A “Great Commission Resurgence” task force appointed to recommend ways to revitalize the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) made a progress report to the SBC’s executive committee Feb. 22. You can find news stories at the SBC’s own Baptist Press and at Associated Baptist Press, or you can download a PDF of the full 32-page report here.
The report, presented mainly by task force chair Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Arkansas, begins with almost three pages of pleasantries, followed by a nine-page sermon based on Joel 2:12-17, a memorable call for abject repentance, which Floyd used as a challenge for all-out evangelism.
Floyd said the 22-member task force was making six recommendations, which he called “components of this vision we are asking Southern Baptists to champion for the future.”
The first recommendation is a call for Southern Baptists to “rally towards a clear and compelling missional vision and begin to conduct ourselves with core values that will create a new and healthy culture within the Southern Baptist Convention.” The missional vision churches should adopt, Floyd said, should be “As a convention of churches, our missional vision is to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and to make disciples of all the nations.”
Three observations: first, it’s interesting that some SBC leaders have now embraced the term “missional,” which the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) has been using for years. Second, while CBF and other self-designated “missional” Christians define the term as a holistic call for churches to live and minister to all as Jesus did, the GCR task force defines it in terms of evangelism alone. Third, whether you define “missional” in terms of holistic ministry or propositional evangelism, it’s easier said than done, and certainly can’t be implemented by decree.
The second recommendation is a big one: it calls for the North American Mission Board, which has been in disarray for more than a decade, to be “reinvented and released” to focus on planting churches and evangelizing North America. Such efforts would require a wholesale reorganization of NAMB, along with a major disentangling of NAMB and the state Baptist conventions. Floyd noted that two-thirds of the Cooperative Program funds received by NAMB are spent in the Bible belt, much of it in kickbacks to the state conventions, where many staff members are dually employed by NAMB and the state convention. This is where the term “released” comes in — the recommendation is that NAMB be released from its financial obligations to the state conventions so it can redirect most of its funding to “the lost and dark areas of America” where most of the population “is lost and perishing.”
Look for lots of push-back to this recommendation, as it means state Baptist conventions in the South — many already cash-strapped while being leaned on to send more money to the SBC — will see fewer of their Cooperative Program dollars coming back to their state, while having to assume full funding of some staff who are partially funded by NAMB. In some states, that’s a significant percentage of personnel.
Look for resistance from NAMB, as well: the recommendation calls for the organization to become decentralized from its large office complex north of Atlanta, and to set up seven regional offices with smaller staffs whose primary focus would be to “serve and mobilize churches to plant churches.”
The third recommendation could lead to friction between NAMB and the International Mission Board (IMB), as it calls for the IMB to cross over into NAMB territory, appointing missionaries to
people groups who originated overseas but now have a substantial presence, through immigration, in North America. This could be compounded by the sixth recommendation, which calls for IMB funding to go from 50 to 51 percent of the Cooperative Program pie, a symbolic indication that reaching the world should be the SBC’s first priority.
Recommendation four frees up money for that additional percent by reassigning the tasks of Cooperative Program promotion and stewardship education from the SBC’s executive committee to the state conventions, which traditionally had those responsibilities until they were taken over by the executive committee in recent years. Note, however, that the state conventions are being asked to be the prime promoters of an SBC budget that will be flipping fewer dollars back to the states, so the move could easily backfire.
The fifth recommendation promotes a historic change in nomenclature, promoting the traditional “Cooperative Program” as “our central means of supporting Great Commission ministries,” while also urging Southern Baptists to “celebrate” designated contributions to convention agencies, state conventions, and associations as “Great Commission Giving.” This move appears directed toward minimizing the regular criticism of influential SBC leaders whose churches give a paltry percentage through the Cooperative Program while making larger designated to gifts to specific projects through the IMB or other agencies.
By shifting bragging rights from “Cooperative Program Giving” to “Great Commission Giving,” the committee could open the door for some new leaders to emerge, but it could also lead to a serious decline in giving through the traditional Cooperative Program channel. Many churches are accustomed to giving a designated percentage to missions, including a set amount to the Cooperative Program, which has been the gold standard mark of SBC faithfulness. If the emphasis shifts to “Great Commission Giving,” removing the stigma of low-percentage contributions through the Cooperative Program, many churches will likely rejigger their giving to designate more funds toward the ministries they like most, leaving a smaller amount for the no-longer-preeminent Cooperative Program.
The bottom line? The rationale behind the recommended changes is understandable, but the reality of implementation could prove daunting. On page 15 of the report, Floyd described the current culture of the SBC as more like 1 Corinthians 3 (which was directed to immature, quarreling Christians) than 1 Corinthians 13 (a paean to unselfish love). “Envy, strife, and division needs to become unacceptable,” he said. Given the major structural shifts, blurring boundaries, and financial redirection called for in the task force’s preachy-toned report, the outcome is likely to be more strife and division in the SBC, not less.
When the response to their report proves to be underwhelming, perhaps the task force can take comfort in remembering that Joel didn
‘t get much of a hearing, either.