There is a disconnect between how the founders of the Cooperative Program envisioned the program in 1925 and how it has been embraced by churches. The 50/50 percent funding split between state conventions and the national agencies – as channeled through the SBC Executive Committee – was predicated on churches setting the example by keeping 50 percent of their offerings and forwarding 50 percent to their state convention, which would then forward 50 percent to the SBC Executive Committee.
However, that is not exactly how it has played out. Rather than churches dividing 50 percent of their income with state conventions, they set an unofficial level of a tithe. Some have historically given considerably above the 10 percent while others have fallen below that threshold. Due to the autonomy of Southern Baptist churches, there is no binding amount that dictates giving levels.
The process was documented in the SBC Annual for 1925, 1926, and 1927.
On page 48 of the 1926 Annual, paragraph 7 states:
“That we continue to place emphasis upon permanency in financial plans through the Bible principles of stewardship and tithing. Every church is urged, after a careful study of local and denominational needs, to adopt a budget and install the weekly plan of giving, with the use of duplex envelopes, and to give as large percentage as possible to state and Southwide denominational causes, reaching if possible a standard of a 50-50 distribution of their funds as between local and outside causes. We would further recommend that a special, aggressive campaign be conducted by the Commission for the enlistment of at least 500,000 tithers.”
The 1971 SBC Annual reaffirms the SBC Executive Committee’s agreement to allow states to keep a percentage of funds to administer the collection and distribution of Cooperative Program funds, and the 1976 SBC Annual reaffirms the Convention’s original desire for churches to move toward a 50-50 division of offerings between the local church and state conventions, who would then forward 50 percent to the SBC Executive Committee in Nashville.
At the time of the report, Southern Baptist “national” missions were largely concentrated in the South, hence the coined term “Southwide.” Not until later, when missionaries such as Annie Armstrong caught the vision for missions in Oklahoma, did Southern Baptists move out of their stronghold and formulate a truly national strategy.
If Georgia churches were to return to their giving levels of just 21 years ago when they gave 10.08 percent, annual Cooperative Program giving would double from $41,000,000 to $82,000,000.
The same Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report that called for the reduction of Cooperative Agreements between NAMB and state conventions also called for a reaffirmation of the Cooperative Program as the “central and preferred conduit” of Great Commission funding. Messengers in 2010 overwhelmingly approved that commitment but since then Cooperative Program giving declined from 5.29 percent to its current 5.01 percent.
The original Cooperative Program vision, if followed, could have pre-empted the need for the special missions offerings – specifically Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions – which are used to subsidize the unified giving plan. By accepting Cooperative Program funding, national agencies agreed they would not solicit funds from churches other than through the specially approved offerings – which were eventually created to offset the shortfall between what they felt they needed and funds they actually received. It was the first budget “work around” to the Cooperative Program.
Admittedly, with the advent of Mission Service Corps and other church-based opportunities, churches have become more directly involved in North American and International missions. Some congregations now support several church planters, in part or in whole. Under President David Platt, the IMB is encouraging churches to directly fund international missionaries with his agency providing administrative or training assistance. That approach takes some pressure off of his agency living entirely on Cooperative Program receipts and acknowledges that churches send missionaries, not the IMB.
As a result, some of those funds which might have been forwarded to the Cooperative Program are being kept in the church as laity respond to God’s call on their lives. A portion of some of those gifts have funded large building projects as churches outgrew their facilities. Churches are also more involved in community ministries ranging from pregnancy resource centers to food and clothing pantries. In a nutshell, more ministry is being accomplished by the local church rather than by the state Convention. It would also be assumed that Cooperative Program dollars that would have been forwarded to the state Convention are being used to finance those ministries through a new channel, called Great Commission Giving, as affirmed by the 2010 Task Force Report.
Likewise, through the years messengers from those same churches empowered their state Convention to add ministries such as camps and retreat centers, colleges and universities, children’s homes, and senior living facilities. The Conventions were then committed to investing in and maintaining, to varying degrees, those ministries. Today many of the older state Conventions remain committed to those institutions while younger Conventions have no such financial commitment and can give far greater percentages to the CP.
The uncomfortable question that was not addressed by the Task Force Report is clear: why should state Conventions be held to the original 50/50 percent distribution level if churches are doing more missions themselves and only forwarding, on average, 5 percent rather than the suggested 50 percent? For the record, messengers to the Georgia Baptist Convention last week voted to forward 40 percent of its receipts to the SBC Executive Committee.
Click here to read the source document, which includes additional content from the 1971 and 1976 SBC annuals. The pertinent information is highlighted in yellow and gives a good perspective of how the framers of the Cooperative Program anticipated the funding of the denomination’s ministries.