Blog Post

A Third Ordinance? The Cooperative Program & the Future of Collaborative Ministry

As a convictional Baptist, I am committed to two, and only two, ordinances for the local church—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. If I advocated a third ordinance, however, it just might be the Cooperative Program. Of course I am speaking with hyperbole, but over the last 15 years my appreciation for this denominational staple has grown by the day. In concert with my deepening affection for the Cooperative Program has arisen a parallel, and increasingly urgent, concern for its future.

It has been said that numbers are like people: if you squeeze them, you can make them say whatever you want. Yet Cooperative Program statistics need not be squeezed to signal clear and troubling trends. Since the 1980s, the average percentage that churches allocate to the Cooperative Program has steadily declined. Over the past 25 years, the amount churches forwarded to the CP has decreased by almost 50 percent, dropping from 10.52 percent in 1987 to 5.41 percent in 2011. Moreover, one of the Cooperative Program’s predominant challenges is generational. Simply put, by and large, the younger the minister is, the less committed he is to it.

As president of Midwestern Seminary, I have little desire to sustain a denomination’s machinery. I have even less desire to be or become a denominational bureaucrat. These things did not beckon me to Kansas City, nor will they keep me here. I do, however, desire to propel forward the kingdom of Christ by training pastors, ministers, and missionaries to strengthen his church and advance his Great Commission. This is exactly what the Cooperative Program is about and precisely what I am about as well. To this end, we would do well to reconsider the case for the Cooperative Program.

Its New Testament Ethos

In Paul’s correspondence, we repeatedly see churches praying for, financially supporting, and ministering to other churches, individuals, and missionary endeavors. This is exactly what the Cooperative Program does: it facilitates believers with similar convictions to accomplish more together than they could alone, all under a New Testament template.

Its Proven Success

Approaching nearly 90 years of existence, the Cooperative Program has advanced kingdom causes unlike any human instrument in the history of the Christian church. For decades, Southern Baptists have been the envy of the evangelical world with our unified funding program that provides affordable theological education, deploys the largest missionary force in the church today, and supports numerous other ministries. The Cooperative Program is without peer as a proven tool for gospel work.

Its Current Impact

The aforementioned financial challenges not withstanding, we are witnessing the Cooperative Program’s impact on a scale as never before. In addition to the work being carried out at the state level, at the national level Southern Baptists are experiencing record enrollment in their six seminaries, all of which are training pastors, ministers, and missionaries for the church in the context of confessional integrity and denominational accountability. The North American Mission Board is demonstrating renewed effectiveness in church planting, and the International Mission Board is making great progress toward getting the gospel to the world’s remaining unreached people groups. As never before, we need the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission speaking with a prophetic voice. Though the Executive Committee receives a decreasing portion of Cooperative Program funding, Guidestone currently receives no CP support at all, and LifeWay actually contributes to the CP,  Southern Baptists are well served by and can be well pleased with their respective ministries as well.

Its Unifying Effect

Southern Baptists tend to be Jacksonian at heart—both individualistic and opinionated. Yet, a closer look reveals collectivism and collaboration, not individualism, are the leading markers of Southern Baptists. As a convention with some 45,000 autonomous churches, the Cooperative Program is a constant reminder that we are not alone in the great spiritual struggle before us. Rather, we stand with millions of Southern Baptists from thousands of Southern Baptist churches, praying and partnering together for the advancement of the gospel of Christ.

Its Present Vulnerability

A sluggish economy, shrinking offering-plate dollar, apathy among God’s people, and other factors are forcing almost every church to evaluate, and often trim, their budgets. Finance committees in churches throughout the denomination are wrestling with urgent budgetary decisions: Can we provide healthcare for our ministers? Should we grant our pastor a raise? May we undertake a new ministry initiative? Shall we tackle long-delayed maintenance needs? All of these considerations may be urgently important, but too often these conversations occur without a Cooperative Program advocate seated at the table. As the saying goes, the squeaking wheel usually gets the oil. When this is the case, the Cooperative Program often suffers.

The Cooperative Program should not be a sacred cow, for there is nothing sacrosanct about a funding mechanism. But, if it is much more than an organizational apparatus, and I believe it is, Southern Baptists of all stripes need to support, defend, and promote the Cooperative Program. Neither guilt nor nostalgia should be our mode of promotion; rather, we should love the Cooperative Program because we love the church and the Great Commission.

As a denomination, we should be proud of the accomplishments of the Cooperative Program, and we must redouble our efforts to strengthen it. I say consider the evidence; the results speak for themselves. As you do, you and I might find ourselves of similar opinion: I don’t intend to argue for a third ordinance, but if I did, I might just argue for the Cooperative Program.


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