Denominations exist because churches believe we can do more together than we can do apart. In the case of the Southern Baptist Convention, that work we are doing together is cooperation for the purpose of missions. If mission is the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention, cooperation in the power of the Holy Spirit is its heartbeat.
The Southern Baptist Convention is a collection of like-minded churches working in cooperation with one another to impact the whole world with the good news of Jesus Christ. But if they are going to work together, they must have a tangible way to cooperate. That road was paved 96 years ago, with the development of what is now known as the Cooperative Program.
The Cooperative Program
The Cooperative Program is our unified plan of giving, through which cooperating churches give a percentage of their undesignated receipts in support of their respective state convention and the Southern Baptist Convention missions and ministries. Put simply, the Cooperative Program is the funding mechanism whereby Southern Baptist churches combine their resources for the purpose of missions and ministries.
The Cooperative Program was launched in 1925 after the successful failure of what was called the 75 Million Campaign. After many years of a societal giving model whereby ministries made their own appeals to churches and essentially competed for funds, the SBC attempted to raise 75 million dollars for all ministries over the course of five years. The churches came up short, but they learned an important lesson—they could work together and accomplish more than they ever could dream of doing alone. In their failure, they found success that lasted far beyond five years.
In their first report, the Future Program Commission (the committee that originally proposed the plan) stated, “this entire Convention should commit itself, with a unity of purpose and consecration never known before, to the common task and enlistment of our people and the working out of this plan” (1925 SBC Annual, 28). We now stand almost a century later with a giving plan that greatly surpasses the original goal.
Choosing to stand united
In recent days, there have been many conversations about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. A watching world looks in and wonders about all the things that could divide Southern Baptists. But the very nature of a convention of churches is that they are choosing to stand united for a common purpose.
Southern Baptists have many things in common. Doctrine and theology provide a thread of consensus, as articulated in the Baptist Faith and Message, the Convention’s statement of faith. Church culture may vary to an extent with factors such as geographic region or the size of the congregation, but there is usually a general ethos and disposition that connects from one church to the next.
But those things are still not the final determining factor of what unites us, because not every church with common doctrine or culture is part of the Southern Baptist Convention. There are those who would agree with every word of the Baptist Faith and Message or might have a similar environment as the Southern Baptist Church down the street, but for various reasons have determined to connect with other networks or maintain no associations whatsoever. At the end of the day, there are many things that we have in common, but one thing that connects us. That connection is the proactive decision to cooperate.
When a person in a Southern Baptist church puts their money in the offering plate, and when a church sets aside a part of their budget to share in cooperation with other churches, they are choosing to be part of something bigger than themselves.
We cooperate because we choose not to take these things on by ourselves. We cooperate because we have decided we want to be part of something bigger. We cooperate because we care about the mission.
We can do more together than we can do apart. We can send missionaries. We can plant churches. We can bring relief to the hurting in a natural disaster. We can train men and women for ministry. We can promote religious liberty in the public square. All of these are things that serve churches, but even more they are ways that churches can serve the Kingdom.
The Cooperative Program is the financial fuel for reaching every person for Jesus Christ in every town, every city, every state, and every nation. It enables churches to prioritize purpose, elevate mission, and accelerate impact. No matter the size, every church can have a sense of ownership in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. The Cooperative Program is our tangible way of being better together.
Even as churches stand in consensus around the Baptist Faith and Message, there are still many issues that can divide Southern Baptists if we allow it. But there is another way, and it is a path that starts when we commit to the belief that we can do more together than we can do apart. With one heart for missions, may cooperation be the heartbeat that unites us.