Beware a new golden calf - Word&Way

Beware a new golden calf

The report and recommendations of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) task force were in no real danger of being rejected by messengers to last week’s SBC annual meeting in Orlando. Task force leaders apparently worked as hard to line up influential advocates and messenger support for their work as they did to draft it.

Bill Webb

Still, for many, significant concern exists for the future of the SBC’s cooperative giving plan — the Cooperative Program — in the wake of the action.

To its credit, the task force released preliminary reports and gathered feedback and concerns from Southern Baptists from local churches, regional associations and state conventions. The task force tweaked the recommendations along the way.

But concerns and opposition to the anticipated Great Commission Resurgence report and recommendations swelled as the SBC meeting approached. Many felt the task force (1) denigrated the Cooperative Program and (2) threatened the staffing of many state conventions by proposing to phase out “cooperative agreements” between them and the North American Mission Board.

From CP’s start 85 years ago, states were challenged to increase the share of the undesignated receipts they received from churches that they forwarded to the SBC to fund missions, theological education and other joint ministries. That’s how the funding mechanism earned its name when it was introduced in 1925 during hard times — when the very existence of several SBC entities was threatened.

Cooperative agreements came into being to help make sure that some of that money came back to those states to ensure evangelism and missions in the United States, primarily through helping fund trained and strategically placed staff members on the field.

Supporters of the GCR task force recommendations primarily are led by a combination of first-generation post-conservative resurgent leaders and the emerging generation of young pastors. The latter appears to resonate with the specific giving changes approved last week, particularly the characterization of a church’s spending on missions and evangelism outside the CP channel as “Great Commission giving.”

Task force members effectively solicited advocates for their proposal in the weeks, days and hours leading up to messengers’ vote on the measure on June 16 in Orlando.

At the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference preceding the convention, several speakers either explicitly or subtly indicated their support. Each of the four preaching sessions featured a 10-minute segment called “GCR Challenge.” One was brought by SBC president and task force member Johnny Hunt and another by GCR chair Ronnie Floyd.

The GCR task force took a final opportunity to garner votes for their report when they encouraged 1,300 primarily younger pastors attending the B21 luncheon conference shortly before the presentation and vote on the report to leave their event and become fixtures in the meeting hall.

“Please get into that hall, sit in a chair and do not leave until somebody prays and we go eat,” said Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president and task force member Al Mohler, one of eight panelists fielding questions from leaders of B21, a movement to help pastors discern what it is to be Baptist in the 21st century.

To make their case that a church’s designated giving is no less critical than its CP support, some GCR supporters resorted to the old line that the Cooperative Program had become a “golden calf,” a reference to an idol the Hebrews created and worshipped during their Exodus wandering. SBC candidates for high office have been routinely criticized during the past 25 years because the churches they led gave only a small percentage of their offerings through the Cooperative Program. Some candidates responded that those who criticized their records had made CP a golden calf.

The amended final report underscores the importance of CP to SBC mission agencies and other institutions. It rightly emphasizes the need to accelerate missions and evangelism efforts. But elevating designated giving may prompt many to bypass CP for what they see as the more attractive approach.

A new golden calf may emerge.

No longer will there be even a gentle stigma attached to those who claim the Southern Baptist name but decline to give cooperatively. The Cooperative Program is in danger of becoming merely an unglamorous and fading option — if this has not already happened.

Expect less doing missions and ministry together and more going it alone. And expect a smaller share of CP money going to the SBC from some states when cooperative agreements are phased out.

Retiring SBC Executive Committee president Morris Chapman warned that approval of the task force report would take the SBC back to the societal method of funding national missions and ministries in place before the CP began.

A 1924 funding model might not serve the SBC satisfactorily.

Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.