Will churches’ change in funding priorities harm mission work?

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a package on giving that appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan earlier this fall. It is reprinted by permission.

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)--To give or not to give -- that isn’t the question.

The Cooperative Program has been Southern Baptists’ unified giving plan for more than 80 years as churches faithfully allocate funds for collaborative missionary efforts. But a rapid decline in the average portion churches give through CP raises the question of whether church priorities are changing.

In trying to reconcile Southern Baptist tradition with new missions strategies, many churches are now hedging the traditional norm of 10 percent through CP and asking instead: How much? Ultimately, the answer likely will determine whether Southern Baptist ministries stay on course in cooperatively funding a worldwide missions enterprise.

In an effort to learn how churches strike a balance in missions budgeting, the Southern Baptist TEXAN newsjournal solicited the comments of Texas Southern Baptists in an online survey. The survey covered churches where traditional CP giving was the norm and others where CP and church-based missions were emphasized.

The respondents included pastors, missions leaders and laymen whose churches are among the several hundred in Texas that embraced the Acts 1:8 Challenge -- the new Southern Baptist Convention initiative to assist congregations in implementing a comprehensive missions strategy involving their community, region, continent and world.

The majority of churches responding to the survey average 50-150 in worship attendance and all consider themselves committed to local and international missions.

THE PROBLEM

As longtime Southern Baptists, most of the survey participants have been exposed to the scope and mechanics of the Cooperative Program over the years. Five of the churches are well over 100 years old while eight were formed between 1900 and 1950. Nine of the surveyed churches were formed between 1951 and 2000 while four are recent church plants.

In addition, 72 percent of respondents attended Southern Baptist churches as children, 60 percent participated in a missions education program like Royal Ambassadors, and 68 percent were educated at Southern Baptist seminaries. Despite familiarity with the SBC’s missions-giving mechanism, some of these churches are effectively defunding the Cooperative Program as they shift resources to a direct missions strategy.

Figures from the Annual Church Profile of Southern Baptist churches show congregations have consistently decreased undesignated Cooperative Program rates from 10.6 percent in 1984 to 6.7 percent in 2005. The trend of decreasing funding through the Cooperative Program is not isolated to a particular area or region. Most churches affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention now average 7 percent in Cooperative Program giving, regardless of whether the congregation numbers 100 or 10,000.

Seventeen of the Acts 1:8 congregations are beyond that average level with seven of that group giving between 10 and 15 percent through CP. Four give between 2 and 6 percent through CP, and another five chose not to answer the question.

With the face of the typical Southern Baptist congregation changing from traditionally churched members to non-traditional and formerly unchurched, newer members lack knowledge of the Cooperative Program, one pastor observed. While his church gives more than 10 percent through CP, it can no longer be assumed that most members understand the Cooperative Program.

“That’s changing rapidly as many of our newer members don’t have a clue as to what the CP is or does,” he said.

With fewer Cooperative Program champions, this pastor finds “education and explanation are a continuing work.”

THE DANGER

As long as churches are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, what is the danger? Does it matter if Southern Baptists choose to fund direct mission strategies over the Cooperative Program? According to “One Sacred Effort: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists,” a book by David Hankins and Chad Owen Brand, great peril exists in abandoning the Cooperative Program altogether. The authors list several reasons for addressing the growing imbalance in missions giving.

“Some mission endeavors, while enthusiastic and well-intended, do not have a coherent plan for accomplishing their aims. They may not lack for enthusiasm, but they are not given to strategic planning or reliable reporting,” the authors write. “The Cooperative Program undergirds a thoughtful, coherent, intentional strategy for systematically reaching the goal. It has the advantage of ministries based on sound, baptistic theological premises with oversight by committed leaders who are accountable to the churches for the resources utilized, the goals attempted, and the results achieved.”

THE TRENDS

While a cooperative missions emphasis has been a historic characteristic of most Southern Baptist churches, more churches are looking for ways to fulfill all of the Acts 1:8 challenges that include:

-- increasing missions involvement through preparation of mission teams;

-- bringing mission awareness to the entire church body;

-- praying for a worldwide vision;

-- increasing support of CP and other SBC cooperative missions;

-- participating in mission trips;

-- telling the Gospel story;

-- sending members out as vocational missionaries; and

-- multiplying efforts through church planting.

A student pastor who responded to the survey said his church realizes they can’t accomplish all of the goals right away, but they’re in a process of accomplishing them gradually.

About 92 percent of the survey participants said they are involved in local mission projects such as intentional and servant evangelism, prayerwalking, food and clothing pantries, and job training. Church planting is also a priority for many survey participants. Most of the respondents are planting churches, financially supporting new plants in their association, partnering with a new church or planning to incorporate church planting into their missions goals.

For state and international efforts, survey respondents encourage church members to personally encounter missions by offering them short-term trips, hosting missions conferences, signing up for vocational missions and sponsoring training classes.

Calvary Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, designated a classroom as a missions conference center for missions education, complete with three computer stations for research and an area for prayer. Boyd Baptist Church in Bonham turned its annual Thanksgiving meal into a missions banquet to motivate members for involvement. To mobilize members for mission work and as an education conduit, Forestburg Baptist Church in Forestburg produces a missions handout for Wednesday evening services. The handout is replete with missions tidbits and prayer requests.

Additionally, the majority of the churches frequently host full-time and volunteer missionaries during worship services for a time of testimony and report.

“We continue being involved with prayer calendars, ‘Open Windows’ missionary listings, having missionaries in our church speaking to small groups and the church family,” Tom Hawk, minister of church ministries at First Baptist Church in Silsbee, said, adding that being personally involved with missionaries builds a kindred spirit.

In preparing for missions, three major factors contribute to a church’s level of mission involvement: pastoral leadership, continual emphasis and education, and action.

“The way to prepare for missions is to do missions,” said Rod Minor, pastor of Anderson Mill Baptist Church in Austin. “If we waited until we’re prepared, we will still be waiting when Jesus comes back.”

Trends in missions giving are also reflective of the increasing hands-on approach many Texas churches are taking, with 72 percent of survey respondents indicating they would like to increase funding mission projects directly. Half that many would encourage increased giving through CP.

Only one of the respondents recommends decreased Cooperative Program funding.

To clarify intentions in the giving balance between the Cooperative Program and direct missions strategies, survey participants were asked a hypothetical question: How would you divide mission expenditures between the Cooperative Program and directly-funded mission project if you allocated 20 percent of your budget to missions?

Despite the trend of decreased giving through the Cooperative Program, nearly half would split such a budget equally between CP and direct mission efforts. Well more than a third of the respondents indicated they would allocate 15 percent through the Cooperative Program and a few preferred to give 5 percent through CP and 15 percent to direct mission projects.

Difficulties often arise in allocating monies equally and consistently as Texas Baptist churches begin to multiply. Survey respondents said looking beyond personal needs, operating in areas saturated with churches, small church budgets, and the overall median age of church members all aggravate the funding dilemma.

One pastor said he strives to keep the Acts 1:8 challenge before his people, encouraging them to examine how increases in funding for local facility needs could affect commitments to missions funding.

Among those hit the hardest by the rigor of budgeting for missions and growth are new church plants.

“I would love for us to increase our giving,” said one church planter. “As a new church start with no one’s support, we live close to the bone and have zero fat. But we still give through the Cooperative Program and missions.”

STRIKING A BALANCE

Preparing a church budget can often become a balancing act. But as churches grow, statistics indicate the gap between continued participation in the Cooperative Program and increasing participation in personal mission endeavors grows wider each year.

To help reverse lowering percentages in local church CP giving, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee brought a recommendation to the 2006 SBC annual meeting encouraging tithing among believers and increasing proportional Cooperative Program gifts among Southern Baptist churches and state conventions.

The original recommendation asked churches to forward a specific 10 percent of undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program. After much debate, that language was amended without reference to a specific target amount.

As an answer to the decline in Cooperative Program funding percentages, the recommendation called for churches to increase their CP percentages for five successive years beginning in 2007.

Many Texas churches already have a proportional system in place for Cooperative Program funding. As churches grow in size, some increase the percentage sent through the Cooperative Program as well. For some survey respondents, adjusting slowly to budgetary increases solves the problem of correctly dividing expenditures.

To ensure an increasing commitment through the Cooperative Program, one survey respondent shared that his church decided to increase giving by .25 percent each year. Another respondent indicated a yearly increase in Cooperative Program funding is kept separate from special mission offerings to guarantee growth in multiple missions giving areas.

“The challenge for us seems to be convincing all of the people that we must look beyond our local needs and raise our very limited giving to a percentage that will reflect our stated priorities,” said one respondent, striving to lead his church to balanced giving. “My goal is to see this reflected in our church by eventually designating 20 percent of our budget for missions, including giving through the Cooperative Program and support for mission trips by our members.”

Acknowledging the comprehensive scope of the Cooperative Program for all Southern Baptists, most survey participants cited specific examples of how they personally benefited from the unified giving plan. Examples of the effective nature of a unified giving strategy included references to church planting funds, subsidized seminary tuition, associational work, missions training and education, missionary support, vision casting and “being part of a family that has world-wide impact.”

Jim Lamar of Arcadia First Baptist Church in Sante Fe, Texas, described the unique blessing “of knowing that our charge to be his witnesses to the uttermost parts of the world is being fulfilled in part by our participation in the Cooperative Program.”

Furthermore, the cooperative strategy yields greater influence, he said. “We support the Cooperative Program because this is the most effective way we can support missionaries on the field. By ourselves we can send out four or five teams a year for one week or one month each. In cooperation with other Southern Baptist churches we can help keep thousands of missionaries on the field all year long.”

Rex Bland of Olive Branch Baptist Church in Axtell echoed that sentiment, stating, “It seems to be the most efficient and effective way, especially for smaller churches, to combine our financial contributions to make a concentrated global impact through support of the worldwide mission endeavor.” He added that his church benefits “by being able to participate through giving in the most worthwhile project on the planet.”

Bart Barber of First Baptist Church in Farmersville said, “The Cooperative Program reduces competition among SBC agencies for missions dollars,” a practice once common prior to 1925 when the Cooperative Program began. “It allows for a common-sense appropriation of funds and coordinated efforts among convention entities, and takes place in an appropriate atmosphere of accountability to the churches.”

“The Cooperative Program supplements the tuition costs of our students in six Southern Baptist seminaries,” Morris H. Chapman, president of the Executive Committee, said. “In fact, almost every pastor now living who went to a Southern Baptist seminary received an outstanding theological education at a fraction of the actual cost. The Cooperative Program makes it possible for us to raise our voices for religious liberty and a moral and ethical culture in America and beyond.

“I am praying that the heightened discussion of the Cooperative Program has created a moment of reflection in the heart of every Southern Baptist and that we shall find ourselves taking a fresh look at the worth of cooperative missions supported through the Cooperative Program,” Chapman added.

David Lino of Faith Family Church in Kingwood put it on a more personal level. Calling the Cooperative Program a unique, God-used strategic effort, he believes those who criticize loyalty through CP as well as folks who “just give it verbal allegiance” need to imagine what the Southern Baptist Convention would look like without it.

“Where would their churches be if there never had been a Cooperative Program?” Lino asked.

Biblical fidelity is the key reason Steve Dorman cited for giving to the Cooperative Program.

“A consequence of the conservative resurgence in our convention over the last 27 years has been the added attention to the biblical fidelity of each of our Cooperative Program entities and their personnel,” Dorman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Brownsville, said. “We can now give confidently to the CP and know that our money is going to support ministries and personnel that are tied to the Bible. There is accountability."


This article first appeared as part of a special report on giving published by the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, online at www.sbtexas.com/texan.

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