The magician says, “Pick a number—any number,” before identifying it and astonishing the crowd. Like the Cooperative Program itself, the trick is simple, marvelous and works like magic, but only if someone bravely decisive truly does pick a number, and lately, any Southern Baptist doing so has drawn heavy rounds of not so friendly fire.
When it comes to Cooperative Program funding, Southern Baptists need a little magic. The average church percentage of budget receipts forwarded through our Cooperative Program channels has decreased from over 10% twenty years ago to about 5.6% today. Our hands are cuffed, our legs are chained, and we flounder at the bottom of the tank, waiting for a Houdini-like escape. Fortunately, we have access to a tiny hidden key.
Indeed, if we are willing, we can escape our freefall, improve our funding, and get our missionaries out of Richmond and into the nations. However, it requires humility and denomination-wide commitment to cooperation. If Southern Baptists wish to perform the magic trick that will make this problem disappear, there is one and only one approach to which we must absolutely commit ourselves—regardless of the people offended, the strategies shelved or the accusations leveled. We must pick a number.
We must pick a number and clearly show it to every single Southern Baptist in the audience. It must be our denominational goal, our ideal, our objective standard by which the participation of every autonomous congregation may be measured—not a membership requirement, nor (the more I think about it) a litmus test for leadership, but merely our gold standard for the ideal cooperative Southern Baptist missions support level. Pick a number higher than our current average of 5.6%. Then encourage every church to give an amount at least as high as this specific, above average level.
Part One of this essay will demonstrate the need for a denomination-wide Cooperative Program Church Budget Percentage Goal and obliterate the charge that such a goal would in any way violate church autonomy. Part Two will advocate depersonalizing the issue so the very leaders essential to the goal’s success will not have to incriminate themselves and will disabuse us of the notion that mission dollars are to be set against mission percentages. Part Three will dismiss as non-cooperative two misguided efforts: appealing directly to churches for societal funding, and bypassing historic Cooperative Program channels intrinsic to the rising tide lifting all Southern Baptist boats.
Pick A Number
I have supported the One Percent Challenge initiative at both of the churches I have served since its inception. In this plan, churches are encouraged simply to increase their percentage of undesignated gifts through the Cooperative Program incrementally by giving one percent more. Despite my unwavering support for it and my appreciation of its worthy intentions, the One Percent Challenge seriously fails the test when it comes to the cardinal rule of goal setting—a good goal is specific and measurable.
The One Percent Challenge frankly focuses merely on the general direction of our gifts. We want the arrow pointing up. Wherever you might find yourself, just do one percent more than you are right now. This approach not only fails to consider one’s starting point, but it also fails to establish the finish line, that point at which we have actually arrived at the goal. Hence, it is neither specific nor measurable. It is the very definition of a poorly defined goal. How can one be expected to hit a target that keeps moving?
Please consider that, with this and every goal, there is a point at which you no longer want someone to continue in the current direction. Hyperbolically, do you really want the church that is giving 99% through the Cooperative Program to commit themselves to giving 100% so that nothing at all is left for local ministries, church staff, building repair and the other financial obligations of ministry in the local church?
I would argue that Southern Baptists do not so much have a Missions Giving Goal as we have a Missions Giving Direction—we want more. But do we really want more from every single church? This assumes that not one single church in the convention is currently hitting the target of a healthy, appropriate missions giving percentage. But this is surely not the case. Frankly, I believe some churches (perhaps in the 15%-20% range) do not need to give a higher percentage through the Cooperative Program. While they might raise their designated offering goals for Annie and Lottie, there is a point at which one percent more from the church budget may very well not be God’s will at all.
As any person who has ever watched an episode of The Biggest Loser can tell you, the person with the greatest opportunity to achieve the most change relative to their own fixed starting point is the person who starts out the greatest distance away from the ideal. But a good goal does not merely look at one’s own starting point in an effort to bring about incremental change. With regard to weight loss, there is a clear target that is identified by things like measuring tapes, scales and Body Mass Indexes. There is a clearly defined and measurable point on that horizon when one has achieved the goal and should no longer be encouraged to continue in that direction. Only a sadist would stand before an anorexic and urge them to lose “just one more pound” on the basis that “all of us are cooperating in this effort to move in such a worthy direction.”
To put it simply, a good goal simply cannot be stated merely as a directional change from one’s starting point. It must also identify the target, the finish line, the specific and measurable point at which the desired result has been achieved. Such a goal would have for its purpose the provision to each church of a percentage against which they might measure themselves in order to determine how far away they are from fufilling their proportional share in supporting our cooperative work.
The ultimate question here should be: “If every church gave the same percentage of budget receipts through the Cooperative Program that mine does, would Southern Baptists possess the wherewithal necessary to support our denominational ministries at every level and release our grounded missionaries, sending them to the nations?”
This question takes seriously our belief stated in the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report that our “greatest stewardship of Great Commission investment and deployment is giving through the Cooperative Program,” and our call upon “Southern Baptists to recommit to the Cooperative Program as the central and preferred conduit of Great Commission funding, without which we would be left with no unified and cooperative strategy and commitment to the Great Commission task.”
The Autonomy Card
A lofty sounding excuse is sometimes offered to dismiss the setting of a specific and measurable Cooperative Program goal. Such a target, it is said, would “violate church autonomy,” telling churches what they must do and giving them a “denominational loyalty litmus test.” While this is not a violation of church autonomy in the least, such a reaction does at least prove that Southern Baptists are not immune to the modern tendency to bristle at any form of accountability. As an Army Colonel in our church recently shared in one of our discipleship classes, “The effective maximum range of an excuse is zero!”
First of all, let us dismiss this foolish notion that any denominational appeal regarding goals and standards represents some kind of affront to autonomy. Each church has the autonomy to make their own decisions. We are not hierarchical in the least, and goal setting by the denomination does not affect this absence of hierarchy. Every church has the autonomy to embrace denominational goals or reject them. In fact, local church autonomy extends even to each church’s decision about remaining in the Southern Baptist Convention itself. Churches may not like every denominational goal. Churches may not support every denominational goal. But churches do not lose their autonomy whenever a denominational goal or initiative is put in place.
Second, whenever we apply to the notion of a Denomination-wide Church Budget Cooperative Program Goal the argument that, “You can’t promote that goal since we are autonomous,” we invariably fail to realize that every other denominational initiative, goal, agenda, plan, recommendation, motion and resolution falls into this very same category as well. The Great Commission Reallocation of resources away from state missions and toward national and international missions? Autonomy! The desperately needed at the time yet totally forgotten since informal descriptor Great Commission Baptists? Autonomy! The One Percent Challenge itself? Autonomy! Everything in Southern Baptist life, from the names on our signs to the fried chicken at our potlucks to the Lottie Moon offerings at Christmas are totally subject to each local church and their willingness either to get on board with Southern Baptists or to do something else.
When I say the word “ten” your church does not lose autonomy. When I say the words “ten percent” your church still possesses autonomy. When I say the words, “If every Southern Baptist Church gave ten percent of its budget receipts through traditional Cooperative Program channels, we would have all the money we need to support our national and international ministries,” your church still possesses complete autonomy. When I say, “Let this in fact be our goal,” you still have not lost your autonomy. Even if the convention were to vote on this goal, and it were to pass, you would still have it.
You may not like such a goal. You may consider it offensive or insensitive. You may be insulted by it. You may be angry at the implication that you are not paying your fair share. You may not measure up to it. Neither do I! The church I serve contributed 7% last year and 8% this year through the Cooperative Program. Lord willing, we will increase to 9% next year and 10% the next. Yes, it’s a one percent challenge, but it has a target in mind, a specific and measurable goal of ten percent. I plead with you not to be so offended by your own shortcomings in reaching such a goal that you fail to view it as worthy. There really is a number out there, a percentage of all Southern Baptist undesignated receipts, that if evenly applied across the convention toward Cooperative Program causes, would result in adequately funding our mutual missions.
But the one thing we cannot truthfully say is this: “Denominational goals infringe upon church autonomy.” They simply don’t, and it’s time to stop being selective about which proposed denominational goals we claim to be a violation of our autonomy and which ones we don’t.
In Part Two, I separate Cooperative Program giving goals from leadership requirements and expose the fallacy of pitting missions dollars against missions percentages.