By Lonnie Wilkey and Chris Turner
Baptist and Reflector
Recent developments across the Southern Baptist Convention, however, raise questions about whether the upswing in Cooperative Program giving will continue.
A number of Southern Baptists in Tennessee and across the nation have expressed concern over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the SBC’s International Mission Board signing an amicus brief in support of a mosque whose construction was being blocked by court order in New Jersey. Both ERLC and IMB cited a Constitutional right of religious liberty for all people to freely worship as the reason for their support.
Additionally, ERLC President Russell Moore alienated many Southern Baptists when they felt he criticized them for their support of then presidential candidate Donald Trump (who won the election in November). For those who expressed that concern, Moore apologized in a December, 2016, column posted on his RussellMoore.com website. In the article titled, “Election Year Thoughts at Christmastime,” Moore said, “… If that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.”
Platt apologized to Southern Baptists in February for the mosque issue during a meeting of state convention leaders, also saying the IMB, with input from its trustees, planned to develop a policy to guide future amicus-type actions.
Last month, the Baptist and Reflector reported that respected Tennessee pastor and former state convention president Dean Haun resigned as an IMB trustee, and that the church he leads, First Baptist Church, Morristown, escrowed its Cooperative Program funds until further notice (the church has continued to send the TBC portion of its Cooperative Program funds to the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board).
Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas announced Feb. 16 that it plans to escrow its Cooperative Program gifts while the church evaluates future support of SBC causes. According to a Baptist Press article, the funds will amount to $1 million annually.
Baptist Press reported that churches in Louisiana were considering similar actions.
The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board also receives calls from churches that are considering doing the same, reported Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the TBMB.
Since all denominational ministries are connected through the Cooperative Program, escrowing or withholding Cooperative Program funds has consequences affecting ministries at both the national and state levels.
For instance, based on the 2016-17 Tennessee Baptist Convention Cooperative Program budget, the SBC’s International Mission Board and North American Mission Board, along with Tennessee Missions and Ministries stand to lose the most financially of all the SBC and TBC entities when churches withhold Cooperative Program funding.
For every $1,000 in Cooperative Program funds that are withheld or designated, the IMB would lose $229.47 and NAMB would lose $103.74 (a combined total of $333.21). The six SBC seminaries combined would lose $100.87 per $1,000 while the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission would lose $7.51 per $1,000 (see adjacent table for complete list).
On the state level, Tennessee Missions and Ministries would lose $305 per $1,000 for missions and ministry needs across the state, and Tennessee partner institutions would lose a combined $185.80 per $1,000.
“The brilliance of the Cooperative Program is that it enables Baptist churches, regardless of size, to support all the Great Commission missions and ministry causes we hold dear,” Davis said. “We certainly affirm the autonomy of every local church. We also want to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Davis cited positive developments in Cooperative Program giving in the Tennessee Baptist Convention. During the 2015-16 budget year (which concluded last October), Cooperative Program gifts from Tennessee Baptist Convention churches exceeded the budget for the first time since 2006-07. The $34,606,850 channeled through the Cooperative Program was $356,850 or 1.04 percent over budget needs. It also was $737,830 or 2.2 percent over the amount given the previous year.
The upturn has continued in the 2016-17 budget. Through the first quarter, Tennessee Baptists have given $9,029,537 through the Cooperative Program, an increase of $69,675 or 0.8 percent over last year. CP giving also was $279,537 or 3.19 percent over current budget needs at the end of January.
Additionally, the TBC has steadily been increasing the percentage of Cooperative Program gifts forwarded to the SBC for national and international ministries, and is on target to reach a 50-50 distribution of funds by the 2018-19 budget year.
CP in Tennessee
Davis cited a number of highlights (based on 2015 statistics) that were impacted by Tennessee Baptists’ gifts through the Cooperative Program.
- 23,573 people were baptized, representing a 7 percent increase from the previous year.
- More than 1,000 decisions were recorded at the Youth Evangelism Conference.
- 4,722 collegians were involved in Baptist Collegiate Ministry on one of our Tennessee campuses.
- Record number of church plants and newly affiliated churches over the past three years.
- More than $376,000 was raised by students for missions and 1,409 students participated in short-term missions trips. On campuses throughout the state and endeavors beyond our campuses, more than 700 students accepted Christ through BCM ministry.
- More than 18,500 people attended events at Linden Valley and Carson Springs Baptist Conference Centers, with 172 recorded professions of faith.
- More than 200 churches have entered a formal revitalization process and more than 60 planted or new churches have affiliated with the TBC.
- More than 249 volunteers from 46 churches participated in missions projects through one of the Tennessee Baptist Volunteer Missions Partnerships.
“These aren’t just numbers,” Davis said. “These figure represent people who have been spiritually impacted through the generous giving of Tennessee Baptists and the ministries their giving supports. That is why giving through the Cooperative Program is so important. Together we really can bring more people into the Kingdom of God than we can apart.”
Concern at SBC level
The concern over the escrow of Cooperative Program funds caught the attention of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. During its meeting Feb. 20-21 in Nashville, the Executive Committee launched two efforts to study the situation. Baptist Press reported Feb. 22 that the studies were based on the Prestonwood action and reports the Executive Committee has received that “other churches have taken or are considering similar action over concerns related to multiple SBC entities.”
According to Baptist Press, the Executive Committee’s Cooperative Program Committee unanimously adopted a motion “that the chairman of the Cooperative Program Committee form a subcommittee … to study and recommend redemptive solutions to the current reality in Southern Baptist life of churches’ either escrowing or discontinuing Cooperative Program funds, with the report being brought back to the September 2017 Executive Committee meeting.”
Cooperative Program Committee chairman Rolland Slade told Baptist Press the “concern of the committee is anything that’s negatively impacting the Cooperative Program,” Southern Baptists’ unified channel for funding missions and ministries in North America and across the globe.
During the SBC Executive Committee plenary session on Feb. 21, Executive Committee member Tony Crisp, pastor of Eastanallee Baptist Church, Riceville (Tenn.), requested that the Executive Committee officers “monitor the activities of our various Southern Baptist entities since our last convention … in relation to how those activities might adversely affect” the Cooperative Program and “our churches and other stewardship structures of Southern Baptists.” He requested a report to the full Executive Committee at its June 12 meeting in Phoenix.
Baptist Press reported that Executive Committee chairman Stephen Rummage responded that the request was “certainly within the purview and responsibilities of our officers … so we are glad to comply with that request.”
Rummage, pastor of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., told Baptist Press the two efforts to study Cooperative Program challenges — by the Cooperative Program Committee and the Executive Committee officers — are “complementary” and will “help inform” one another.
“The issues behind escrowing funds have risen to a level of prominence that justifies us taking a special look” at what is occurring, Rummage said.
The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board is “plowing ahead,” Davis said.
“We encourage churches that have concerns to prayerfully consider the consequences of withholding or escrowing Cooperative Program funds. If you have a concern about a specific entity, contact the president and trustee board chairman of that entity,” Davis suggested.
“While we respect the autonomy of the local church, we are convinced that the Cooperative Program is still the tried and proven method of supporting missions and ministries not only in Tennessee, but throughout our nation and around the world,” he said.
“Our focus will continue to be on our convention adopted Five Objectives — to see 50,000 people annually saved, baptized, and set on the road to discipleship by 2024; planting and strategically engaging at least 1,000 new churches by 2024; having at least 500 Tennessee Baptist churches revitalized by 2024; increasing annual giving for the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions to at least $3 million by 2024; and increasing annual church giving to the Cooperative Program to 10 percent by 2024,” Davis pledged.
“We must not be distracted from our primary task of reaching the nearly four million people in our state who do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior with the gospel.”
— This article includes reporting from Baptist Press.