The Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Executive Board meets this week in Dallas. On behalf of the BGCT, the board supports a range of ministries and missions ventures; prepares and disseminates the convention’s unified budget, called the Cooperative Program; and plans and conducts the convention’s annual meeting.
Serving on and working for that board always has been challenging. It’s getting harder year-by-year.
Financial resources provide a leading indicator of the magnitude of that challenge. This year, the Cooperative Program budget goal is $35 million, a 5.8 percent reduction from last year’s goal, slightly more than $37.1 million. Ten years ago, the Texas Baptist Cooperative Program totaled almost $40.1 million. That’s a drop of more than 12.6 percent in a decade.
Myriad reasons account for the BGCT’s perpetual budget challenge. Two come to mind readily: (1) fallout from the controversy that divided the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and ’90s and ultimately split the state convention in 1998; (2) overall cultural decline in denominationalism in the United States.
Both factors play into, but do not fully account for, the specific issue precipitating the convention’s ongoing decline …
Two kinds of churches
The BGCT is composed of two groups of churches drifting further and further apart. Sure, exceptions exist. But overall, one group has no vested interest in turning toward the other; the second group is not able to turn and reach the other.
This division spans all the variables that typically describe or define churches affiliated with the convention—race and ethnicity; language; geography; location in city, town or country; even theology.
One group is composed of strong congregations—large and/or wealthy churches—that no longer need the BGCT. Or at least they do not perceive they need the state convention.
Many of these churches began drifting away from the BGCT—actually all spheres of the Baptist denomination—during the years of Baptist conflict. They either felt ostracized from the fundamentalists who won control of the SBC or from the moderates who maintained control of the BGCT. Or they pronounced a pox on both houses for fighting so much.
These churches also thrive on vision and creativity. They’ve found those commodities in short supply in the “official” Baptist world, but in abundance elsewhere.
Along the way, they continued to follow the Baptist impulse to cooperate. But they realized they didn’t need a convention to fulfill that urge. Pastors collaborated with friends and seminary buddies. Churches lined up with like-minded churches and creative faith-based ministries.
With the ubiquity of digital communication and ease of travel, they realized they could participate directly not only in local ministries, but also in regional and global missions. With customization offered by nimble faith-based organizations, they realized they could design all kinds of effective Christian ministry, scalable to their interests and giftedness.
They also studied their programs and services. They realized a vast panorama of publishers, consultants and even mega-churches offered great resources. And because local churches developed so many of those resources, they felt tailor-made for the new customers.
Of course, all this costs money. But churches looked at their budgets and saw a nice pile of cash—8 percent, 10 percent, maybe even more—already sitting there. It’s the money they historically gave to the Cooperative Program. At first, churches moved just a percent or two from CP. But when they saw great results in ministry or discovered they loved the new resources, they didn’t have trouble moving more from their CP line item to other places in the budget.
Most of these churches still have “Baptist” in their name. The vast majority still think of themselves as part of the BGCT and contribute a token amount to the Cooperative Program. Some of their pastors and lay leaders serve on the convention’s institutional boards. But their hearts have moved on. Their identity is broader than the BGCT, and they’re happy about it.
The second group is composed of churches that are not so well-resourced. They’re small, or they’re poor, or they’re both. The churches from this group that remain engaged in the convention know they need it.
For generations, the Baptist denomination has provided services on what amounts to the honor system. To be sure, churches paid cash for some published resources. But for the price of whatever they put in the Cooperative Program—large gifts or small—they received the benefits of affiliation. They sent workers to training seminars, usually without cost. They received free visits from consultants. Even goods and services they purchased were discounted well below market cost. They took pride in their involvement with Baptist missions programs, educational institutions and various benevolence ministries.
The Cooperative Program made all this possible.
But now, manychurches that can afford to subsidize the CP—and historically led the convention in contributions—are investing their dollars elsewhere. This leaves churches that cannot afford to pay all that freight dependent upon a shrinking and increasingly cash-strapped system.
Many Baptists would enjoy playing the blame game. Who’s at fault? Why? That’s not the point.
The pressing issue is straightforward: Can the convention rebound? Should it rebound? What happens if it doesn’t rebound?
Three futures for the BGCT …
• Launch an all-out offensive to recruit churches to increase their Cooperative Program giving. This endeavor particularly would need to focus on the large/wealthy/strong congregations, because they’re the ones with enough cash to make a difference.
This approach, taken alone at least, won’t work. The churches that reinvested their CP money elsewhere believe it’s doing more good now. They take their stewardship of resources seriously. They’re going to keep on spending where they see the greatest results for God’s kingdom. They won’t be motivated by oughtness or guilt.
• Radically reorganize Cooperative Program spending. Allocate increased shares to the institutions and ministries that get the best results. Strengthen those few institutions and ministries to become state-of-the-art. De-fund and discontinue everything else.
Then appeal to the churches to invest their funds in world-changing causes; invite them to participate in world-class institutions and ministries. Convince them the very best investment of their tithes and offerings is in these landmark ventures.
Set aside a modest amount to help convention-dependent churches find the discontinued resources elsewhere.
• Maintain the status quo. At current rates of decline, the convention will cease to exist by the time today’s seminary students reach the midpoint of their ministry careers.
So, the BGCT stands at a crossroads. Can it muster the courage and creativity to engineer radical, vibrant change? Or will the convention play it safe and slide into obsolescence?