, but all four churches I’ve served have, I think, met that standard. When I was convention president in Iowa, I developed and distributed a teaching tool to help people in Iowa understand the CP syste – something wholly foreign to them. I think I can claim to have supported the CP in word and in action
Additionally, I think it is a little weird that people whose churches have been spotty in CP giving are now being handed the keys to run the store. When you look at the churches represented on the GCR task force, there were several that had spotty denominational support records. We are a convention of autonomous churches and no one has ever set an official standard for acceptable CP giving (nor should they). Its CP giving, not CP taxation. As I recall, Frank Page’s church had a pretty strong record of CP support. Obviously, Kevin Ezell’s church did not. With a questionable record (at best) of CP support and Annie Armstrong generosity, Kevin Ezell has been given charge of NAMB. Nothing wrong with that, I just find it strange that we are turning over the reins of our denomination to people whose support for our denomination has been weak.
Now, to Make Everyone Mad
Having said that, I wonder if we have not, in the immortal words of my hero, Adrian Rogers, made the Cooperative Program something of a sacred cow. In the early part of the 20th Century, Southern Baptists saw that their current system was not working. They developed the Cooperative Program system that has served our denomination well for the last 85 years.
I think it has been a genius system. But I also think we have made the assumption that this genius system is somehow divinely ordained and any departure from it is a sin against God. Yes, I know. I’m overstating it. But we act as if the CP is God’s infallible system of denominational support.
Southern Baptists tend to look back for direction. I remember a man in my Cedar Rapids church who had a solution to every problem we ever faced. If we would only return to doing things the way that they were done in the 50’s and early 60’s in Baptist churches, all would be well. If only we’d go back to singing hymns and get rid of the drums and guitars. If only we’d have weekly SS department meetings like we used to. We need to start having revivals every spring and fall like we used to. The solution for Southern Baptists often seems to be to return to the way we used to do it. We look at the past as the standard for the future.
But just because we used to do something in the past and it worked then does not make that strategy the only one God will bless in the future.
Let me spell it out. I love the CP. I have supported the CP. But can we accept the possiblity that the CP could be improved? Is every change to the CP necessarily destructive to the SBC? There is no shortage of voices out there saying that the changes that are going on are the “end of the CP” or even “the dismantling of the Southern Baptist Convention.” Perhaps a little melodramatic?
Do we even hold out the idea that as God showed us a new way back in 1925 that blessed us in the 20th Century, that he might show us another new way in the 21st Century?
Could it be that our refusal to grow and change is one of the problems we have as a denomination?
What Does the Future Hold?
It seems that the powers-that-be are going to, at the least, tweak the CP system. I have to admit that I have some reservations about that. It is very possible that the new system may be less effective than the one I grew up in. But is it not also possible that they could come up with something improved, something better? It seems wrong to assume that all change to the CP system would necessarily be destructive.
If they are going to develop a new system, I hope it keeps the benefits of the old system while addressing some of the problems inherent in it.
Positives of the CP
There are some real advantages to the CP system. If those in charge are going to change our system, there are aspects of the CP that they need to keep in place. For me, that would include the following:
1) The genius of the CP system is its cooperative nature. Duh. I serve a church in Iowa with a budget of around 450,000 bucks and an attendance that only sporadically reaches 300. We simply do not have the ability to fund missionaries or church plants on our own. We have a mortgage, three full-time staff and other employees, and Iowa-sized utility bills. We simply cannot do it all by ourselves.
By being involved in the CP, we can be a part of a worldwide missions program supporting 11,000 missionaries in the US and around the world. We can do more together than we can do separately.
Mega-churches like Highview can start and support churches on their own. We can’t.
If we are going to adapt the CP system, we cannot simply go to an every-man-for-himself system. That may be fine for the mega-churches that now run the SBC, but it leaves us decidedly non-megas out in the cold. So, I’m willing to see changes in the CP, but whatever replaces it must be a cooperative system.
2) The CP I’ve known was very effective in funding missions, theological education, and administrative ministries. If we are going to tweak the system, whatever we come up with must also be effective in funding our entire work, not just pet projects or appealing ministries.
Problems with the CP System
Please do not pick up stones to stone me, but I think there are some problems with the CP system. It is a human system designed by human beings and is therefore not perfect.
1) The CP can lead to impersonal missions support.
In a church of several hundred, we only have a handful of people who would identify themselves as Southern Baptists. It has been a challenge to explain the CP. Frankly, the most belligerent I have become in committee meetings has probably been in opposing moves by some of our leaders to leave percentage missions giving behind. They just don’t get it.
But one of the points I hear makes real sense. In others systems, missionaries go from church to church raising support. Our church might give a few dollars a month to 25 or 30 missionaries. That is certainly not as extensive as the CP program, but it is more personal. The church has a personal relationship with a small group of missionaries.
This may be more of a problem outside the SBC stronghold areas. Not many furloughing missionaries want to enjoy Iowa winters. I think this is one of the fundamental weaknesses of the SBC CP system. It is effective, but impersonal. It is harder, in this day, to get people to give to a particular ministry or missionary than it is to support a “system” like the CP.
2) The CP lends itself to Bureaucracy.
Do we have bloated bureaucracies in the SBC? I will let you have your opinion on that. But the effectiveness of the CP system may lend itself to bureaucratic tendencies. In a direct support system, every piece has to produce or it will tend to lose support. But when we cooperatively support institutions, it becomes much easier for bureaucratic bloating to occur. People and institutions get their piece of the pie even if they are not producing.
I’m not casting aspersions on anyone (not intentionally, anyway). We are human beings though. All human work tends toward institutionalization and the SBC is no different. I was in a discussion recently with some denominationally active folks. We agreed that the economic downturn may actually have some positive effects, forcing us to streamline our structure and focus our efforts. That is a healthy thing for churches and denominations.
3) The CP can force me to support what I oppose.
If the CR had not happened, I would not be Southern Baptist now. My conscience would not allow me to give to support some of the men who had taught me in college and had gone to SBC seminaries, men who were teaching that which was in direct contradiction to my beliefs and convictions.
Now, I often disagree with our leaders. I have been frustrated with the actions of one of our seminary presidents from time to time. I was vehemently opposed to the philosophy of our IMB when they wrote the policies on PPL and baptism. But none of these things rose to the level that I would have considered withholding support.
But the CP forces me to support not only that which I agree with and am enthusiastically in support of, but also that which I oppose or disagree with.
I’m not sure that there is a solution to this problem. Denominationalism by definition forces you to take the good with the bad. But this is a root problem with the CP system. Calvinists have to pay the salary of people who preach that Calvinists are awful, and non-Calvinists have pay Al Mohler’s salary. If you believe that the Bible mandates tithing for NT Christians, the CP means that you are paying the salary of Andreas Kostenberger who has written a scholarly refutation of that belief. When you support the CP, you fund the SBC – warts and all.
1) I do not know the future. I do not know the heart or intent of Bryant Wright, of Kevin Ezell, of the new IMB president (whoever that is) or any of the other key leaders. I know that all of them have expressed support for the CP. But it also seems clear to me that the CP is in transition. They may not be doing away with it, but neither are they leaving it as it was.
2) That may or may not be a good thing. The God who led us to the Cooperative Program could lead us to something better. But that should include the strong points of the current CP while addressing whatever faults or failings the CP has.
3) We must not make a sacred cow out of the CP. It is not divinely ordained or biblically mandated. It has been an effective
4) We should remain open to change, but skeptical. The burden in on the leaders to show us that they have discerned a better way. If they can show us the way to a better solution, we should walk that way. But they must show us. Enough of the manipulation used by Ted Traylor, Bryant Wright and NAMB about the nomination of Kevin Ezell. When questions were raised they simply told us that Ezell was “God’s man” – if I understood it correctly, they were telling us to shut up, stop asking questions and do what we are told.
I do not share the caustic cynicism that some have shared on this board and especially on other blogs about the future of the SBC or the motives of its leaders. But I’m through carrying water for anyone. During the CR I supported our leaders even when I disagreed. That ain’t happening no more!
If the leaders of the SBC want a change, they need to spell it out and demonstrate that they are improving the system. I’m willing to listen, but not to follow them blindly. Don’t ask me to buy a pig in poke.
So, we are seeing the fulfillment of the ancient curse, “May you live in interesting times.” For Southern Baptists and the Cooperative Program, we are going to live in interesting times.