The overflow crowd crammed into the small room and spilled out into the street. You needed to be early or fast to get a good seat. Neither of those are an option when you can’t walk. Late arrivals are relegated to the farthest reaches of the human sea …and a long way from hope.
That is unless you have friends committed to doing whatever it takes to get you to the Savior’s feet. Jesus sees your faith, He speaks to you, and seconds later, you get up and walk – possibly for the first time ever – through the astonished and parted sea.
But that never happens if not for a shared vision brought to fruition by the tangible commitment of four people each grabbing a handle of your stretcher, cooperating for your spiritual benefit.
Of course the story is from Mark 2 where the paralytic man’s friends dig a hole in a roof to lower him to Jesus’ feet. I believe there are billions of people today across Tennessee, North America and around the world just like the paralytic man. They are in need of spiritual healing and are in desperate need of friends who will do whatever it takes to get them to the feet of Jesus.
Southern Baptists must be those types of friends if we are to share our life-altering message of hope. Fortunately, our Baptist forefathers created the Cooperative Program to ensure Southern Baptists could lay hand to the pallet and usher the lost to our Savior. That legacy of cooperation rooted in the doctrine of missions is 90 years old and is still the tie that effectively binds us in our Great Commission cause.
There is, however, a tug across our denomination away from cooperation. I believe the tug is born out of a genuine commitment to spiritual urgency. However, I also believe our well-meaning efforts to focus only on our individual part of the missions effort positions us to eventually pull against each other. The result would be detrimental to our local churches, our denomination and most importantly to the world’s spiritually lost. The proverbial roof top will be full of millions who will never make it to Jesus’ feet.
Here’s our reality: By any measure our churches have generally plateaued in growth or are declining. Nothing new there, people have said that for years. We’ve spent a significant amount of time camping in that macro-level conversation. Unfortunately, less time is spent at the micro-level, the church health level, identifying the root of the decline. I believe there are many contributing factors but one that rises to the surface is a failure to teach and embrace our historical Baptist distinctive of missional cooperation exorcised through the Cooperative Program.
Collectively we are predominantly a denomination of churches whose median size is 189 members (according to the 2013 Annual Church Profile). Tennessee certainly reflects that. It would be impossible for those churches to individually support the broad range of missions opportunities they cooperatively support with thousands of other churches through the Cooperative Program. In our state alone, Tennessee Baptists giving through the Cooperative Program are reaching many of the 140-plus global people groups that are filling our cities, many from countries closed and hostile to the gospel. At the same time, those churches are also reaching America’s spiritually lost through the North American Mission Board and the nations through the International Mission Board. But, our Baptists universities are also training up ministers and missionaries through seminary education and ministering to people both at home and abroad who have been devastated by natural disasters. Compassion ministries are helping some of the poorest people in our nation located here in Tennessee. The list of missions opportunities goes on, all enabled by the Cooperative Program.
There is 90 years worth of proven genius in the Cooperative Program, but I believe at least two things need to happen for that legacy of successful missions to continue.
First, church members, pastors, associational and state convention leaders, national SBC entity leaders – everyone – must cooperate and contribute to the health of the local church. I believe church health is inextricably intertwined with a passion for the spiritually lost guided by the Great Commission. Glorifying God by making His name known is the very reason Christ followers exist. We simply can’t see churches as the financial founts that sustain work on behalf of Southern Baptist. The Cooperative Program needs to be seen as it was originally intended: A mechanism through which Southern Baptists can effectively cooperate and participate in a balanced Acts 1:8 strategy. To get there we all need to help strengthen the local church.
Second, collectively we need a renewed commitment to a cooperative effort as expressed through the Cooperative Program. Listen, the debate has raged for years about changing the name to lose the “program” verbiage so that it might become something more palatable for each passing generation. Let’s keep our eye on the ball. We’re distracted by semantics rather than focused on what lies at the heart of the Cooperative Program: a proven methodology for reaching the spiritually lost wherever a Southern Baptist may be, locally all the way to the farthest reaches of the world.
The Cooperative Program isn’t outdated, it isn’t broken and it doesn’t need fixing. What it needs is for each Southern Baptist to grab a handle and lift….together. Billions of spiritual paralytics need to be carried to the feet of Jesus. They desperately need us to cooperate in getting them there.
It is a joy to be on this journey with you.