Sunday, May 23, 2010

Jerry A. Rankin: Giving Churches Ownership

We must acknowledge that a spiritual revitalization of born-again church members sharing their faith is the essential foundation for a Great Commission resurgence. Compelled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christians whose lives have been truly transformed by God’s grace cannot be restrained from proclaiming the gospel. Such a grassroots movement will permeate our communities, spread across America and do whatever it takes to take the gospel to a lost world.

Making disciples will become an exponential movement when churches are teaching all that Jesus commanded and modeling Christlike character and service. Discipleship will be manifested in a compassion toward others and grace-filled witness that will draw people to Jesus Christ. To the contrary, too often the public profile of Southern Baptists is one of controversy, political action, attacks on culture and mutual alienation rather than one that draws people in the marketplace and neighborhood to our precious Savior.

We long for a fresh move of God among us in which a Spirit-filled lifestyle will infect our society and result in strong and growing churches equipped to fulfill God’s mission. But we cannot wait passively for that to happen, excusing our negligence and lack of devotion to the responsibility to take the gospel to the nations and under-churched areas of our nation. As long as churches are deciding how to use billions of dollars given for “the Lord’s work” and Southern Baptists allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to support various programs cooperatively, we must do what we can to give greater priority to our Great Commission task.

When it comes to applying financial resources to the Great Commission, there is little that can be done to change the current system without someone being impacted negatively. The case is made that we cannot do more until people give more and churches allocate more to the Cooperative Program. Actually, the SBC doesn’t have a good track record of designating more for missions when additional funds are available.

The restructuring in 1997 eliminated three agencies with the pretense that a streamlined structure would make more money available to missions. However, there was a net decrease in funding to the two mission boards and the Executive Committee and ERLC received the increases. The same thing happened when Guidestone relinquished its portion of CP; those funds went to ERLC, the EC and the seminaries. When funding to the Baptist World Alliance was terminated, instead of additional resources going to the mission boards, the Executive Committee created a new program of conducting conferences around the world.

Blaming individuals and churches and waiting on stewardship to improve is evading responsibility and attributing the problem to an elusive solution. The trends clearly indicate personal stewardship is diminishing and church allocations to the Cooperative Program continue to decline despite massive efforts of promotion, education and information.

I believe the solution is to create a new paradigm—something no one seems willing to talk about. I envision a system of cooperative funding that will be so compelling that churches will give priority to supporting it, and it will stir the hearts of individuals to give generously and sacrificially. There are three factors we must courageously embrace for that to happen:

1. Focus the Cooperative Program on fulfilling the mission of God.
2. Reflect integrity, transparency and efficiency in the use of CP.
3. Give churches ownership of the Cooperative Program.

I want to address the third suggestion in this post first but alert readers to three additional factors that will subsequently be addressed as issues which invariably arise in this discussion:

4. The fallacy of societal paranoia.
5. The debilitating dependence on subsidy at all levels.
6. The potential of church planting movements sweeping our nation and the world.

I have found that people and churches will give generously, but they want to know exactly where it is going, what it is accomplishing and want to be involved with what they give to. It was a past generation that was satisfied to give to generic causes without any direct accountability for use of the resources. Churches have discovered a smorgasbord of options for doing missions and the denomination is no longer the default channel. We tell churches to give to CP and they get to support 10,000 home and international missionaries…they don’t know them, don’t know what they are doing and will never hear from them, but just trust us and send your support. And by the way, we will use about 70 percent of what you give for other purposes enroute to that missionary support!

Let’s pretend for a moment that it is the 21st century! Churches don’t need the IMB to arrange a mission trip or contact with an overseas partner. Let’s assume we are no longer our own worst enemy in which entities compete with each other for church donations, as was the case in 1925. With electronic banking and transfers it is really not necessary for local states to collect Cooperative Program gifts from the churches on behalf of the SBC. Let’s acknowledge that it is not really cooperation for states to determine how much they keep without collaboration with SBC entities and then simply pass on the remainder.

We have tried to convince churches that they get to cooperate in all the work of the state convention, Baptist colleges, SBC seminaries, missionary work and a host of other ministries by just making a regular financial contribution. They don’t have to do anything. But is simply giving truly cooperation without involvement and ownership in the decision of what one gives to?

The case is made that churches do have ownership of what the states and the SBC do through the votes of their messengers at the respective annual conventions. But in reality those complex and massive budgets are formulated by staff and executive committees and then ratified by messengers who happen to be attendance, seldom representing more than 10 percent of the churches. All of the churches are then forced to give to everything or nothing. It doesn’t exactly create a sense of ownership and willingness to sacrificially support a plethora of ministries and administrative functions that don’t seem to have anything to do with the Great Commission.

As mentioned in the previous blog, the IMB is the largest recipient of CP. We and our missionaries promote it vigorously. In confronting pastors of churches which designate a negligible percentage, I have never had one tell me they don’t give more because they want more to go to the state convention! But they don’t have a choice. If they bypass the state convention, SBC entities receive the funds, but the church is reported as giving “zero” to CP and is considered non-cooperative!

A lot of churches, small and large, do not want more of their mission dollars going to subsidize Baptist colleges than to sending missionaries to reach the nations. There are those who would give far beyond their current level of CP support if they could be assured it was going directly to evangelism and church planting. They are not convinced that administration of the bureaucracy doesn’t consume an inordinate amount.

It is time to divide CP into two separate programs and eliminate the connectionalism that is a contradiction of our denominational polity. Churches can own the decision of how much to give to state causes and to SBC programs. It is not really too complicated to write two checks or make two bank transfers instead of one as each church feels led by the Lord to do. We would probably reach the ideal 50/50 proportion more quickly, but I am confident there would be an increase in total allocations to give churches ownership of that decision rather than it being imposed on them.

I commend the GCR task force for recognizing designated church gifts to both state and SBC entities and ministries as “Great Commission Giving.” But how much better would it be to allow any designated gift to an approved recipient of Cooperative Program funding to be considered CP? I don’t think this is a threat to adequate support of every entity and ministry. Most churches would continue to give more to the total generic formula as they are doing now. Churches that give just a small percentage to CP would give much, much more if they could give beyond the generic allocation to causes dear to their heart.

The primary argument I have heard against dividing CP is that it would destroy our cooperation. But that cooperation has resulted in declining support for years. Is stubbornly holding on to an antiquated legacy of cooperation more important than creating an innovative approach to stimulate giving? Which has the greatest potential: holding churches in bondage to generic giving or giving them ownership in how they cooperate and support what we do together?

No comments: