The Great Commission Task Force’s recent progress report to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee suggests the final report — expected May 3 — will at the very least be interesting if not confusing reading. (See ABP's national story.)
Chairperson Ronnie Floyd suggests that “envy, strife and division need to become unacceptable” and that a new denominational structure should be characterized by Christlikeness, unity, trust and recognition of the responsibility of the local church for fulfilling the Great Commission. Those are admirable goals, but the task force’s recommendations could undermine some of them.
Study has led task force members to recommend phasing out the North American Mission Board’s system of cooperative agreements with state conventions over four years. These are agreements whereby NAMB designates funds for state conventions to help pay for ministries like church planting as well as partial funding of salaries and benefits for some state convention staff positions, particularly those that are missions related.
The task force appears to be suggesting a Robin Hood approach, taking money that has been going to SBC Bible Belt states and instead forwarding more to less-Southern Baptist-influenced areas of the country.
In states like Missouri, this approach could mean that a slew of state convention employees — many of them field personnel — might be defunded. Many Baptists will see this recommendation as discouraging grassroots influence on the use of Cooperative Program funds on the field in favor of more arbitrary use of funds at the national level. It will be hard for many congregations to see this as recognition of the responsibility of the local church for fulfilling the Great Commission.
Under one proposal of the task force, the Cooperative Program will likely become less the primary tool for the SBC and its churches to accomplish the Great Commission. Congregations will be encouraged to designate gifts to SBC and other causes. In fact, if the task force has its way, “Great Commission Giving” will become the new nomenclature not for Cooperative Program giving but for money designated to the convention. Roll over, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong.
This recommendation has some history. For some time, SBC messengers have elected presidents who are pastors of megachurches — or at least very large churches — some of them criticized because of the paltry percentage of their budgets committed to the Cooperative Program. Current SBC president Johnny Hunt has become publicly defensive about such criticism of him and his church. President Hunt has suggested that a church’s CP percentage shouldn’t be a measure of its denominational loyalty. He has pointed instead to money his church and others have designated in large amounts to missions and evangelism.
This “Great Commission Giving” recommendation will become increasingly embraced, not only at the local church level but at the state convention level.
If churches have reduced the share of undesignated gifts through CP from an average of 10 percent to 6 percent over the past 10 years, they will need little encouragement to keep reducing the percentage, especially if that is how top leaders and new models in SBC life do it. State conventions will keep more and send the SBC less CP money to compensate for not receiving more back through cooperative agreements.
What appears to be less emphasis on the Cooperative Program suggests a greater emphasis on the competition among agencies that existed for funds before CP came into being in 1925. The emphasis on the value of designated giving by churches will not be lost on entities that see revenue declining if the whole CP pie — and their respective slices — experience significant shrinkage.
The increase in the International Mission Board share of CP from 50 to 51 percent may hardly be the “symbolic and substantial” change the task force envisions. The result may not be a gain in real dollars at all.
The Great Commission Task Force seems to want it both ways — claiming a desire for more cooperation but with less emphasis on the proven system of cooperative giving. Many will find it hard to see how their recommendations will improve support for and improve SBC ministries.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.