Time capsules are designed as an intentional method of communicating with people who will be alive at a future date. The oldest known time capsule in America was placed by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795.
In the summer of 2021, the church where I (Comer) have served for 25 years gave me a sabbatical, which they took as an opportunity to remodel my office. While replacing ceiling tiles they discovered some interesting items.
When the office was built in 1997, workmen had hidden away numerous pamphlets in the ceiling. One was the 1996-1997 Cooperative Program Budget for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Another was titled “What is the Cooperative Program?”
As I read those documents from a quarter century ago, several ideas came to mind. I shared these thoughts with the chairman of the budget and ministry committee for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, Jeff Bowden. Together, we decided to ask you, our Tennessee Baptist family, some poignant questions.
1. Has support for the Cooperative Program increased or decreased among Tennessee Baptists over the last 25 years?
The 1996-1997 Cooperative Program Budget was $28,192,130.00. The current budget of the TBMB for 2022 is $35 Million. While an increase of over $6.8 million is significant, it is far below the rate of inflation.
If the 1996-1997 budget had increased annually at the rate of inflation, our current TBMB budget would be almost $51 Million.
While we are thankful that we are currently meeting our 2022 budget goals, in reality, we are $16 million short of where we were in 1996-1997 on an inflation adjusted basis.
Giving trends are worse in the Southern Baptist Convention. According to the Tuesday bulletin from the 2022 SBC in Anaheim, church Cooperative Program giving has steadily declined over the past four decades.
In the 1980s churches gave an average of 10.50 percent. Over the last 5 years, the average CP gift from churches was 4.79 percent and it currently stands at 4.68 percent.
Jesus taught us that the condition of our heart is reflected in the utilization of our treasure (Matthew 6:21). What does our decades long decline in missions giving say about the spiritual health of the SBC?
2. Have Tennessee Baptists become uninformed and disconnected from the Cooperative Program in the past 25 years?
Found in the ceiling of my office was another pamphlet entitled “What is the Cooperative Program?” It was produced by the former Stewardship Commission of the SBC whose task was to educate Southern Baptists on the responsibility and blessings that come from being faithful stewards.
As a byproduct of faithful stewardship, mission efforts would benefit. As evidence of this, the Stewardship Commission brochure reported that “nearly 9,000 missionaries throughout the United States and in 132 countries” were on the field because of the Cooperative Program.
Even though in recent years there have been reductions in our mission force due to financial concerns, it is difficult for us to believe that Southern Baptists are unconcerned about missions. Why then have churches become disconnected from the Cooperative Program?
There are many possible reasons. Giving has become fragmented as churches have chosen to support both SBC and non-SBC causes. Doctrinal and social issues have reduced cooperation. But perhaps there is another factor to consider.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Baptists are uniformed about the Cooperative Program. This lack of knowledge has accelerated the decline of Cooperative Program giving.
A quarter century ago, the Stewardship Commission taught Baptists that “through the Cooperative Program, gifts from individual churches in a state are combined to support ministries in the state, nation, and throughout the reaches of the world.”
Education is vital to the success of the Cooperative Program. People may have knowledge and choose not to act, but they will not act unless they have knowledge.
We must inform people as we did 25 years ago that “just as the individual is expected to grow in giving, it is equally important for the church and the state convention to grow in giving.
This is the only way the support for mission work in the Southern Baptist Convention can grow.”
3. What could happen if Tennessee Baptists had increased their gifts to the Cooperative Program at the rate of inflation since 1996-1997?
• TBMB could increase church planting efforts. Tennessee’s population is growing rapidly. The Blue Oval project will unfold in the next decade as the largest automotive plant in the world is built in West Tennessee transforming this region and providing a tremendous opportunity for church planting. Furthermore, people who speak over 90 different languages reside in our great state. The nations are here! Church planting is vital!
• TBMB could increase church revitalization efforts. Thirty TBMB churches close their doors each year. Assisting struggling churches to embrace a renewed vision is critically needed.
• TBMB could better resource our campus ministries. College campuses are one of the most unreached segments in our country. College students are making major life decisions. Impacting students can produce generational results for the kingdom.
• TBMB could increase staff compensation. As of 2021, our TBMB staff compensation was 12% below market standards. A 4% raise was provided last year, but with the rapid increase of inflation, we are continuing to fall behind. Taking care of our TBMB staff fulfills a scriptural mandate (1 Timothy 5: 17-18).
What will the next 25 years reveal about our stewardship? In the words of a song that was popular 25 years ago, our prayer is this: “May All Who Come Behind Us Find Us Faithful.” B&R — Comer is pastor of Sand Ridge Baptist Church, Lexington, and chair of the TBMB board of directors. Bowden is associate pastor of education at Forest Hills Baptist Church, Nashville, and chair of the TBMB budget and ministry committee.