If the Cooperative Program should go away, would we find ourselves with a societal missions approach? That’s been the standard presumption. I’ve said it myself. Now I’m not entirely sure.
The great debate of the 1800s, besides whether slaveholders could be missionaries, regarded funding and organizational approaches to Baptist causes. On the one hand, Northerners favored the societal approach. According to that approach, Baptist churches do not organize per se. Rather, what we might today call a “missional entrepreneur” would launch a “society” organized to address a particular highly specific ministry need. One might send missionaries overseas. Another might distribute Bibles to soldiers. Yet another might print evangelistic tracts. Yet another might do Bible translation. Churches or individuals or businesses or whomever would be free to find the society or societies that captured their hearts and to support them financially.
There are organizations all around us that would’ve been called societies back in the day. Samaritan’s Purse, Compassion International, World Vision, YWAM, Operation Mobilization, and Feed the Children all come to mind. Some individual in your church probably gives to at least one of these. Some churches collectively support one or more of them. That’s the society approach.
The convention approach is a little different. The convention approach, generically considered, involves something of a church’s identity. Churches say, “We’re a Southern Baptist church.” I don’t know of any churches who would say, “We’re a Samaritan’s Purse church.” Baptist associations and conventions arise at the nexus of identity, geography, and mission. In other words, churches who consider themselves to be the same kind of church and who exist nearby one another, when they find a mission larger than themselves, naturally tend to band together to undertake that work.
According to the convention approach, those churches, once they are together, face no artificial restriction upon what they may do together. If the partnership works well for foreign missions and if they find that they also have a common need for theological education, they may decide to launch a seminary together as well.
For the past ninety years, the convention approach as practiced by the Southern Baptist Convention has involved the Cooperative Program. The Cooperative Program is neither more nor less than the choice by Southern Baptists to adopt a common budget and then fund it. Today naysayers and pundits across the breadth of the Southern Baptist Convention predict the demise of the Cooperative Program. If the CP dies, will societal missions inexorably replace it?
I’m no longer so sure.
What if, rather than a turn to societal missions, we witness the Walmartization of the Southern Baptist Convention? Once upon a time the downtown area of your little town had a shoe store, a home appliances store, a parts store, a grocery store, and a filling station. Today those sorts of business are driven out of town when the Walmart arrives. Walmart is a big-box store offering all of those things under a single roof.
The Walmart method of missions organization would look like this: No longer benefitting from the Cooperative Program, the entities previous supported by the Cooperative Program find themselves in direct competition with one another for the same dollars coming from individuals and from the churches. As a result, the mission of the entities changes. Once upon a time it was the mission of the missionary boards to send missionaries and it was the mission of the seminaries to educate students. Now, under the new reality we are imagining, the mission of every entity is to win financial support from wealthy donors and from churches.
So, seminaries begin to do more and more in the way of domestic and international missions. Missionary boards begin to bring more and more of their theological training in-house or on the field. Every entity begins to dabble in a little bit of everything in order to attract the respective dollars that follow along with every slice of the pie.
This is different from the societal approach, where each society is content to focus itself tightly and to leave big tasks to other players. It’s different from the convention approach, where churches become a part of a single convention based largely upon identity. Instead, this big-box method involves multiple “conventions,” each of which is a sort of “mega-societal-conglomerate,” competing for the affiliation of the churches that they might fund that entity’s total package of a particular missional approach.
Here are items in Southern Baptist life that look to me like Walmartization:
- The consolidation of multiple entities into the North American Mission Board as a part of the 1995 Covenant for a New Century.
- Constant proposals to merge the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board into a single combined mission board.
- Programs like 2+2 that truncate on-campus seminary education and migrate theological training from the seminary campus and into the on-field missionary experience.
- The ongoing expansion of degrees awarded and programs taught at theological seminaries.
As an Arkansan, I of course believe that Walmart and Sam’s Clubs are a force preserving all that is good in the American way of life. Some people can’t stand Walmart (although most people shop there or otherwise benefit from it). I think we all can see some good and some bad that has come from the dawning of the Age of Walmart.
As to the Walmartization of the SBC, I’m not prepared to declare it either good or bad. I’m willing to defend the Cooperative Program and labor to preserve it because it is a known-good and because we have absolutely no good reason to move away from it. I don’t know for certain that this Walmartization is what would emerge if the CP were to go away or to fade down to insignificance, but it is an outcome that I can imagine.
At the very least, I’m prepared to admit that the convention approach and the societal approach may not be the only two alternatives available to Southern Baptists.