When Words Aren’t Enough: A Report from the Field, Part 1

For much of the month of January, a colleague and I have been in an international setting serving with overseas workers. We have worked together daily in an educational context, and I have been reminded continually of the significance of the Great Commission. To say I am impressed by the workers of our mission board is an understatement, but I don’t want to embarrass my friends by being overly effusive about their labors. None of them desire to have attention drawn to himself anyway. During our weeks together I have had time to reflect on many important things, and I have written out some of my thoughts in a few posts I’ve labeled “A Report from the Field.” There is no grand theme to the posts; they are simply my reflections on matters that have come to mind. I hope they are an encouragement to our readers.

I did not realize the full effect of the economic downturn upon our overseas work until this past month. I have travelled overseas since the events of the Fall of 2008 when the world economy began its decline, but I am seeing the cumulative effects of reduced Cooperative Program (CP) giving and a weakened US dollar in its stark reality now.

I should note that our overseas personnel are not the sort to grouse about all this, but the difficulties imposed upon them and the potentially negative impact of budget reductions are all too clear. Personnel reductions and cuts to strategy budgets are bound to decrease the extent to which the Great Commission work of the IMB will be accomplished.

I would never suggest that this limits God’s power to make His Name known among the nations. In fact, we may form a dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit in ways that will bear much fruit due to our lack of resources. Nevertheless, our failure to consider the ramifications of reduced budgets is at least Pollyanna and is, more pointedly, a mark of foolishness.

I know of no one in our stateside congregations who fails to voice their support of our overseas work. It is the essence of what it is to be Southern Baptist: to unite together in a cooperative effort to send and support laborers to go to the nations. Or so we say. In fact, we say this without hesitation. But to say this is not enough. Not nearly enough.

At the risk of making some people very angry, let me lay out some facts:

  • Of every dollar given by Southern Baptists to their local churches, 1-2 cents (depending on the state convention through which the funds are dispersed) ends up at the IMB.
  • In the CP process by which funds move from the local church to the state convention to the SBC for dispersal to the various SBC agencies, the highest percentage that a state convention sends to the national convention (and therefore to the agencies, including the IMB) is about 50%, while most send 35-40%. (The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia lead the way in CP giving, and are to be commended for doing so.)
  • That is, most state conventions keep 60-65% of the funds given by those in SBC pews, and forward the remainder to the SBC.
  • Most SBC churches keep 85-95% of the funds given by those who fill their pews for work in that church, forwarding 5-15% of those funds to the state convention (though some may give directly to the SBC, though they are not credited with CP giving if they do so. Yes, Virginia, that’s correct.)
  • So, let’s say Widow Ellen gives $100 as a monthly offering in her local congregation. It would be typical for the church to use $90 for its own budget, while sending $10 to the state convention. The state will then keep, let’s say $6 and send $4 to Nashville. And the Executive Committee of the SBC will then disperse the funds to the various SBC entities, and the IMB will receive $2 of that $4.
  • I’m not making this up. $2 of her $100 makes it to the cause that is the primary reason for the existence of the SBC in the first place. (Yes, I’m arguing that our forebears banded together to form a convention of churches for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission, primarily focused on sending laborers to the nations to spread the gospel.)

I realize I’ve irritated some folks at this point. And likely made some mad. I hope your indignation is directed where it should be. That is, I hope you’re indignant that such a paltry amount of the funds given by the people of the SBC make it to our international work. But I imagine that may not be the case with everyone.

Some like to point to the state conventions as the primary culprit in this state of affairs. To be sure, I hope our state convention leaders will join en masse to change their funding strategies (some already are), raising their contribution to the SBC to at least 50% and, I prefer, targeting 60-75% as a goal, depending on the needs in a given state or region (I think those state conventions in pioneer areas are justified in keeping a greater amount of funds for a period of time to support church planting in those areas). But I don’t want to pick on the state conventions alone. I want to pick on some of our churches.

One prominent church in the SBC recently embarked on a $130,000,000.00 building campaign. Yes, that is the right amount of zeros and the commas and decimals are correct. Several years ago I heard an SBC pastor bragging about his $70,000,000.00 building campaign. We build lavish (by any standards in the world they are lavish) worship centers, “family life” centers, and other buildings at every turn. I have to ask, in light of the fact that over 1.6 billion people have never heard of the name of Christ, do we really need such facilities?

This was brought home to me not too many years ago when I learned of a congregation on another continent that circulated a prayer request among some believers for a larger tree under which they could worship. That’s right. God had added to their number so significantly that they were beseeching God Almighty for a larger tree. Perhaps we should inform them that they should have a bit more faith and go for a family life center where they could play some racquetball or basketball while they take a break from the toil they endure just to stay alive.

Yes, that was sarcasm in that last paragraph. And before you criticize me for that, we should realize that the Scriptures employ sarcasm as a way of communicating that some things are so absurd that sarcasm is a legitimate device to get our attention.

It’s time for our attention to be gotten. And it’s time for us to awaken to the commission of Jesus to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. The accomplishment of that mission, the mission of God, does not rest on lavish buildings in the US (trust me, they really are lavish), nor immense state convention structures, nor grander buildings on seminary campuses. That mission will be fulfilled by sending laborers into the international fields. And if we have any sense about us and, let’s be honest, real devotion to our Lord, we’ll put our greatest amount of resources into the places where there is the greatest amount of need. And that typically isn’t in our stateside ministries.

This is a time when words aren’t enough. We say we support the Great Commission. But to say we support the Great Commission and then keep spending money on ourselves is to say that we don’t truly care about the Great Commission.

The real test of our commitment to the mission of God will be found in the extent to which we give (and get that money to those who carry the gospel overseas), pray, and ultimately send workers to the ends of the earth. Words aren’t enough, Southern Baptists. They simply aren’t enough.