Is our main channel of cooperation, the Cooperative Program, best viewed as (a) a tax on churches, (b) dues for membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, (c) an efficient and practical way of spending our money, or, (d) the primary means of expressing cooperation among churches, an important theological value and teaching?
Scott Hildreth, Assistant Professor of Global Studies George Liele director of the Center for Great Commission Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, advocates for (d) in his new book, Together on God’s Mission, How Southern Baptists Cooperate to Fulfill the Great Commission.
In 1985, early in my years as a pastor, “Cooperation: The Baptist Way to a Lost World” by Cecil and Susan Ray was published as a main stewardship resource for the SBC. Although still close to ten percent, the Cooperative Program was beginning its long decline as a percentage of church undesignated offerings. About twenty years later, when David Hankins and Chad Brand published their book, “One Sacred Effort: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists” , that percentage had declined to under seven percent. Now it is just under five percent. Given this steady decline, it is not surprising that Hildreth’s book is described as “a plea to all Southern Baptists to reclaim the power of cooperation.” The target audience is “a new generation” of Southern Baptists. It is an effort to bring up to date these previous, similar books on the Cooperative Program and is hoped to be the tool that helps educate seminarians and others about the system we have had for almost a century.
The book is brief, 94 pages, clear and concise while covering the subject matter. It is divided into three sections. The first covers the historical development of the SBC itself along with the historical development of the CP. The second section explores “several key biblical themes to show how the mission of God determines the mission of the church with cooperation being a key component,” and the final section includes “observations about the current state of Southern Baptist cooperation” along with encouragement, “especially among younger Southern Baptists, to embrace the cooperative efforts of the convention.”
The author covers at length and in detail an aspect of cooperation usually ignored by most of us: cooperation has been viewed by Southern Baptists as such an important component of our shared biblical beliefs that it is included in our common statement of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message. “Cooperation” is one of the main articles along with the traditional ones on “God,” Salvation,” “The Church,” and others.
Hildreth recommends that
“we discuss cooperation theologically, not structurally or pragmatically.”
The point is made that before we declare how much more efficient it is to have a common funding stream for distribution to our entities, we should grasp that God’s mission for his churches is impossible to achieve apart from cooperative efforts.
Two other recommendations for cooperation:
“Let’s not base the label ‘Cooperating Churches’ exclusively on financial contributions.”
Thank you, Dr. Hildreth, for plainly stating that “some Southern Baptists…seem to limit cooperation to financial contribution[s] through the Cooperative Program.” While taking a position of unapologetic advocacy for the CP, he doesn’t ignore the fact that being in “friendly cooperation with the Convention” has never demanded a 10%, 5%, or any percent church support of the CP.
Consider what a difference it might make in our convention if, when we asked about the cooperative investment of a church, we meant more than, “What percentage of your budget do you give through the Cooperative Program?”
Indeed. No one who has spent years involved in the SBC and who has listened and observed carefully can have escaped what Hildreth describes as,
“…the Cooperative Program discussed as if it were a denominational tax or membership dues.”
He goes on to write that,
“[The Cooperative Program] was never designed to be that, and these ideas reflect a rather unfortunate misunderstanding. The attitude creates bitterness and an sense of entitlement, and might tempt some to look for ways to avoid giving altogether.
I like his clear, strong, positive statement that,
Rather than taking a dim, perhaps even begrudging, attitude toward our Cooperative Program, let’s advocate for it as a positive means of advancing God’s Kingdom.
I wholeheartedly agree.
Ignorance abounds in our Grand Old Convention on the subject of cooperation and the Cooperative Program. This book would clear up a lot of the confusion and ignorance.