In August, Seth Brown published an article in the Biblical Recorder suggesting the Cooperative Program (CP) could reach its fullest potential if the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) allowed global churches to contribute. He offered ten thoughtful reasons for why the SBC should consider a global CP.
I agree with much of what Brown wrote in his article. Cooperation is biblical and effective. The CP does highlight the value of smaller churches, and it is designed precisely to display unity amidst diversity. Global missions coordination would strengthen the work of Great Commission Baptist churches.
I do, however, have some reservations about the organizational viability and missiological effectiveness of the idea.
Is it effective?
First, initiating a global CP would entail increased organizational complexity that could change the mission of the convention.
My concern is not about whether the SBC can operate globally. In this global world, businesses and ministries have found ways to function internationally. I am certain the Executive Committee of the SBC can figure out solutions to any challenges a global CP would introduce to our operational systems.
My concern is losing the significance of the SBC’s organizational method and focus, which is designed to facilitate Great Commission cooperation and the fulfillment of its mission.
The SBC is a cooperating body that oversees a central funding mechanism and the governance of SBC entities.
During its annual two-day meeting, it appoints representative bodies to govern its ministries throughout the year.
We already struggle to appreciate the valuable cooperative work of our representative governing bodies. We also struggle to utilize effectively the collective voices of these bodies to equip and mobilize the American church for missions.
While there are many reasons for these challenges and others, one is the complexity of a national body comprised of more than 40,000 churches. A global CP would eventually require global representation on those governing bodies and increase the complexity of our current challenges.
A global CP would also challenge the historic focus of our convention. Article II of the SBC Constitution states the convention’s purpose:
“It is the purpose of the Convention to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories for the promotion of Christian missions at home and abroad and any other objects such as Christian education, benevolent enterprises, and social services which it may deem proper and advisable for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God.”
If we adopt a global CP, it would question whether the mobilization and equipping focus of the convention should shift from Baptists in the United States and its territories to the whole world.
The effectiveness of the convention would be tested by this expansion. If the mobilization and equipping emphasis of the convention shifts from America to the world, what impact will it have on the American church’s missions engagement?
Great Commission mobilization of cooperating churches in America is a sizable task all by itself.
Is it beneficial?
Second, the proposal could have unintended negative missiological consequences. Here are just a couple:
It could entangle global churches with the SBC’s work to mobilize the American church. We noted above that SBC entities focus on the mobilization and equipping of the American church, and a global CP will create a need for us to consider changing this emphasis. This possiblility does not simply test the organizational effectiveness of the convention; it also strains the missiological practices.
If the mobilization and equipping emphasis of the convention shifts from America to the whole world, how much attention and resources will global chuches expend to prompt the change? If the predicted shift in mobilization focus never takes place, then global churches will be investing its resources to mobilize and equip the American church.
Each of these scenarios results, in my opinion, in the misuse of resources and mission distraction.
A global CP will likely distract global churches from the important work in their context and the sending opportunities for their churches. It will likely not maximize the strategic opportunities and investments of all the global partners.
A better plan is to help national conventions develop funding mechanisms that support their own national and international movements.
Global missions centralization could encourage disengagement. Brown proposes scaling the CP by centralizing giving and missional cooperation. He wants to do more with less. His plan results in more money and more partners with less organizational structures. Brown’s intention is not for people to disengage in missions, but that is the possible effect of scaling missions cooperation. Scaling leads to centralization, and centralization always creates distance between those supporting the organization and the decision makers in the organization.
This dynamic encourages disengagement. At some level, we have experienced this effect already. Southern Baptist churches have for years sent their money for missions while failing to engage in missions.
The Great Commission calls us to do more with more (more money, more partners, more access and more engagement), and it will likely require more organizational structures.
Christ requires everyone’s involvement in the work to which God has called them. This call requires a local missional impetus to mobilize the church. Convention structures and missions mobilization only work when they help churches get involved in the mission. They don’t work when the church uses the convention structures to farm out its responsibility.
We don’t have to chose an either-or approach when it comes to working with global churches. Many global churches already participate with the SBC’s global work. They work along side of our missionaries in their own country or in countries in which they send missionaries.
I used the term participate here, instead of cooperate, to point out that we can work together and benefit from that work without sharing a cooperative structure like the CP.
Baptist conventions around the world already work with the International Mission Board (IMB), and at least one national convention works with both the North American Mission Board and the IMB. These partnerships provide ways for us to do more with more in a Great Commission sense. Everyone is invested, and everyone is involved.
Brown hopes to increase CP giving by adding global churches. Even if giving increases, this good desire will possibly hinder accomplishing the Great Commission. A centralized plan will not effectively facilitate all of God’s people being engaged in God’s mission.
A global CP will likely distract global churches from the important work in their context and the sending opportunities for their churches. A global CP could place the resources of churches from other countries under the control of churches in America. We must find a way to revive the CP. I am not convinced that global cooperation is the answer. The greatest capacity to increase the CP rests with the churches in the U.S.
SBC churches can address the declining CP together. We can maximize CP potential by renewing the vision in our own hearts for the work of cooperation.
Our churches and entity leaders have the influence to promote the CP.
Giving will increase when sacrificial, mission-focused leaders lead our churches and lead our entities at every level (association, state and national).
Our entity leaders can promote the CP by stewarding faithfully the trust of the members of SBC churches. Their judgment, their commitment, their sacrifice, their vision and their cooperative spirit make a difference in the confidence people place in the value of the CP.
Our leaders can promote the CP by investing in and developing young leaders and facilitating their participation in SBC life.
Giving will increase when access to SBC leadership is given to more people and meaningful cooperation increases. People give to what they have confidence in, what they have access to and what they are invested in.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Keith Whitfield is dean of graduate studies and vice president for academic administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and member of the Biblical Recorder Board of Directors.)