Can the Cooperative Program decline be fixed? In my previous article about the Cooperative Program (CP), I suggested that current methods of CP promotion were insufficient and, in fact, counterintuitive, leading to increased demise in support for the CP, rather than the intended increase. Evidence of this seems to be ample, particularly as CP giving seems to be on a continuous, precipitous decline, moving from a one-time 11% to our current 6% nationally. This reduced income is having something of a seismic impact on SBC life. State conventions and SBC entities are reducing staff, re-prioritizing programs and purposes, and considering significant ideas like consolidation and increased collaboration. In my opinion, these are healthy steps and should be applauded. Even though the changes are due to decreased income, they are still helpful in the life of any organization. This is not that bad news, but make no mistake, there is bad news.
The bad news is not the reality that total giving is on the decline. If that was all, it could easily be explained as little more than another sign of the global economic downturn. In the case of economic hardship, a strong argument can be made that all entities and conventions need do is simply buckle in and wait for the economic upswing to come again. As the economy improves, increased personal budgets will translate into increased charitable donations and the money will begin to come again. Sadly, in SBC life, our problem appears to be much more systemic than that. In our case, it is not just total dollars that are decreasing but it is actual percentages of local church budgets that are decreasing. This does not speak to an economic downturn as much as it seems to speak to distrust, changed priorities or confusion about where the money is going. Decreasing percentages are an indicator that something significant has changed in our ethos; and it has changed enough to cause churches and pastors to adjust their budgets to invest less in the CP and use that percentage of their budget to invest substantially somewhere else.
The solution is obviously multi-faceted, and much too entailed to outline in one article. For instance, there must be a renewal of a core vision in SBC life; who are we and what do we do? There must be increased transparency amongst our agencies; no more whispering in the hallways about poorly spent money. There must be streamlining of ministries; all of us know that doing a little bit of everything in the end means doing a whole lot of nothing. However, for the purposes of this article I want to focus specifically on how we communicate about the Cooperative Program to our churches across the SBC. It seems to me that there is a major disconnect between what many of our churches and leaders think about the CP and what is, in fact, actually happening to advance the gospel around the world through the CP.
The more time I spend thinking about this, the more I am convinced that four simple steps could really move us forward, on a national level, concerning the CP. So, for better or worse, here are the suggestions of one local church pastor concerning the Cooperative Program.
There are currently too many real, and perceived, steps between the giver and receiver. Money is placed in the offering plate, from there it goes to the state, it is then divided out to many state convention ministries. The remainder is sent to the Executive Committee which in turn divides it to a variety of national and international entities. The layers are significant, but cause the average giver’s eyes to glaze over. Our response has seemed to be an attempt to intimately educate Southern Baptists about each level of engagement. While I think this education is, at some level, helpful, I do not think it primarily communicates well to the average person in the pew. I think they want to see and understand quickly how the money they put into the plate makes it into the hands of missionaries, and to the streets of ministries that touch the lives of real people. Might I suggest that the CP story be told using only three steps?
- A person puts money in plate.
- A missionary receives money.
- People hear the gospel.
This three-step, simple process is exactly what the CP, in fact, accomplishes. People need to understand that. They need to know that when they put money in the plate, it is going quickly to the hands of those who most need it. This will give them confidence to give more and more generously.
Of course, as a side note, it is equally vital that these monies are, in fact, getting into the hands of the most vital ministries, which leads us to the discussion about streamlining and reshaping of priorities, but that is a conversation for another day.
2. Focus on what matters
I am convinced that the average person in the pew, or the pastor for that matter who leads his local congregation, believes that the most important issues we can cooperate on are advancing the gospel among the most unreached people and educating those who can lead us as we advance the gospel. Southern Baptists do a lot of things, maybe too many things. One of the consistent refrains that I hear is that we are spread too thin, and the things that matter do not get the resources they need. The truth is that we are strongly supporting these incredible twin necessities. So, tell these stories. Focus all your promotional energies on these two issues. Even if everything we do is equally important (which it is not), it is overly optimistic to expect people to rally behind something when it is so multi-faceted that they are not exactly sure what it, in fact, does. You might call it lethargy by overstimulation. It is simply too overwhelming at times.
Additionally, connect with the other entities in an effort to “cross brand” the CP. Show those who are giving that interconnection between the Executive Committee, the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, and so on. Bring the various media departments of these entities together, and develop marketing material in unison with each other – actual gospel partnership. Do not simply encourage each entity to advertise on their own. Advertise together. Show that the money being put into the plate, that is sent to Nashville, is being used in cooperation with our SBC entities to advance the gospel among all people. Help us to see those people, all interconnected through our cooperative efforts.
As an aside, if there are so many ministries that people genuinely think many of them are unnecessary and they redirect their funds because of these ministries, maybe it is, once again, time to think of simplifying and streamlining, but as I said already, that is a conversation for another day.
3. Use stories of real people
We understand that, culturally, people respond to real stories from real people. Stories connect, engage and motivate. Use this as a means of telling the CP story. Find a few people, tell their stories, and continue to tell their stories over and over and over again. Do not just tell random stories. Introduce us to people, and continue telling these same people’s stories. In fact, to be more specific, I would recommend that you consider limiting it to six people (two internationally invested people/families, two people/families connected in North American work and two SBC seminary students). Make these people/families your spokespeople and use them over and over again. Cause those who you are encouraging to give to be intimately familiar with the names and faces immediately impacted through the CP.
The best example that I know of in SBC life of this kind of concerted effort would be the IMB’s recent use of Eric & Ramona Reese in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For the past few years we have consistently heard the stories of the Reese family as they minister among the poor and the slums in Rio. We are familiar with them, and when we encourage giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, we know that Eric and Ramona Reese are able to continue serving through our faithful giving. Compel us with these stories.
4. Connect everything to scripture/theology
I cannot stress this enough. This cannot simply be an “ad campaign” for an organizational giving mechanism. I would recommend, for instance, using Romans 10:14-15 as a key/theme passage for CP promotion. Break the passage down into three specific themes.
- How can they believe if they have not heard? (receiver)
- How are they to hear without someone preaching? (missionary)
- How are they to preach unless they are sent? (sender)
It would be so incredibly simple to take these three portions of Romans 10 and connect them with the three steps I mentioned in the initial point (Simplify). Help those giving to understand that there is a biblical expectation that we would each partner with other believers. The CP and Southern Baptist cooperation are not just a unique and helpful idea. They are thoroughly grounded in the biblical principle of partnership mission.
I have heard the CP regularly and persistently described as the “greatest tool ever created for missions”. In fact, that is almost exclusively how I have heard the CP described whether it be at a local, state or national level. We love to trumpet this reality. There may be an accurate point to be made here. However, using this as a primary argument is flawed, in my opinion. This is a utilitarian argument, not a theologically grounded, biblical argument. In a time when the Conservative Resurgence has created a new generation of pastors and leaders who are extraordinarily committed to the word of God, do not attempt to compel them with pragmatic, utilitarian arguments. Consider reframing the discussion so that we are attempting to compel our churches and pastors with the word of God, not logical, utilitarian arguments.
So, that is it. Nothing significant, I guess. No major “wow” idea, just a few scattered thoughts I have had that, I hope, may help to move the conversation of the CP in a more helpful, biblical, direction. Anyone reading can take it or leave it, but for what it is worth, I think it might help.