By Allen Palmeri
JEFFERSON CITY—Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Executive Director David Tolliver is sticking with his recommendation that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) table for a year the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) Task Force report, which is on track to be presented to messengers of the SBC annual meeting June 14-16 in Orlando, Fla.
Tolliver plans to brief members of the MBC Executive Board to that effect when they meet April 12-13 at the Baptist Building. The GCR Task Force will release its final report May 3, and if things are not changed as many as 18 positions now jointly funded by the MBC and the North American Mission Board (NAMB) could be in jeopardy.
Larry Lewis, interim pastor of First Baptist Church, Centralia, who served as president of the Home Mission Board from 1987-1997, is in general agreement with Tolliver when it comes to the GCR Task Force proposals that are now circulating. As Lewis understands the report in its present condition, a recommendation that would separate NAMB from a partnership agreement with the state conventions could be forthcoming in Orlando.
“That historically was the position we took the first 50-some years of our existence,” Lewis said. “Home mission work was done separately from and in many times competitively with the state conventions. The Home Mission Board had regional offices across the country where they were trying to coordinate mission work and plan strategy and appoint their own missionaries while the state conventions were doing identically the same thing in identically the same place. It was (in) disarray for years.”
Lewis credited Isaac Tichenor, who served as the Home Mission Board’s corresponding secretary from 1882-1899, for doing a lot of the work that needed to be done so that the Cooperative Program could be birthed in 1925.
“(He) led them to see the folly of the work being done competitively rather than cooperatively,” Lewis said. “He was called ‘The Father of Cooperation’ because he began to develop a system whereby we worked in partnership with the state conventions, and we’ve done it that way ever since. To go back to that original model would be a giant step backwards. It would set us back 100 years or more.”
One of the prevailing arguments on the side of GCR Task Force members with immense gravitas in SBC life is that we must restructure our finances to get more resources to the field in foreign lands for the purpose of reaching the nations with the Gospel before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In true Southern Baptist fashion, Lewis shares their zeal for all of the earth’s elect but also dares to counter their view with a little history.
“Of course, the Foreign Mission Board has historically had a budget that was at least double of what the Home Mission Board’s budget was, and received a much larger portion of the Cooperative Program funds,” Lewis said. “At the same time, the Home Mission Board, by leveraging its work with the state conventions, has been able to have approximately the same number of mission personnel as has the Foreign Mission Board, now the International Mission Board, with a much smaller investment. That’s because we have not had to have regional offices where we were trying to duplicate administrative responsibilities, but we were working very closely with and very much in harmony with the state conventions. The Home Mission Board, now the North American Mission Board, has 41 regional offices, and basically those offices are the state convention offices that we work with and through and work very closely in planning strategy and in determining what work should be done.
“Now as far as getting the job done, no one in America has got the job done to anywhere compare with what Southern Baptists have done. In the last 50 years of the last century, while all mainline denominations were going backwards, from the 1960s on, in the number of churches and in the number of members, and in their strength, at the same time Southern Baptists were doubling the number of churches and doubling the number of members, quadrupling the income, and more. So we have probably had a faster growth and a stronger growth than nearly any denomination in the history of Christendom, and I think one reason was because we had this very intricate strategy of working with Southern Baptists wherever they are rather than working apart from them. I think that’s been the secret of our success.”
What is on the table right now in terms of an official GCR Task Force report simply does not pass the smell test as far as Lewis is concerned.
“I feel like a move in that direction is a strong blow to the Cooperative Program as we’ve known it and to the very fabric that’s held us together as a denomination with the state conventions, the associations, and the SBC as a whole being parts of the same cloth,” he said. “I think we’re in danger of possibly unraveling that by going a direction that kind of sets us apart from, and in some ways competitive with, our state convention partners.”
Concern that the GCR final report will turn out to be devastating to both local and state missionary efforts is surfacing in various places.
Pulaski Baptist Association in Waynesville passed a resolution at its March 20 annual meeting in agreement with Tolliver’s one-year study position. Pulaski Baptists are on record encouraging the task force to “carefully consider the possible financial impact the report may have on state conventions and the work of missions in North America.”
In addition, one of Tolliver’s colleagues, Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Director J. Robert White, a member of the GCR Task Force, is operating in a state where the executive committee on March 16 adopted a request that the task force strengthen its language assuring that the Cooperative Program remain the dominant funding channel for Southern Baptist causes, according to The Christian Index, the state convention’s newsjournal.
Executive committee members fear a watering down of the Cooperative Program if “Cooperative Program Giving” is regarded as only equal to designated giving, according to The Index. The Georgia document states its concern that “wide application of the phrase ‘Great Commission Giving’ for monies given through the Cooperative Program as well as to designated causes may cause some Baptists to surmise wrongly that the Cooperative Program is merely a subset of giving instead of the primary means of missions giving for Southern Baptists,” Baptist Press reported.
MBC President Bruce McCoy, pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in St. Louis, said he looks forward to learning more about the latest GCR developments from Tolliver, whom he trusts with the day-to-day operation of Missouri Baptist ministry and business. McCoy is chairman of the MBC Executive Board.
“David will bring us up to speed and tell us the impact of all of this,” McCoy said.