The denominational stool revisited…part 2: giving

Based on the number of comments I received from my last post (one!), I am either overwhelming you (with my brilliance and humility!), boring you (with my length and content), or there are none of you reading to even comment! Nonetheless, let us(?) return to the third leg of the stool of the SBC.

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“The stool is a little wobbly”

This rather obtuse phrase is my shorthand for four problem areas in SBC life:

1) trustee accountability

2) evangelistic emphasis

3) cooperative giving

4) discipleship and baptismal retention

What can I say that has not already been said (repeatedly!) from the pulpit and the blog? Not wanting to enter into a twelve-week (or more!) exegesis of the New Testament to support tithing and cooperative giving, let me continue my recent pattern (can one week make a pattern?) of commenting on the published reports/news of the SBC.

I strongly encourage you to read the Baptist press article, ” ‘Missional’ focus must include cooperative funding, report says“, first published in the Southern Baptist Texan, from which I will quote.

I also encourage you to read “One Sacred Effort” by Chad Owen Brand and David Hankins. We were given a copy as part of the CP seminar at the seminary and I found it to be a very enlightening read, both about the history and the continuing need of the Cooperative Program.

“From the early 1930s until the mid 1980s,…the percentage of churches’ aggregate undesignated receipts given through CP was consistently in the 10.5 to 11 percent range….But in 1984, while the total dollars continued to grow — reaching $522 million in 2005 — and the percentage of churches giving through CP remained remarkably high at 95 percent, the average portion that churches contributed began to sharply decline — from 10.6 percent in 1984 to 6.99 percent in 2004.”

What, you may ask, happened in 1984 to start such a rapid drop? While many (myself included) may be quick to say the Conservative Resurgence, I see it as more a symptom of the reasons for the CR. For many decades, probably from 1925 until 1980, we as a denomination has been lulled into the passivity and apathy of the 20th century American experience. We had endured the Great Depression and World War II and had bumbled into the Baby Boom and its consequent social changes (television, The Sixties, etc.). Through the patently American sentiment that good people go to the local church, we grew from a relatively insignifcant, regional religious association into the largest Protestant denomination in America. BUT we also became bloated with the influx of “good Christian people” and other social hangers-on.

In my humble opinion, ALL of the modern problems that we as the Southern Baptist Convention face and endure today are the result of this bloat. The loss of evangelistic fervor seen in the low levels of baptisms, primarily those of people above the age of five(!), is the result of unregenerate members transferring in from other denominations and softening of priorities and bilical fidelity in the modernist era. The second we combatted in the CR, but the first still plagues us…how many of our churches think they are doing fine because they look like they are growing due to the revolving door of church-hopping we tolerate? Our loss of trust in the boards of our entities is partly due to the perception of an “inner circle” of appointments and nominations for all offices at the national level, but more importantly is a symptom of the same trend that corrupts the local Baptist body: we have to appoint people who sit their butts in the pews each Sunday because they are the ones we are familiar with and the ones who vote in the meetings…regardless of whether they even resemble the characteristics of Christ-likeness or the biblical traits of the office! Our downhill slide in regard to discipleship and baptismal retention is the result of the burnout on “programs” which our parents and grandparents emphasized, programs that also soft-pedalled the gospel and its costs on our lives, and our tendency to preach to the most popular sentiment so as not to alienate anyone (missional, emerging types listen up!) and not the clear, costly commands of Scripture. Our fall-off in giving is the result of worldly sentiments to money and the Christian life…we have made the church so much like the American dream that we have forgotten that Christ is not of this world!

Perhaps it is time for us to pass a regenerate membership resolution (surprisingly, it looks like we might this year!) AND for us to get honest at the local level and cull our rolls…if we want to keep inactive members’ addresses on record, then move them over to a prospect file and stop reporting them on the Annual Church Profile!

When the CR got into full swing (1984 represents the first year when CR trustees held majorities on the entity boards), the distributions got cut…in my opinion, for worldly reasons. Many churches wanted to defund the SBC as they began to defund their pet liberal Christian policies/agencies/people. Other churches were divided congregationally and had to soft-pedal and compromise so as not to split. Still others got misinformation or poor information and thought they could better use their money and wait out the storm. A decade and more later, the first group has left us for the CBF and other groups, the second have moderated themselves into apathy as these percentages became “traditional”, and the third have found local mission projects to be effective and have forgotten the larger context and need. We still give to CP, but just not as much….we need to maintain our faithfulness and increase our funds!

“In a survey of Southern Baptists of Texas Convention churches responding to the Annual Church Profile,… the TEXAN found that congregations with fewer than 1,000 resident members averaged 7.4 percent in the amount of undesignated receipts set aside for the Cooperative Program — nearly a percentage point higher than the norm for all SBC churches. A decline occurs with a 6.7 percent average for churches in the 3,000 to 3,999 range, 4.3 percent for those between 4,000 and 4,999 and 3.75 percent between 5,000 and 9,999 members. Once over 10,000 resident members, the CP average falls to near 1 percent. The overall average among SBTC churches analyzed is 7 percent…. In [some] cases, churches have moved from a budgeted CP percentage, preferring a lump sum instead. As the church grows, that line item isn’t likely to grow with it.”

I find it both concerning and ironic that big churches dominate the national offices, but don’t pay for its services! But this trend also supports my previous statement, we as Southern Baptists have an unspoken maximum amount of money we want to send to the national level…as our budgets get bigger, we cut the rate of the distribution of undesignated receipts. I am all about helping all the blue-haired old ladies in the small country churches to support missionaries by collective action, but they shouldn’t be the only ones supporting them! Mega-churches are the problem…and this from someone who grew up in and whose family still attends a mega-church! First, they are the most likely to be swamped by those looking for “a nice youth group to baby-sit my kids”, “a big church where I can make social and business connections”, and other less-than-holy reasons. Second, they are the most concerned with programs and fiduciary efficiency…that CEO that sits on the finance committee wants more cost-benefit analysis from the mission field! Finally, they have the resources and the people to support missionaries themselves without CP…some of them actually do! CP was designed when we were small and is thus perceived as “useful only to small churches”.

“Many churches seem to assume they give generously through CP when tens of thousands of dollars are raised annually for the seasonal Lottie Moon Christmas and Annie Armstrong Easter offerings. But those are designated gifts limited to funding mission endeavors of the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board. When churches prioritize mission offerings to the neglect of CP, other SBC ministries take a hit, including six theological seminaries where ministers are trained, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and relief for ministers’ widows…. One participant in a TEXAN survey of CP and missions giving indicated CP support at a level four times what ACP figures reported the church gave. Most likely the church included seasonal offerings as CP funding.”

And from Les Puryear:

“During the IMB Pastor/Missions Leader Conference, I was stunned by the following information:
SBC Churches Involved in International Missions (2006)
Limited = 51.5% (24,700)
Supporting = 48.5% (23,300)
Exploring = 9.5% (4,500)
Partnering = 1.0% (480)
Multiplying = 0.1% (50)
Definitions of Involvement Categories:
“Limited” means no discernible involvement with international missions either through prayer or through financial giving.” (emphasis mine)

I love the missions offerings…each year, I give to them above my tithe (hence the reason they are called offerings!). But sadly, if these two quotes are mutually true (and I have no reason to think otherwise), over half the churches in our denomination have deceived themselves! They give generously, even sacrificially, and support the much-needed frontiers of the Kingdom, but fail to help the next generation of those at home. And others don’t even do that much! I might be a gadfly for CP giving and other critical issues, but even I am aghast that the most basic (and given the tendency of some of our membership to see the high holidays as the only ones needing their attendace, most supported) of giving tracks to be STILL insufficient and unsupported! Words having failed me, I move on….

When some messengers to the Greensboro meeting bristled at the original language encouraging churches to give at least 10 percent of their receipts to support world evangelization through the Cooperative Program, others questioned what message is being delivered when SBC presidents typically come from churches with poor levels of CP support. Ultimately, the reference to a 10 percent goal was removed from the report put before the convention in June, though messengers gave 50.48 percent of their votes to the candidate who has demonstrated strong CP support at all of the churches he has led…. Page expressed his objection to any percentage becoming a mark of cooperation and for participation. “The question for me was, does your church give sacrificially to the Cooperative Program? Does it give in such a way as to show a missional mindset?” While calling it “bad theology” to assert that churches can and should tithe, “I do believe 10 percent indicates a serious commitment” to missions, Page said.”

We have yet another divide in our deliberative body. I was at the 2006 convention and I supported the language on 10 percent, even though my church had not yet reached that goal. I also voted for Frank Page for the reason deduced by many…he was the strongest supporter of CP giving.

In 2007 in San Antonio and this year in Indianapolis, I will reserve my feelings on secondary issues and even about mega-churches to vote for those I think are the best nominees to lead our Convention (and in the case of the President, to set the ball rolling for the appointment of new trustees). In my desire to set aside my ecclesiological biases, I use the most neutral of standards: baptismal percentage and CP giving percentage. And in future years, I will continue to put these first in my view for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. Secondary issues will fall to the wayside or be seen as points of disagreement, but not division if we set our eyes on the prize of the gospel. Regionalism and protectivism will burn away in the fire of revival that will arise among us. The failure of our forefathers to finish the gospel push in this world will be remedied when we FULLY support missions and the future of the church through regular (might I say, regulated?) and sacrificial (might I emphasize, SACRIFICIAL?) giving.

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