By Chris Turner
Director of Communications, TBC
The proverbial elephant in the room is quickly growing, so let’s talk about it.
There is a conversational crescendo regarding our historical Cooperative Program giving model in the wake of the International Mission Board’s shocking announcement that it will downsize by 600 to 800 people, this despite giving increases to the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering over the past few years. Questions are being raised (again) about whether Cooperative Program giving should either bypass state conventions and go to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, or if money should be directly routed to the IMB.
If you’re a Tennessee pastor you may be contemplating a question that is sometimes assumed and other times aggressively debated. Let’s get it out there since it is the elephant. Are state conventions — and most specifically the Tennessee Baptist Convention — still relevant?
It’s a fair question to ask as people debate the IMB’s financial situation. Proposed solutions have included state conventions immediately shifting to a 50/50 Cooperative Program distribution to cover the IMB’s deficit. One person pressed the idea that state conventions mirror the IMB’s drastic actions. The comments reveal shocked panic over the situation and offer calls to action that amount to grabbing the pendulum and quickly yanking it in a drastic direction. That knee-jerk reaction would be a disastrous mistake on many levels without the consequences of those actions being thoroughly considered.
For instance, if IMB President David Platt says there needs to be a financial restructuring, then let’s allow that to take place so the IMB can be better stewards of the money Southern Baptists give in the future through special offerings and the Cooperative Program. Simply throwing more money at the IMB’s current situation doesn’t fix the fundamental problem Platt has identified and is addressing. Do Southern Baptists need to give more? Yes, especially when you consider Southern Baptists on average annually contribute about $18 each to the LMCO. We spend more on Friday at the movies than we do annually toward the sake of global evangelization. But think how far Southern Baptists could reach into global evangelism if we gave more and that money was strategically applied with better accountability.
But there is still the question of the TBC’s relevancy. Short answer, we are and have been taking aggressive steps to become even more so. First, our executive director, Randy C. Davis, led a comprehensive restructuring of our Executive Board Ministries, including the budgeting process. Platt’s proposed personnel cuts equate to about 15 percent of IMB staffing. The TBC is about two years ahead of the IMB in this regard, having reduced staffing by 20 percent, streamlined ministries, and tied them to a definitive strategy (The Five Objectives) anchored in evangelism, church health and church growth — all while being committed to reaching the 50/50 split. Dr. Davis’ actions have increased the TBC’s value to our churches.
However, the proposed solution by some of robbing Peter to pay Paul isn’t a viable financial strategy and deeply undermines the TBC’s relevancy by undermining the service it provides churches. Here’s why.
Some in Tennessee who are calling for an immediate 50/50 split (or more) are in medium to large churches whose budgets are relatively stable. Most assume this stability is the norm and not the exception. The reality of Tennessee Baptist churches is much different. The average church is fewer than 125 members, located in a county with double-digit poverty and led by a bivocational pastor (65 percent of all TBC churches are led by “bivos”). The benefits of the Cooperative Program delivered through the Tennessee Baptist Convention is a lifeline for these churches, helping them develop an Acts 1:8 missions vision, helping them revitalize their churches, and helping them see the unreached in their communities and around the world. There is no other SBC entity tasked with that responsibility other than the TBC. Dramatically shifting money directly impacts ministry and resources rendered to the majority of our churches.
And even for those larger and/or more “stable” churches. The TBC is providing a variety of expertise and resources beyond the financial to help strengthen their ministries and help them increase their gospel influence in their communities, across the state, around the country, and around the globe. Dr. Davis’ desire is for every Tennessee Baptist church to be healthy and engaged to the fullest extent of the Great Commission.
But look beyond the church and into Tennessee. More than half the population of our state is spiritually lost (about 60 percent) and 91 of 95 counties have double-digit poverty, with nearly half of those categorized as “extreme poverty.” More than 140 global people groups now live in Tennessee and 46 of those are among the most unreached people groups in the world (the same ones the IMB is focusing on overseas). The argument made by proponents for immediately directing money away from the TBC is that the local church can evangelize those living in their communities. True in theory, but the reality is that that isn’t happening. Generally, churches are declining in every statistical way and we still have hundreds across the TBC — and thousands across the SBC — who can’t remember when they last baptized someone.
The Southern Baptist church that everybody thinks is a cash cow for missions is sick and needs attention, and there is great danger in looking to our churches and its members as a quick financial solution without considering overall church health. To cherry pick money from churches without investing in church health is a shallow well that will soon dry up. Part of the reason there is a decline in overall financial giving is that there is a decline in evangelism and a lack of discipleship that includes teaching what Scripture says about stewardship. Evangelism, discipleship, and church health are the foundations of the TBC’s Five Objectives strategy.
Let’s be honest. The perception of Tennessee as the Buckle of the Bible Belt is a fallacy. By every statistical measure Tennessee is a missions field. There is no other SBC entity other than the TBC tasked with the responsibility of helping Tennessee churches thrive so that they can reach Tennessee and reach the nations for Christ. Dramatically shifting money as some propose negatively impacts overall church health in a state that is rapidly becoming more spiritually lost by the day.
But let’s exhale a moment and consider what could happen if the IMB gets a handle on the way it spends money and if churches committed to increasing their undesignated Cooperative Program giving by even 1 percent? The IMB would have significantly more millions of dollars to add to their current budget of more than $300 million. And what if churches went all the way to the 10 percent where most were just a few decades ago? We’re talking generosity that abundantly fuels the fire of missions and ministry from the most remote hollow in Tennessee to the most remote village in Afghanistan.
The solution is obvious; so before you panic in response to the IMB’s changes, step back and look at the bigger picture rather than looking narrowly through a telescope. The Cooperative Program is unquestionably the best mechanism Southern Baptists have of fueling every aspect of an Acts 1:8 strategy and really the most effective opportunity our smaller churches have in participating in the full extent of the Great Commission.
Each entity of the Southern Baptist Convention plays a significant role in reaching people for Christ; so yes, the Tennessee Baptist Convention is relevant in helping churches reach Jerusalem and Judea while partnering with NAMB and the IMB to reach Samaria and the ends of the earth.
After all, making Christ known by serving churches is why the TBC exists.