NASHVILLE, Tenn. — From the
founding of the convention in 1845, Southern Baptists have united around a
mission of “eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the whole
denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the gospel.”
What was elusive in the
early years was an organized plan to accomplish this mission.
At the outset, Southern
Baptists simply adopted a “societal method” of financing the Convention’s
ministries, in which persons are enlisted to contribute financially and to
generate contributions from contacts in their networks of church and friend
circles. Campus Crusade, Prison Fellowship, Samaritan’s Purse and Youth with a
Mission are all examples of ministries which traditionally have been funded by
the societal method.
Employing the “societal
method,” Southern Baptists launched and grew various denominational ministries
and institutions and went about seeking contributions from individual
congregations to sustain ongoing work. Sunday after Sunday, fundraisers from
seminaries and colleges, orphanages and hospitals, mission boards and
benevolent organizations fanned out among Southern Baptist churches asking the
faithful for help. The most gifted orator often was the most successful in
securing financial support for their entity or agency — and the constant parade
of ministry representatives making direct appeals took away “pulpit time” for the
local pastor to preach God’s word.
Frustration and competition
were the rule.
Moreover, results created a
feast and famine cycle that was bankrupting SBC cooperative ministries and
consuming much of the funds being raised in the raising of the funds.
In 1919, Southern Baptists
embraced a solution that fell short of its goals, but that contained key
building blocks for cooperation and stability in funding.
One member was selected from
each of the convention’s 14 affiliated states to form a Financial Campaign
Committee to raise $75 million over five years. Quotas were set for each state,
and expected proceeds were budgeted out for each SBC entity, as well as for
state concerns, such as colleges, orphanages and hospitals.
pledged over $92.6 million, but the campaign ultimately failed to reach even
its original goal of $75 million. It raised $58.6 million, a record amount, but
Convention entities had borrowed money against the pledges and consequently
were left with a huge debt. People were discouraged and the dream of
“eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the whole denomination”
seemed to evaporate.
Cooperative Program success
In 1923, facing desperate
circumstances, the Southern Baptist Convention found itself forced to regroup.
The convention commissioned M.E. Dodd of Louisiana to lead a group called the
“Committee on Future Program” to come up with a solution.
Borrowing the elements of
coordination, uniformity and proportionate distribution from the 75 Million
Campaign, the committee focused on developing an overall strategy that would
produce consistent, long-lasting results.
Two years later, in Memphis,
Tenn., during the SBC annual meeting, the committee announced the “Co-Operative
Program of Southern Baptists.”
The structure of the
proposed Cooperative Program was remarkably simple in design:
- Churches were to canvass
their members in the fall asking for their giving pledges for the following
year so that churches could set their own annual budgets.
- Out of their respective
budgets, cooperating churches were to commit a percentage to give through the
Cooperative Program. That percentage of revenue would then be sent on to the
state convention office on a monthly basis.
- These combined resources
would provide the budget base for state conventions which would send a portion
of these Cooperative Program gifts on to the Southern Baptist Convention for a
distribution which would address the needs of the national ministries
Though not everyone
accepted the Cooperative Program at first and not all churches participate, in
the very first year of its existence, Southern Baptist churches voluntarily
contributed an average of nearly 11 percent of their annual budget income to
this bold new integrated plan for reaching people through cooperative
ministries and missions.
The legacy continues
The simplicity and
effectiveness of the Cooperative Program have continued to be its hallmarks,
and now, the better part of a century after its birth, the Cooperative Program
still functions essentially the same way it did in its earliest days. However,
the success of the Cooperative Program has enabled the expansion of Southern
Baptists’ missions and ministries at home and abroad in ways unforeseen in those
The Cooperative Program
sends career missionaries and church planters to a hundred nations and
throughout the United States. It sends doctors and nurses to show the love of
Jesus to AIDS victims in Uganda. It sends agricultural missionaries to tell
Ethiopians about “Living Water” while showing them how to dig wells and plant
crops. It sends volunteers to paint public schools in New York City, and repair
thousands of inner-city houses all across America while providing a witness of
God’s ability to transform the home. Through Cooperative Program ministries,
volunteer disaster relief teams are some of the first responders to areas of
weather-related or other crisis, making the Southern Baptist Convention one of
the largest disaster relief organizations in the world. And in every building
project, every medical outpost, every cleanup, every repair, every relocation
effort, every initiative and every response of every kind, Southern Baptists
take the opportunity to tell how faith in Jesus Christ can make all things new.
response to God’s command to minister among believers and the lost, Southern
Baptists have been obedient to employ the biblical concept of cooperation that
infused New Testament churches internally (Acts 2:40-47; Acts 4:30-37) and
catalyzed their joint missions (Acts 8: 4-8, 14-17), ministries (1 Corinthians
16:2; Romans 15:24-29) and doctrinal education (Colossians 4:16-17).
Today the Cooperative
Program stands at a crossroads that it has faced before.
In 1924, M.E. Dodd spoke
almost prophetically to the issues faced today:
“At this point our Unified
Program will either break or be saved. If it should break at this point, by an
under-emphasis upon the whole program and an over-emphasis upon the individual
object, then we will find ourselves back where we were five years ago, with
every object contending for all it can obtain, to the exclusion of other
equally worthy commitments.”
In unity, Southern Baptists
came together in those early years to forge the Cooperative Program.
Southern Baptists have the
opportunity today to preserve and even elevate the Cooperative Program as that
primary means of support and the key unifying method for showing love in action
in seeking to fulfill God’s Great Commission at home and abroad.
For more information and
resources relating to the Cooperative Program, go to www.sbc.net/cp and
(EDITOR’S NOTE: April 11 is
Cooperative Program Sunday in the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.
This article is adapted in large part from the video, “Cooperative Program: A