Cooperating Together for God’s Mission

A lot can be lost in a single generation. Ronald Reagan famously admonished Americans that they had to teach the principles of freedom to a rising generation or those principles could be lost. The writers of Scripture often warned the leaders of Israel that unless they rehearsed the works of God to their children and grandchildren, a generation would arise that “knew not the Lord or his ways.”

Southern Baptists have a lot to pass on to the next generation, and one of the most important principles is the concept and practice of cooperative mission. Our cooperative mission strategy has yielded one of the greatest gospel impact movements in history.

Passing the Torch of Mission in the SBC

Cooperation between churches for the sake of mission is what drives the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Of course, Baptists didn’t invent the idea of missional cooperation. All throughout the New Testament, we see churches partnering together to advance the mission. The Apostle Paul mentioned giving—from one church to another—in several of his letters (Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 8-9; cf. Acts 11:27-30). Interestingly, when Paul mentions the gift given by the Macedonian Christians in Romans 15, he calls it koinonia—literally, “fellowship.” Chad Brand goes so far as to say that financial sharing for the sake of the mission is the key element of fellowship for churches in the New Testament.

The church I pastor, The Summit Church, has “fellowshipped” with the SBC since our birth, and it is a partnership that has greatly enriched our church. For instance, the SBC enables and equips us to send our people out in ways that we simply could not do alone. We currently have more than 200 people serving overseas, most of whom are with the International Mission Board (IMB). That’s an enormous investment, and we are incredibly grateful to stand with Southern Baptists in support of all our missionaries.

Closer to home, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) has been a crucial partner in all of our 43 domestic church plants. Then there’s the world-class training provided by our SBC seminaries, which has equipped a huge portion of our staff. And I can’t ignore the personal debt I owe to the SBC as a two-time seminary graduate and former IMB missionary! I could go on—retirement benefits, community outreach, mission trip coordination, representation in Washington, D.C., local and state church planting partnerships, aid in work among refugees and immigrant communities, and many other crucial projects.

Let me highlight a few of the more exciting SBC opportunities we’ve been deeply engaged with this year:

1. The IMB is on firm financial footing for the first time in years. The staffing cutbacks there were difficult, and I hope to see us eventually get back to the numbers we had on the field previously. But as we look ahead to the IMB’s future, the next leader there will inherit an organization that isn’t running in the red, which is a huge boon that should poise the IMB to further its church planting in unreached areas.

2. NAMB has really seen some momentum in their “Send Cities” initiative, which is an exciting and smart effort to reach the world by reaching key metropolitan areas. We’ve partnered with them in eight of their cities, and we hope to see that number increase.

3. Southern Baptists have always been excellent at disaster relief, meeting people where they’re hurting most in our nation. In fact, our disaster relief (run through state conventions) makes us the second-largest relief organization in the nation—behind only the Red Cross. I recently learned that President Obama was visiting a disaster site when he saw the characteristic “yellow shirts” of our people. He was the third president in a row to ask, “Who are all those people with the yellow hats and yellow shirts?” and get the reply, “Those are the Southern Baptists, sir.” NC Baptists On Mission Disaster Relief has trained nearly 100 of our Summit members for disaster relief in the past year.

4. Children’s homes, another state convention initiative. As a pro-life people, we want to be on the front lines of aiding with fostering and adoption. Southern Baptists are and will continue to be a people who care for the most vulnerable children in our states.

5. Seminaries are crucial to the development of a rising generation of Southern Baptist leaders. We believe the local church should take the initiative in raising up, calling out, and training the next generation of leaders, but the seminaries provide an invaluable partner in this area—teaching truths and providing services beyond the scope of any one local church. Two years ago we gave a $500,000 gift to Southeastern Seminary (the school we have the strongest relationship with) because we are so grateful for the ongoing work they provide.

All of that (and more) is made possible by our cooperative giving. When we give through the Cooperative Program (CP) or Annie Armstrong or Lottie Moon offerings, we are giving to a powerful and proven method for supporting the Great Commission. This is what the CP has always been about. As David Hankins said in One Sacred Effort, the CP “is worthy of the attention and support of the church because its aim is the fulfillment of the Great Commission” (206).

With so much of what we do being possible only by the cooperative work of Southern Baptist churches, I honestly can’t think of another organization I would rather partner with than the SBC. In recent years, our church has given in increasing measures to Southern Baptist work, a trend we plan to continue. We want to call a new generation of Southern Baptist churches, similarly, to rise up and engage in cooperative mission and giving.

A Rising Tide Raises All Ships

One of the biggest challenges for the SBC in the next two decades will be increasing the engagement of a new generation of churches in our Convention. I see that happening in three key ways:

1. All churches ought to be giving more to the Cooperative Program.

That may seem obvious, but it’s worth repeating. At The Summit Church, our Great Commission Giving (i.e., all giving to SBC entities) has always been high (last year totaling 19 percent of our undesignated receipts), but over the last few years we have made a concerted effort to increase our traditional CP giving as well (currently 2.4 percent of undesignated receipts). That’s worth celebrating. By strict dollar amount, we give more than any other North Carolina church. But I recognize that there is still great need for more to go through traditional CP structures. We aren’t where we need to be. But we aren’t where we used to be, and we’re hoping to follow the lead of other generous churches as we all continue to give more.

2. Since CP giving goes through the states, we should encourage state conventions to do as much as they can to get money to the field.

CP money is given for the sake of mission, particularly overseas mission among unreached people groups, and as much of the money as can be directed there should be so. I appreciate the conventions like Florida and Texas (among many others!) that have led the way in this, giving more of their money away to the field than they keep. Our own executive director-treasurer, Milton Hollifield, has talked about doing this in North Carolina, too. We are grateful for the many kingdom-minded leaders in our local and state conventions.

3. We should celebrate all Great Commission giving.

Some churches will choose to give cooperatively but not through the traditional CP structures. We recognize that churches have the freedom to give however they feel led; however, I don’t want to see us go back to “societal giving”—where everybody picks their favorite entity and gives only to that. Overly-specified giving is not healthy in a local church, and it wouldn’t be for the Convention either. We have elected leaders and we should trust them to steward the money. If we’re not happy with those leaders, we should vote them out. But as Paul Chitwood, executive director-treasurer of the Kentucky Baptist Convention (and huge CP advocate), has put it, cooperation means more than mere CP percentages (quoted in Scott Hildreth’s Together on God’s Mission, 82). A rising tide, as they say, raises all ships; the more we celebrate all of the Great Commission giving we see in the SBC, the more we’ll see giving toward the CP rise, too.

Movements Need Institutions

As I look to the future of the SBC, I am reminded of the need for both movements and institutions in the kingdom of God. Movements are exciting—they are grass-roots level initiatives that feel spontaneous, Spirit-prompted, and generate a lot of buzz, enthusiasm, and participation. Institutions, by contrast, have the reputation of being fixed, firm, and sometimes boring and bureaucratic. But both movements and institutions need each other. Institutions without movements lack vitality. But movements without institutions lack staying power.

For example, if you look at some of the most robust movements of church planting networks in the United States—many of which are doing excellent work—you may be disappointed in the actual numbers. Very few of these charismatic movements are churning out more than 100 new church planters a year. Most are sending out far fewer.

Compare that with the number of SBC graduates from last year: 2,000. Even if you wanted to eliminate half of those (as under-qualified or not headed into pastoral ministry), that still leaves 1,000 qualified graduates. Every year. Together, as Southern Baptists, we have nearly 4,000 missionaries serving overseas, in almost every nation in the world. Because of our cooperation, they have training structures, care structures, and a multi-million dollar budget to support them.

None of that would be feasible without the machinations of the SBC institutions. It may be easier and more exciting to jump on board with a nimble movement, but the long-term impact is not nearly as substantial. The cumbersomeness of institutions can be maddening. But there’s really no arguing with their strategic importance.

We need the institutions of the SBC. And we need the next generation to get involved in them—in the associations, in state and national conventions, and in all the entities they support. We at the Summit have tried to follow the examples of others in this, as we’ve gotten more involved in our association in the past few years. Two of our church plants are deeply involved in their local associations. Three of our church planters serve on boards of their state conventions. When Milton Hollifield recently said, “I wish we had more churches in our state like The Summit Church and more pastors like J.D. Greear,” he was talking about the way we have moved toward engaging with our state convention.

I’ve heard it said that decisions in our Convention, at every level, are made by those who choose to show up. For those of us who have led the SBC in mission, it’s time for us to encourage others to “show up” in our Convention.

More importantly, for all of the passionate, missions-minded, and movement-oriented people who are eager to see advancement in the SBC, I want to say: Show up. Stick it out. Stay involved. You need this institution, and just as importantly, this institution needs you. We must be the movements for these institutions!