How the Cooperative Program has funded SBC missions

A historic dilemma and the Southern Baptist solution

June 1, 2022

In 1792, British Baptist William Carey published An Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. In the short tract, Carey set forth the thesis—controversial at the time—that most of the known world was without Christ and that it was the scriptural duty of ordinary Christians to reach them with the gospel. Carey and his friends, sympathetic ministers like Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliffe, Samuel Pearce, and John Ryland Jr., understood that the task before them would require organization and strenuous effort, and they responded to Carey’s plea by forming the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS).

The Baptist Missionary Society and funding

Upon organizing the BMS, Carey and his friends faced many challenges, but their most persistent struggle came from their efforts to secure funding for the mission. Carey’s Inquiry already anticipated the difficulty of raising funds for such an endeavor. In the tract he encouraged congregations to set aside even one penny per week for the propagation of the gospel. He noted how many British families had boycotted sugar from West India over “the iniquitous manner in which it is obtained,” and recommended that they devote the savings from this boycott to missions. No cause was greater than that of the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, Carey argued, as he pleaded with readers to invest in eternal reward.

Carey is appropriately known today as the “father of modern missions.” His missional vision and plodding work ethic helped launch a movement that reverberates to this day. But Carey did not labor alone; he depended on his friends and financial contributions from local churches. As Fuller later recollected, “Carey, as it were, said, ‘Well, I will go down if you will hold the rope.’ But before he went down, he, as it seemed to me, took an oath from each of us at the mouth of the pit to this effect, that while we lived we should never let go of the rope. You understand me. There was great responsibility attached to us who began the business.” 

A large part of Fuller’s “rope-holding” involved a lifetime commitment to raising money to fund Carey and the other missionaries sent out by the BMS. This task took extraordinary effort, for the need for funding never relented. Fuller worked so hard in his fundraising and other administrative duties for the BMS that his widow believed it led to his death at the age of 61.

Mission endeavors like the BMS—the kind of works that require partnership across local congregations—have long struggled with fundraising. In the free church tradition where each congregation operates autonomously, larger cooperative ministries have often been overlooked, sometimes by necessity, as local congregations struggle to sustain their own ministries.

The SBC and the Cooperative Program 

Nearly a century after the formation of the BMS, Lottie Moon, an American missionary to China who had been sent out by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, was still laboring to secure funding for missions. In 1887, she lamented the shortage of financial contributions for the vital work to which Christ had called his church, writing, “Why this strange indifference to missions? Why these scant contributions? Why does money fail to be forthcoming when approved men and women are asking to be sent to proclaim the ‘unsearchable riches of Christ’ to the heathen?”

Moon, like so many others, sought creative ways to raise money for missions and eventually suggested the Christmas season when Christians celebrated the greatest gift ever given as a natural time to consecrate money for the cause. The first Lottie Moon-inspired Christmas offering was taken in 1888, and that offering has raised over $5 billion for world missions to date.

The 1920s were a difficult decade in America. World War I had just ended, the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920 had killed 675,000 Americans, and the “forgotten depression” of 1920-1921 hit farmers and other working-class Americans especially hard. As a result, the Southern Baptist Convention, which was made up mostly of rural churches, was having trouble funding its various ministries. In 1924, facing a debt of nearly $1 million, the Foreign Mission Board was forced to turn down the applications of 95 prospective missionaries.

In addition to the difficulty of financial shortfall, constant fundraising efforts were disrupting local church ministry. The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention were committed to funding home missions, foreign missions, and multiple seminaries, to name just a few, and the prevailing fundraising method prior to 1925 was for each of these entities to send representatives to local churches to plead for help. A representative would show up at a local church on a Sunday morning, preach a message about the need, and take up an offering to fund their ministry. The continual appeals for money exhausted local churches and kept local pastors out of their pulpits multiple weeks per year. The Southern Baptist Convention needed an alternative solution.

At the 1924 annual convention in Atlanta, Louisiana pastor M.E. Dodd, chairman of the Committee on Future Program, recommended a revolutionary solution to the funding dilemma. Dodd’s plan—known today as the “Cooperative Program”—asked the individual churches of the convention to commit a percentage of their total receipts each year to their state conventions. The state conventions would then designate a portion of the money to state-level ministries before forwarding the remainder to the SBC. Dodd’s plan was adopted at the 1925 convention in Memphis and continues to fund the cooperative gospel efforts of the SBC to this day. Last week was the anniversary of this adoption. 

How successful has the Cooperative Program been? Many of its benefits will never be measured. Dodd’s plan has freed countless gospel laborers from the tedious and time-consuming work of raising money and has kept pastors in their own pulpits on Sunday mornings. Missionaries have been freed to continue their labor on the field uninterrupted, freed from the heavy burden of fundraising. The Cooperative Program today funds six top-level seminaries that provide theological education for more than 13,500 students annually—more than any other denomination in the United States. Additionally, through the CP, Southern Baptists support over 3,500 on-the-field international missionaries through the International Mission Board and over 4,400 church plants through the North American Mission Board. This money also funds Lifeway Resources, the SBC’s publishing entity, Guidestone, which helps ministers with financial planning, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which advocates for religious liberty and Christian ethics in the broader cultural arena.

Churches are not required to give, but that has rarely been a problem. To date, Southern Baptist churches have given over $20 billion. The SBC’s annual budget is nearing $200 million. While these numbers are impressive, there’s no way to adequately assess the impact of M.E. Dodd’s idea. Spiritual fruit cannot be measured with data charts and pie graphs. Only God knows the full impact of the last century of Southern Baptists’ cumulative financial sacrifices. Here’s to many more years of faithful giving to the Cooperative Program.

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Casey McCall

Casey McCall is lead pastor at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church – Oldham County. He writes frequently for Prince on Preaching and the Oldham Era and has contributed articles to Radical, For the Church, ERLC, and the Journal of Andrew Fuller Studies. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24