No. It’s not.
Not unless one wants to deny that there was any cooperation among Southern Baptist churches for the first fourscore years of the SBC when there was no Cooperative Program. Not if one checks the SBC constitution which does not require that a single CP dollar be given to the SBC Executive Committee in order to seat messengers. Our wonderful Cooperative Program, that program of giving that provides almost all state convention revenues and which provides a lesser proportion of the revenues of our seminaries and mission boards, is our primary denominational funding plan. I support it. All my churches have participated in it. It should be a part of every SBC church’s budget. But it is not the sole measure of a church’s cooperation.
Back in the early days of the Conservative Resurgence, SBC moderates and liberals fairly well deified the CP and crowned it king in denominational life. The CP was THE Southern Baptist sacred cow. The assumption that a church should give at least a tithe to the CP was Southern Baptist orthodoxy. Less than 10% was seen as near apostasy. When the SBC began to elect presidents beginning with Adrian Rogers whose churches gave low single digit CP percentages, they were condemned as being unworthy of the presidency and branded as uncooperative. Decades later, we see the same arguments, the same percentages tossed out as if the CP were a denominational tax. Yet, almost the entire roll of SBC presidents for the last 36 years is made of men whose churches gave far below the SBC CP average.
A few observations about the Cooperative Program and what it means to be cooperative.
1. The adoption of the CP didn’t end societal giving. In time, it gave state conventions a reliable revenue stream for their administrative structure, schools, orphanages, and other ministries. It gave the SBC seminaries and mission boards a reliable, year-round source for a portion of their funding. These are good things but we have had for these 81 years of the CP’s existence, a dual system. We never stopped having a dual system. There is no proposal I know of that would end the dual system that we have had. That churches vary in their giving to the CP and various direct entities has always been the case and is to be expected. Giving under the societal method is just as cooperative as giving through the CP.
2. A church may certainly be highly cooperative with a low CP percentage. If Bellevue or Summit Church give less than the SBC CP average (a little over 5% of undesignated offering plate dollars) they should not be branded as uncooperative or less than fully cooperative. My view is that every church should participate in the CP and thus support the market basket of SBC and state convention ministries. Nonetheless, a church that gives heavily to IMB through the Lottie Moon offering is cooperating with tens of thousands of other SBC churches as does a church that gives heavily to Annie Armstrong. A church that includes their local association cooperates with dozens of churches.
3. Since the CP is a take-it-or-leave-it giving option, churches naturally leave it if they feel led to a much different mission giving allocation. CP allocations are fixed at the two levels, state and national, and that’s the way it is. You church’s CP money is spent this way and no other way. In some states, various giving options were and are available but most states offer just a single option. That sacred CP dollar is divided by a fixed formula, twice. If you want more of your church offering to go to IMB or NAMB , you have no choice aside from cutting CP and sending directly. Sure, anyone can propose that the allocation formulas be changed but the easier route has been for churches to change their internal budgets to give less to CP and more directly. Quick. Clean. Simple. Effective.
4. An accumulation of practices have hurt the CP. It hasn’t been enough just to tout the CP as if it were inscribed on stone tablets by the finger of God. Someone can make the case that the decades-long example of electing SBC presidents who are pastors of sub-average CP giving churches has been deleterious to the CP. Perhaps so. But as a harmful example this is likely outweighed by longrunning accretions of unhelpful practices of state conventions. These include: the confusing accounting that disguises the reality that most CP dollars stay within the states and do not go to the mission boards and seminaries; the practice of states of accumulating staff when revenues increase as well as spending heavily on centralized administrative buildings; the lack of the will or the interest in forcing legacy institutions out of dependency on CP revenues; the slowness in recognizing changes in church practices that have left some ministries without sufficient support to justify their continued existence.
5. Unhelpful promotion practices have alienated churches from the CP. These include: percentage shaming of churches, an expectation of entitlement on the part of certain ministries, equating 10% CP giving to the Biblical tithe, the attempt to make societal giving into an unbiblical practice, and the use of CP nostalgia as if it offered something attractive to the churches. None of these have worked. Some have further alienated churches.
6. Great Commission Giving is formal recognition that cooperation is not solely defined by the Cooperative Program. I am unsure if GCG as a statistic will be useful to us, since it is reported inconsistently. I am sure that the concept of giving recognition to churches for the total amounts they give to Southern Baptist causes is here to stay and it should be.
It is likely that our next SBC president will be a megachurch pastor whose church is a less than average CP giver. One of the three candidates gives a little above the average and he may be elected but my guess is that the SBC will stick with the celebrity system and elect one of the two megas. The SBC in session has rarely shown an inclination to reject a nominee who was a stellar pastor, baptized a lot of folks, heavily supported missions and church planting, but whose church gave far less than the average to the CP. Once in a generation this happens. Very rarely.
Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, the decades ahead for the SBC will not see a return to the CP giving patterns of the mid to late 20th century. So far as I am aware, no state convention, no seminary, and neither mission board is planning their future around increased CP revenues. But the CP will continue to be the largest single income stream for our state conventions, the seminaries, and mission boards.
The more we recognize and accommodate the new giving patterns chosen by autonomous SBC churches, the better results we can have in doing God’s work here and around the globe. We have the opportunity to foster greater cooperation among churches in Kingdom work but not if we use the Cooperative Program as a club and declare or imply that it is the only acceptable way for SBC churches to cooperate.