By Tammi Reed Ledbetter , The TEXAN News Editor
NASHVILLE — When Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt took the stage at the first listening session of the newly appointed Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, no one doubted his desire to see the 22 members put any idea on the table to “discover how Southern Baptists can work more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission.”
Nor did it take long for critics to emerge, fearing change that would wreak havoc with the Cooperative Program. As recently as 2007, SBC messengers affirmed CP as “Southern Baptists’ unified plan of giving through which cooperating Southern Baptist churches give a percentage of their undesignated receipts in support of their respective state convention and the SBC missions and ministries.”
GCRTF critics predicted that any alteration to the definition of CP would return the convention to a pre-1925 era of societal missions when mission boards, seminaries and other entities competed for funds.
Instead, the fifth component of the progress report released by the task force on Feb. 22 and posted online at pray4gcr.com reaffirms the Cooperative Program as the preferred means of giving, placing it under a new umbrella of Great Commission Giving.
The recommendation as stated in GCRTF Component 5 states:
“We believe in order for us to work together more faithfully and effectively towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission, we will ask Southern Baptists to reaffirm the Cooperative Program as our central means of supporting Great Commission ministries; but in addition, we will ask Southern Baptists to celebrate with our churches in their Great Commission Giving that goes directly through the Cooperative Program, as well as any designated gifts given to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention, a state convention or a local association.”
GCRTF member David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., explained the rationale behind the new category when he spoke last month to faculty, students and area Southern Baptists.
“We are not taking away our commitment to the Cooperative Program. Since 1925 it has been the genius and the glue that has helped hold us together in so many ways,” he said.
Dockery also explained why the task force chose not to redefine CP.
“There is nothing better we can find . . . to work cooperatively in our shared work, our shared mission, our shared funding than the Cooperative Program.” In fact, state conventions would play a greater role in promoting stewardship and CP at a time when the average portion churches give to CP from undesignated receipts has slipped from around 10 percent in the 1980s to 6.08 percent in 2008.
Explaining the proposed addition of a new category for designated funds, Dockery said, “We want to add some icing onto the cake perhaps and that is to celebrate Great Commission Giving.”
By way of illustration, he cited the preference of some churches “to give directly to the North American Mission Board without giving to anyone else” or those that choose to fund the International Mission Board efforts through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. In his state, Dockery said local churches might favor particular Southern Baptist-related causes such as the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home or Union University and see those gifts counted as “Great Commission Giving.”
GCRTF member Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said the term “Great Commission Giving” is intended to more clearly define the purpose and destination of mission gifts. He rejected criticism that the term “elevates designations and devalues the Cooperative Program.”
Instead, White said, the proposal seeks to “acknowledge, with gratitude, all that our churches are giving to kingdom causes through our convention.”
In Dockery’s words, “We are not asking Great Commission Giving to replace Cooperative Program giving, but asking Cooperative Program giving to be enhanced by, augmented by those who would choose to give differently.”
Numerous Southern Baptist causes not directly benefiting from CP allocations stand to gain more revenue from local churches desiring to see those gifts recognized in Annual Church Profile accounting. ACP reports often become the basis upon which local churches are evaluated in regard to total baptisms, attendance and contributions. It is also the criterion messengers to a state or national conventions often use in deciding between candidates for elected offices.
Messengers to SBC annual meetings repeatedly reject calls for a minimal 10 percent commitment to CP by the churches from which leaders are tapped for convention offices or trustee boards. Two-thirds of SBC presidents in the past 30 years have come from churches with CP contributions well below 10 percent, the exceptions being Jimmy Draper, Morris Chapman, Paige Patterson, Bobby Welch and Frank Page. When mission-related gifts to all causes are factored, the other presidents gain some credibility for the overall missions commitment of the churches they serve.
Currently, local churches record gifts to the Cooperative Program, associations, offerings that benefit the state convention, Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.
They use the category “other missions” to account for funding outreach efforts as defined by each local church. Some churches might include expenditures for projects in another state or directly funded international work whether it has a Southern Baptist connection or not.
Local churches first send their CP contributions to state conventions, which keep a portion for in-state ministries, forwarding the remainder to the SBC for distribution to SBC missions and ministries. Currently, CP allocations fund the International Mission Board (50 percent), North American Mission Board (22.79 percent), six seminaries and historical library and archives (22.16 percent), SBC Operations of the Executive Committee (3.4 percent) and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1.65 percent). Further details on CP accounting are available at cpmissions.net.
The only change to CP allocations recommended by the task force involves taking 1 percent away from the Executive Committee and passing it along to the IMB to strengthen overseas work. With state conventions given primary responsibility for CP promotion and stewardship education in the proposal, the task force assumes the Executive Committee will have money to spare for what CGRTF Chairman Ronnie Floyd sums up as their primary goal — penetrating lostness.
The GCRTF proposal also accomplishes a priority SBC President Johnny Hunt set for it early on. At the first listening session before 300 participants on Aug. 25 in Rogers, Ark., Hunt said, “When we judge a person’s commitment on the Great Commission, we have the potential of elevating the Cooperative Program above the Great Commission.”
He reiterated that concern Feb. 22, telling reporters, “We talk about the difference it would make if everybody would increase [Cooperative Program giving] by 1 percent, but we never celebrate that type of movement.” Instead, he said, the 10 percent level becomes “the badge of honor,” he said.
He explained that many churches have been focusing their efforts on a variety of causes such as becoming debt free, planting churches or directly funding missionaries, before turning their attention to increasing the portion given to CP. “But we never celebrate that type of movement. It’s almost as if, if you’re not at 10 percent, you’re not a cooperating Southern Baptist church.” That type of appeal has been “more of a turn-off than a help,” Hunt said. “I think we need to celebrate the Great Commission — all of it that we’re doing to bring people into the kingdom.”
Regarding ACP reporting, Hunt said, “It’s fine for them to list that, but if judged on our commitment to the Great Commission it ought to be to the Great Commission and not just the Cooperative Program. We’re committed to both,” he said, referring to an increase in the percentage of undesignated receipts at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., as well as designated giving to SBC causes and other mission efforts.
“Quite frankly, our church could care less about how folks outside count our loyalty,” added GCRTF member Al Gilbert, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“It’s a game the next generation is sick of. They have no desire to have that kind of loyalty pin,” he said, garnering widespread applause at the Feb. 22 GCRTF news conference. “We’d better wake up and listen to that.”
In the same forum, Floyd insisted that churches are best evaluated by their effectiveness in penetrating the lostness of the world, reaching the community that surrounds them as well as the ends of the earth. The two church campuses he pastors in Northwest Arkansas launched 13 churches worldwide in the prior year and 33 since 2001 while increasing the amount given to CP by 44 percent when compared to the previous year.
Through the category of designated Great Commission Giving, churches like those pastored by Hunt, Gilbert and Floyd could report sizeable investments in planting churches in cooperation with the North American Mission Board in areas like Las Vegas, Baltimore and San Diego as well as overseas projects for which churches are recruited by the IMB to undergird.
Some churches also choose to bypass the state convention when contributing undesignated gifts to SBC causes, often as a way of voicing disapproval for the state convention’s priorities or leadership. Under the new plan, funds sent directly to the SBC would be classified as Designated Great Commission Giving, along with support for association, state, national and international offerings. The previously used category of “other missions” will become “Other SBC, State and Association Mission Gifts,” no longer reporting non-SBC-related giving, according to an explanation provided to the Christian Index by White.
The autonomy of the local church is highlighted throughout the GCRTF report and drives some of the thinking behind the recommendation for ACP reporting. When the subject arose at a recent meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Committee, White told members, “Some of you are going to have to swallow real hard, but I think it is a godly thing to do. Acknowledge that churches are autonomous and they have a right to decide where their money is going to go. You don’t have to agree with them,” he said, favoring the effort to affirm the value of all missions gifts, whether directed through the Cooperative Program or not.
Southern Baptists who disagree with the priorities of their state conventions are in the best position to change how funds are allocated and how much remains in-state by voting at their annual meetings. The percentage retained for in-state ranges from a high of 87 percent kept by the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention to a low of 45 percent at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
However, many state conventions have been on a multi-year track of decreasing the portion they retain in order to advance more funds to SBC causes. In an open letter to the GCRTF, the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia wrote that the trend of churches lowering their CP commitment makes the second of a dozen state conventions voting to raise the percentage forwarded to Nashville “all the more remarkable.”
Citing the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention for leading the way with a 4.5 percent increase, the SBCV letter added, “It is reminiscent of the churches in Macedonia who, out of their poverty, gave generously.”
The task force acknowledged this approach is visionary.
“When churches give more through the Cooperative Program and state conventions keep less of it within their respective states, and a compelling unified gospel vision is cast for Southern Baptists,” the task force believes “we will see giving through the Cooperative Program increase in a major way,” according to the report.
GCRTF member Tom Biles, executive director for Tampa Bay Baptist Association in Florida, predicted that the new means of recognition of all “Great Commission Giving” will “raise the level of association giving.”
Participants in a March conference call of the Network of Baptist Associations heard Biles and several other task force members explain the impact of the proposals included in the progress report released Feb. 22 in Nashville.
Combined with other proposals that prioritize church planting, evangelism and discipleship, Biles said, “The association is going to be at the heart of a movement for church planting across America.”
Floyd reminded directors of missions that the progress report is not the final document to be released in May for consideration by messengers to the SBC in Orlando. “One of the real positives about a progress report is we’ve been able to receive feedback, hear from our people.”
The final meeting of the task force is set for April 26 in Nashville with an early May release of the report to be recommended in Orlando.
White’s own board instructed him to present their concerns at that meeting, stating, “The wide application of the phrase ‘Great Commission Giving’ for monies given through the Cooperative Program as well as to designated causes may cause some Baptists to surmise wrongly that the Cooperative Program is merely a subset of giving instead of the primary means of missions giving for Southern Baptists.” The committee wants the task force to formally state that designated or special gifts are best provided as a supplement and not a substitute for the Cooperative Program.
Following the meeting of convention officers and staff, SBCV Executive Director Jeff Ginn of Virginia wrote, “It is my personal hope and expectation that there will be revisions that strengthen our convention-wide commitment to a cooperative approach to mission support and practice.”
Floyd wrote in a column last month, “Within our GCR Task Force or in any report to this convention, there has not been nor will there be any desire or movement to reduce the Cooperative Program and its significance in supporting Great Commission Ministries.”
Southern Baptists are being asked “to celebrate with our churches the Great Commission Giving that is given through the Cooperative Program which is our priority, but also to celebrate with our churches those gifts they felt led to designate to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention, a state convention, or a local association. When our churches give to offerings like Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, and state-related mission offerings, the gospel is being advanced,” Floyd said.
“When we celebrate with our churches what they are doing for the Great Commission, they will be much more likely to support with greater enthusiasm and commitment our priority in all of our giving, which is the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention.”