What to Expect at the Houston Convention

Next week, the Southern Baptist Convention will gather for its annual meeting in Houston. We will conduct business, hear reports from our various ministries, adopt resolutions about various topics, and listen to sermons and “preachy addresses” from some of the better-known preachers among us. I’m particularly excited about that last point, since my friend and boss, Danny Akin, is preaching the Convention sermon this year. We’ll also spend time hanging out with friends that we rarely see outside of the Annual Meeting. (Don’t let anyone fool you–this is the highlight for almost everyone in attendance.) I this post, I want to offer my thoughts about what to expect at the Houston Convention.

First, there is Calvinism. Over the past year, much of the chatter in the SBC has focused on this issue, especially on the internet. (This is all some blogs seem to talk about.) SBC president Fred Luter has offered his thoughts on the debate. Other SBC leaders chimed in from time to time, including Dr. Akin. Frank Page, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, formed an advisory committee to help him think about how Southern Baptists on all sides of the Calvinism discussion can better cooperate together to advance the gospel. Late last week, the committee released their report, titled “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.”

Thus far, it seems that most of the responses to the Calvinism report have been positive. For what it’s worth, I was highly encouraged by the balance, clarity, and charity of the document. You can expect Dr. Page to address Calvinism in his Executive Committee report. It could also come up at other points in the program such as resolutions, motions, sermons, or the Q&A following ministry reports. I would expect Calvinism to be directly addressed by several SBC leaders, in the hopes that it doesn’t have to come up as often in future Convention meetings. Most folks seem ready to move on.

Second, there is the transition at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Richard Land retired this past week after a quarter century of leading this ministry and its predecessor, the Christian Life Commission. In the age of 24-hour network news, Dr. Land has been the public face of the SBC for most Americans. His successor is Russ Moore, former vice president and academic dean at Southern Seminary. I expect some sort of formal passing of the baton at the SBC as Southern Baptists honor Dr. Land for his leadership and perhaps hear some initial thoughts from Dr. Moore as he begins to carve out his vision for cultural engagement and advocacy of religious liberty. If you haven’t heard, Dr. Land is now president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC.

Third, there is the re-election of Dr. Luter as Convention president. As most readers know, last year Dr. Luter became the first African American and only the second ethnic minority to be elected as SBC president. He will almost certainly not be opposed as he runs for the traditional second term as president. You don’t mess with history. There will likely already be some chatter in the Convention hallways and at the restaurants about who will run for the Convention presidency in Baltimore in 2014. Feel free to offer your suggestions for the next president in the comments.

Fourth, there are the cultural issues. I’m anticipating Southern Baptists will discuss and, in some cases, directly address several cultural issues via reports and resolutions. One issue that looms large is homosexual marriage, arguably the most hotly debated “social issue” in America right now. Another perennial topic is abortion, which will likely be addressed in light of the Gosnell trial. The potential threat posed by new healthcare laws to religious liberty will almost certainly come up. So will the revised membership policy recently adopted by the Boy Scouts of America, a topic I’ve addressed elsewhere. Other possible topics include immigration reform, the morality of unmanned drone strikes, and the way Southern Baptists and other evangelicals should think of Mormonism.

Fifth, there is the Cooperative Program (CP) and the larger question of missions giving. It is no secret that Cooperative Program giving is in the midst of a steady decline. According to recent reports, the average church now designates 5.9% to the CP. Last year, Frank Page issued a “1% Challenge,” calling upon local churches to increase their giving by one percentage point in their 2013 budgets. The early reports seem positive, but most folks I talk to are still nervous about the future of the Cooperative Program. Southern Baptist entities and state conventions are scrambling to re-educate uninformed Southern Baptists about the CP while assuring others who are concerned about the Cooperative Program that it remains the best strategy for funding our denominational ministries.

The future of the Cooperative Program was, of course, a hotly contested issue within the larger discussion of the Great Commission Resurgence, a movement that some interpreted as being anti-CP or at least tepid toward the Cooperative Program. It would be fair to say that Southern Baptists are still divided about the GCR, especially those in certain state conventions. I expect there to be some candid, but potentially hopeful discussion of the present state and future prospects of the CP at this year’s Annual Meeting. You can read my thoughts on CP giving in a post titled “Is the Cooperative Program Worthy of Sacrifice?” I co-authored that essay with my friend Micah Fries.

Finally, there is the name debate. Last year, Southern Baptists voted by about 53% to approve “Great Commission Baptists” as an alternate designation for the SBC. The idea was that churches, especially those outside of the Deep South and Southwest, could distance themselves from the name Southern Baptist if that name is deemed a hindrance to outreach. It would be difficult for me to exaggerate my own ambivalence about this particular debate. (Just being honest.) Apparently, lots of other folks are also ambivalent, since thus far we haven’t witnessed mass numbers of  churches rushing to change their name to Great Commission Baptists. However, for some folks, this is a REALLY BIG DEAL, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an attempt by some messengers to reverse last year’s vote.

If you are at the SBC Annual Meeting, drop by the Southeastern Seminary booth to learn more about how SEBTS is equipping students to serve our churches and fulfill the Great Commission. I will be at the booth off and on throughout the day on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday; I hope to see some of you there. Also, there is still time to sign up for the SEBTS Alumni & Friends Luncheon at the SBC on Wednesday. Our speakers at this year’s luncheon include our own Dr. Akin and Johnny Hunt, a distinguished SEBTS alum and past president of the SBC.online mobile games

The Cooperative Program, Seminaries, and the Future of Their Financial Success

This is a guest post by Ryan Hutchinson. Mr. Hutchinson serves as the Executive Vice President for Operations at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC. We believe his article is deserving of a very close reading by all those interested in the Cooperative Program and the future of our six Southern Baptist seminaries. It is our prayer that his post will serve as the starting place for a healthy family discussion among Southern Baptists about this important topic.

The Cooperative Program, Seminaries, and the Future of Their Financial Success

By Ryan Hutchinson

Recently, there was a blog post published at the Chronicle of Higher Education website entitled “Outlook for Nonprofit Education is ‘Volatile’, Report Says.” The post refers to a recent report by Standard & Poor’s regarding this outlook. The point of this post is not to rehash or to critique the Chronicle’s post or the S&P report, but to apply the concepts to our Southern Baptist seminaries as well as offer some additional thoughts. The blog post highlights some of the challenges raised by the S&P report to which nonprofit educational institutions need to respond.

  • Dealing with deferred maintenance
  • Balancing access and affordability for students
  • Preserving their investments
  • Managing a turnover in senior leadership positions
  • Handling the uncertainty of state and federal appropriations

The last point does not fully apply to the SBC seminaries, but there are some limited implications. The Chronicle’s post concludes by noting that the outlook for higher education looks strong.

The outlook for the future training of God-called men and women at our six Southern Baptist seminaries also looks strong. However, like all other institutions of higher education, challenges are in front of us. What are some of the ways that Southern Baptists must prepare to meet these future challenges?

  • Celebrate the diversity that characterizes our six seminaries, since each school has a unique identity within the boundaries provided by the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.
  • Have a fruitful discussion about the future of theological education and the impact of multiple delivery systems.
    • We need to realize that no one can really answer how educational delivery will look in 15–20 years, but we must plan and seek God’s wisdom.
    • The future could potentially include doing away with some of the historic territorial restrictions upon the six seminaries.
  • Determine how we can better communicate and solicit support for theological education.
    • One obvious answer is “give more”, but the seminaries must justify why more should be given when approaching individuals and encouraging support of the Cooperative Program.
    • When promoting the Cooperative Program, we must communicate its impact upon individuals and communities, which will work against the perception among some that the Cooperative Program is impersonal.
    • We must be open to changing the name of the Cooperative Program or even its design in an effort to capture the hearts of those from whom we are trying to solicit more support. This sort of change could benefit all SBC agencies receiving Cooperative Program dollars, not just the seminaries.
  • The seminaries must engage the local church more in the process of theological education. We are a servant to our local churches, and are here to come alongside them and provide help.
    • A way to make theological education personal is not to simply provide training for the paid minister, but the minister in the pew. One example is Southeastern’s MOOC course, which is a free class that is open to anyone interested in learning how to interpret the Bible more faithfully (www.sebts.edu/mooc).
    • Another way to engage the local church in the training process is what SEBTS is doing through our EQUIP program (www.sebts.edu/equip). We are doing what we can to push theological training to a hands-on environment in the context of the local church.

There are surely other ways to meet the challenges we face, and your comments related to this post are an important part of this discussion.

Consider partnering with your six seminaries in three ways. First, please pray for the work we do in training God-called men and women for gospel ministry. Second, pastors in particular, please talk to your people about the seminaries so that they do not see us as distant concepts where training occurs for some theological elite. Finally, please invest in the six seminaries both through the Cooperative Program and through individual financial gifts as God’s leads.

Our six Southern Baptist seminaries are the envy of many denominations and networks around the world. However, we must avoid two dangers. First, we cannot become prideful about what we have in our seminaries. The Lord is responsible for these blessings. Second, we must not convince ourselves that business as usual is enough when it comes to a secure future for our seminaries. It would be a shame if we find ourselves scratching our heads twenty years from now, wondering what happened to all that we once had.

The Lord does not need us, but He graciously uses us for His glorious purposes. We should be thankful this is the case with our Southern Baptist seminaries. As we look to the future and begin this conversation, we must rely solely on Him for wisdom and sustenance. To Him alone belongs the glory.

 

Is the Cooperative Program Worthy of Sacrifice?

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Is the Cooperative Program Worthy of Sacrifice?

by Nathan Finn and Micah Fries

We are concerned. As we look across our beloved Southern Baptist Convention, we see a problem that is significant, and is growing. Sadly, statistics inform us that this is an issue across the entire spectrum of SBC life, regardless of location or age and type of congregation. This issue is no respecter of persons. Our shared commitment to the Cooperative Program (CP) is on a precipitous decline. We believe this is a great tragedy that bodes ill for our Convention’s future.

Lest you think we’re simply writing to stump for the CP, please understand that we believe there are vital modifications which need to be made to the CP. Micah has started to address some of those concerns here and here. However, despite our views concerning needed reforms, we absolutely remain convinced of the viability, even more so , the continued centrality of the CP as a means of partnering together for mission. Which brings us to what concerns us.

This summer, at the SBC Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Executive Committee President Frank Page issued a challenge to Southern Baptists. After noting that CP giving has steadily decreased over the previous generation, Dr. Page urged every Southern Baptist pastor and local church to consider increasing their CP giving by one percent. He argued that this seemingly small increase would lead to a significant influx of money that could be used for kingdom purposes.

An article in the December 2011 issue of SBC Life elaborates a bit on the effects a one percent increase in CP giving would have on our denominational ministries. Assuming tithes and offerings to local churches remain close to 2010 numbers, about $89 million more dollars would be given through the CP. According to present CP distribution, that would equal about $55 million more for state conventions and $34 million more for SBC agencies. The International Mission Board would receive an extra $17 million, while the North American Mission Board would see an increase of almost $8 million. Our seminaries would receive about $7.5 million more, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission would see an increase of $500,000, and the Executive Committee would gain an extra $1 million.

These dollar increases would have a dramatic effect on our Convention’s ministries. According to SBC Life, “This [increase] would allow the IMB immediately to appoint 375 new missionaries, NAMB to expand church planting support, and the seminaries and ERLC to address numerous maintenance, capital, and moral advocacy needs.” While the article didn’t directly address state conventions (SBC Life is published by the Executive Committee), a one percent increase would have a similar effect on state ministries. We appreciate the heart of Dr. Page’s call for a one percent increase to CP giving and we hope that thousands of churches will consider how they might give more generously to the CP.

Having said that, we want to highlight a theme that is often neglected in current discussions about the Cooperative Program: shared sacrifice. We are increasingly concerned with Southern Baptist pastors and churches who are diminishing their commitment to doing mission together primarily through the CP. We believe a recovery of a sense of shared sacrifice among our churches could lead to an increased commitment to CP giving that, Lord willing, would eventually amount to much more than one percent.

For many years, it was common to hear Southern Baptist leaders talk about the need for churches to sacrificially give to the Cooperative Program. While this language hasn’t totally disappeared, it’s not nearly as common as it used to be. We believe that it is a priority which Southern Baptists need to recover. In fact, we believe that a major reason-perhaps the major reason-CP giving is down is because most churches give to the Cooperative Program conveniently rather than sacrificially. They give to the CP, but only insofar as that support doesn’t drastically affect their budget or their giving to other ministry priorities.

We want to issue our own Cooperative Program challenge. We want to urge churches to consider giving sacrificially to the CP, to be willing to stretch themselves for the sake of gospel advance. Giving sacrificially can easily be neglected when we use phrases that diminish the reality that the CP is an ingenious means of financially partnering for the sake of mission. When we use phrases like “denominational machine” or “bureaucracy” in reference to the CP, it becomes far too easy to dismiss the CP. When we treat the Cooperative Program as a mere program, we neglect the fact that the CP is, in fact, a tremendous method through which we channel funding to take the gospel to the nations.

We recognize that the sacrifice we’re calling for will look different in each congregation. Some churches will forego renovations or building programs, or at least consider spending less money on such projects. We think this would be an appropriately countercultural move in an affluent society. Others will consider training more volunteers to serve in the place of paid staff. We think churches should be doing this anyway (see Ephesians 4:11-12). Still others will consider cutting some of the money they budget for their own ministries. We think most churches have at least one or two projects or programs that, when placed under a microscope, aren’t vital to that church’s wellbeing or gospel advance. Understand that these are just ideas-the sacrifice will be contextual to each congregation.

As younger leaders in our 30s, we want to take a minute to speak frankly to our generational contemporaries. To be candid, some of you have reaped the benefits of the Cooperative Program but you refuse to give generously, let alone sacrificially, to the CP. Like us, many of you have received a college and/or seminary education that was substantially subsidized by the CP. Some of you have served as short-term foreign missionaries with IMB or received NAMB funds to plant a church. You have gladly accepted these moneys, but now you refuse to invest in the very system that has provided you with so much. When we see this attitude, we are grieved. This appears to be, in a best case scenario, the result of ignorance; in the worst case scenario, it could be outright hypocrisy. In recent conversations with state convention staff and others, we’ve been shocked at the number of churches led by younger pastors who give little or nothing to the work of Southern Baptists through the CP.

We want to urge younger Southern Baptist pastors and church planters to lead their churches to give sacrificially to the Cooperative Program. We want to plead with you to educate your congregations as to how the CP works. We want to implore you to become Great Commission champions in part by becoming Cooperative Program advocates. We want to encourage you to join all Southern Baptists in those ministries we all have deemed important. We want you to take ownership of the shared mission strategy that, by God’s grace, helped enable so many of you to get to where you are today.

We know that many of you have concerns about the stewardship of some CP funds. We know you are concerned the CP is too impersonal. We know you fear the bureaucratic inflation that tempts almost all large organizations, including the SBC. We know you want more money going to evangelism and church planting and less going to salaries and overhead. Hear us say that we share your concerns. But we also believe that those who give are those who earn the right to offer friendly suggestions about ways to improve the Cooperative Program. And while there is room for improvement, we remain convinced the CP is a wise strategy for cooperating together for the sake of the gospel.

The fact is, the Cooperative Program is a significant part of who we are as Southern Baptists. The CP isn’t our only distinctive, or even our most important distinctive, but it is most certainly a defining distinctive of the Southern Baptist Convention and has been so for nearly a century. In light of this, if we may be so bold, we want to call upon our fellow Southern Baptists, and especially younger Southern Baptists, to not be afraid of linking arms with all Southern Baptists as we partner together in this manner of doing mission. This is the Southern Baptist way, and while it may not be a perfect way, we’re convinced it remains the best way. Southern Baptists are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the full inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, the primacy of the local Baptist church, and the importance of cooperation for the sake of the gospel. This is who we are. Let’s recommit to partnering together, especially through the Cooperative Program, to advance Christ’s gospel across North America and to the uttermost parts of the earth.