If Baptists have a guiding word it would likely be “cooperative” — at least in theory. The Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention fueled the SBC’s growth to become the largest U.S. Protestant denomination. When moderate Baptists left the SBC in 1991, they kept the key word in their name: Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. American Baptist Churches USA also emphasizes that “God calls us to cooperative ministries.” Yet, it seems we no longer believe in the c-word. Many Baptist churches have a denominational connection on paper, but are increasingly independent in practice.
The SBC’s CP statistics show a shift from cooperation. From 1960 to 2016, the average CP giving from churches dropped from over 10 percent to just over 4 percent. When monies are adjusted for inflation, today’s CP giving is worth less than that given in the mid-1960s, even though total giving (adjusted for inflation) to SBC churches has more than doubled during that same time. In 2015 and 2016, the SBC’s International Mission Board lost more than 1,000 missionaries from budget cuts.
Other Baptists face similar problems. In May, CBF noted a “significant decline” in giving to its Offering for Global Missions, resulting in cuts to missions staff positions. Additionally, CBF is transitioning to a “partner-funded” model where CBF provides some funding while the field personnel raise additional support. ABC has also experienced large giving declines over the past half-century.
We are slowly becoming like distant islands with little more in common than the descriptor — Baptist — that might not even appear in our congregation’s name any longer. Many churches moved from noting their denominational tie on a prominent spot on their sign to a hard-to-find note on their website. SBC leaders also showed this go-it-alone mindset a decade ago as they cut ties to the Baptist World Alliance.
Three years ago, I traveled to Philadelphia, Pa., for a special program celebrating the 200th anniversary of the first Baptist convention in the United States. In 1814, Baptist churches came together to form the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions. More simply known as the Triennial Convention (since it met every three years), the TC emerged in response to the pleadings of Luther Rice as he urged support for Adoniram and Ann Judson as missionaries in Burma (now known as Myanmar). The SBC started in 1845 as a split from the TC, which itself was later reorganized as the Northern Baptist Convention (now known as the ABC).
As I listened to discussions in Philadelphia, I suddenly recognized the craziness of that first convention. A guy most people didn’t know (Rice) showed up asking for money so that people they didn’t know (the Judsons) could serve in a country they hadn’t visited and may not have even heard of before (Burma). And churches not only gave, but decided to partner together to live out the Great Commission in ways they never could on their own. The call of missions literally changed Baptist theology and ecclesiology, moving us from independent congregations to networks of churches understanding the power of synergy and cooperation. Baptists — and the world — were never the same. Today we regress toward independence, toward isolation, toward illness.
English poet and Anglican priest John Donne captured the importance of cooperation in his famous “Meditation XVII” as he talked about the “catholic” (meaning universal) nature of the Church: “The Church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head, too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume… No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”