Published July 11, 2013
DULUTH — When Southern Baptists take account of their worldwide mission involvement, the numbers are staggering.
More than 11,000 missionaries serve in North America and around the world.
Each year, the traditional mission offerings – Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering – raise nearly a quarter of a billion dollars for direct-to-the-field mission support.
When added up, the sum equals one of the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) primary contributions to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Since its formation in 1888, WMU – headquartered in Birmingham, AL – has championed financial support of career missionaries. From WMU’s earliest days when Annie Armstrong prolifically wrote letters asking for financial support of missionaries like Lottie Moon, the WMU and mission education have represented the foundation of Southern Baptist missions. Were it not for WMU, Southern Baptists would not be the missional denomination it is today.
WMU owns the trademark for both annual offerings and has the final say in the setting of each annual goal. While WMU has much visibility in that process with the North American and International Mission Boards, there’s yet another avenue of ongoing WMU missions support – the Cooperative Program (CP).
In the early days of the denomination, the SBC struggled to support its burgeoning missionary force. Likewise, the denomination’s financial support of seminaries, colleges, hospitals, children’s homes, and the mission agencies was unstable. Each agency, both state and national, was going directly to the churches to make appeals for financial support. The SBC lacked a strategic financial-support system.
As Southern Baptist leaders searched for solutions, WMU was at the table. In 1923, the SBC appointed the Future Program Commission to make a recommendation concerning consistent funding methods. Approximately one-third of the committee was women representing every state convention’s WMU. The committee’s recommendation led to the Convention’s adoption of CP in 1925, according to Catherine Allen’s 1987 book, “A Century to Celebrate.”
As an SBC auxiliary, national WMU receives no direct benefit from CP. Still, the mission education agency has been unwavering in its CP support.
“The purpose of WMU is to encourage and equip our churches to fulfill the Great Commission,” said Beth Ann Williams, Georgia Baptist Convention state missionary responsible for women’s adult mission education and enrichment ministry. “We do that in all age groups through mission education. With CP being the foundation for Southern Baptist [missions and ministry], it only makes sense that we promote it.”
CP is a frequent curriculum objective in WMU age-group materials, something Williams calls the undergirding of missions.
“I think that anybody involved in mission action or missionary work, whether in Georgia or around the world, has an understanding that the Cooperative Program is making all of this work,” Williams said.
Williams benefits from CP support today as a state missionary. Earlier in her ministry, CP provided the stability for her to serve first as a US2 missionary during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. She remained at the GBC and worked with mission volunteers. Later, Williams moved to Utah to direct Southern Baptists’ volunteer ministries at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Her family enjoyed Utah and stayed as Williams worked for the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention as their Women in Missions and Ministry director.
For Williams, CP is very personal. However, she’s aware that some Southern Baptists think that CP is impersonal as opposed to direct missions support practiced by some denominations and para-church ministries.
Typically, that criticism comes from churches that don’t have mission education. Between age-group curriculum, special events, camps, and other means, Southern Baptist churches like Flat Creek Baptist Church in Fayetteville better understand how CP undergirds state, national, and international missions.
“If the three primary concerns in the realm of real estate is ‘location, location, location,’ then I believe the three primary concerns of CP support at the local church level would be described as ‘education, education, education,’” said Flat Creek Senior Pastor Jerry Cross.
With mission education available for every age group, Cross said the church’s WMU continually supports the church’s efforts “to further educate members of our congregation in CP giving.” Flat Creek has maintained its 12 percent CP commitment while reducing other budget items during recent economic challenges.
Flat Creek demonstrates why Williams believes that CP is not a tough sale.
“It’s not hard to get excited about the ministries and lives of the people being supported by the Cooperative Program,” Williams said.
Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming and the bivocational pastor of Suwanee International Fellowship in Suwanee. Previously, Burton spent 25 years in mission education and mobilization at the former Brotherhood Commission and then the North American Mission Board.
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