FIRST-PERSON: Partnership requires perseverance

Paul Chitwood, IMB President. IMB Photo

Like most Baptist churches of the day, First Baptist Church of Murray, Kentucky, regularly hosted missionaries and denominational workers raising financial support. Growing frustrated with so many requesting to speak on Sundays, Pastor Harvey Boyce Taylor tried something new. He placed a box at the back of the sanctuary and told the congregation they could put extra offerings in the box and that would be their missions fund, divided up for specific, stipulated causes. The members were soon giving more to mission work through Pastor Taylor’s Box Plan than they had been giving for the individual appeals during Sunday gatherings.

Seeing the success, Taylor began a campaign to get other churches across the state to adopt the model. The model became so popular that, on Nov. 16, 1915, messengers to the annual meeting of the Kentucky Baptist Convention approved it, calling it the “unified budget plan,” as their way to fund their cooperative mission work. Interestingly, that meeting took place at First Baptist Church of Jellico, Tennessee, just across Kentucky’s state line. Of special interest to me is that First Jellico is my home church where I was baptized, ordained and married.

Ten years later, in 1925, Kentucky’s unified budget plan was renamed the Cooperative Program and adopted by the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention. Giving through the CP has exceeded $20 billion to date. A commitment to work together can make a history-altering kingdom impact!

Over time, the Cooperative Program has become essential for the work of the International Mission Board. Virtually every penny of the support for our IMB stateside team members is provided by the CP. But we don’t even use half of IMB’s CP dollars in the U.S., as 60% of those dollars go to support your overseas missionaries and their work. Thank you, Southern Baptists, for the nearly $100 million CP dollars that will come to the IMB this year!

Though the CP is an incredible tool for kingdom impact, it’s been weakening. Through the first half of the fiscal year, IMB’s CP dollars were down $4 million in comparison to last year. Denominational conflicts, diminishing trust and generational disconnect are weakening the CP. But I’m convinced one of the greatest threats to the CP over recent years has been the fact that many of those who have eaten from the CP table have failed to champion it — and some even find it appropriate to be a part of local church that gives little to nothing to the CP, even though the CP is paying for every penny of that person’s livelihood. That lack of gratitude has caused great harm to the most incredible ministry funding model the Kingdom has ever known.

Out of their devotion to God and their desire to be a part of God’s work, the New Testament Macedonian churches, though poor, gave an incredibly generous offering to provide for the needs of others. I often think of those churches when I’m praying for the Southern Baptist churches that support the International Mission Board through their generosity.

In 2 Corinthians 8, the apostle Paul is sharing about the Macedonian churches and boasting on them for their generosity. He writes, “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints — and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us” (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).

Thank God for the generosity of the Macedonian churches! For the same reason, I’m thankful for Southern Baptist churches today. Thank you, Southern Baptists, for the grace of God that has been given among you, for your abundance of joy that has overflowed in a wealth of generosity. And thank you for giving yourselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God.

I don’t know what the long-term future holds for the CP, but I do see its ongoing impact — and I’m grateful. I certainly don’t want to take it for granted. To the contrary, I want to do everything I can to see the CP strengthened. Here’s what I am certain of: If or when it’s gone, we won’t get it back. So, let’s not allow our denominational frustrations to cause us to walk away from working together. Instead, let’s look for solutions to the problems that plague us. As history teaches us, those solutions can often result in unexpected, exponential kingdom advance.