Over the past three decades, the average Cooperative Program gift per church, as a percentage of a church's undesignated receipts, has steadily declined. For example, in 1982, across all Southern Baptist churches, the average Cooperative Program gift per church was 10.7 percent of a church's undesignated receipts. Each year since, with the exception of three slight upticks in 1995, 1997 and 1999, there was a predictable and steady decline of average Cooperative Program gifts per church. Since 1999, average percent of undesignated gifts from cooperating churches has declined by about two-tenths of a percent per year, reaching its lowest point in 2011 -- 5.407 percent across all SBC churches.
But, we see signs of hope. In 2012, the average Cooperative Program gift per church ticked up slightly to 5.414 percent. Now, for some really good news: The 2013 Cooperative Program reports and SBC Annual Church Profile data show the average Cooperative Program gifts per church has again risen slightly to 5.50 percent. This is the first two-year growth in average percentage gifts through CP in more than 30 years. Instead of declining, as some had predicted, Cooperative Program gifts have moved in the other direction.
What does this report mean?
If the Cooperative Program were a publicly-traded "big box" company, and if analysts had projected a continued steady decline in business and market share, and then good news became public -- like our current Cooperative Program report -- you can believe renewed confidence in the stock would be driving up prices on the Dow Jones Industrial Average … up a lot!
We routinely hear from some quarters that we (Southern Baptists) are on a steady march to the edge of a cliff. Yes, many of our reported numbers give us cause for grave concern. But is it time to reframe the image? Could we, perhaps, be standing at a new starting line?
Yes, this is only a two-year trend line. But it is the last two years, it is two years in a row and it breaks a 30-year decline.
Keep in mind that when we compute average percentage Cooperative Program gifts per church, we compute all Southern Baptist churches: graying churches, growing churches, new churches, contemporary churches, ethnic churches, mega-churches, small churches, legacy churches … and, yes, churches that gave nothing through the Cooperative Program. Declaring this report about the Cooperative Program to be a clear-cut winner may be a matter of opinion, and I know there is cause for reticence and caution, but regardless of the celebratory rhetoric you may detect in this article, this is good news and certainly worthy of our attention and our celebration!
Again, when people expect one thing to happen, and the exact opposite happens, you absolutely must take notice, you absolutely must find the best way forward.
So, consider this. It appears that Southern Baptist churches are making positive, cooperative choices! Not only did the average percentage of Cooperative Program gifts per church go up; total Cooperative Program dollars went up, too, and did so during a time that many of their churches' undesignated receipts and total church receipts declined.
This year, at the SBC annual meeting in Baltimore, SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page will once again ask pastors and churches to prayerfully consider increasing their support of SBC missions and ministries through the Cooperative Program by giving an additional 1 percentage point of their churches' undesignated receipts. In 2012, more than 3,000 churches reported an increase in Cooperative Program giving by 1 percent or more. Now that the ACP report has been published, we will begin analyzing the 2013 data to see if this trend, too, is continuing.
During Frank Page's Great Commission Advance message on Tuesday, June 10, he will not only ask churches to do more, he will ask all Southern Baptists to do more. He will ask every individual and every family to embrace a biblical standard of stewardship -- tithing, giving of offerings and developing a lifestyle of generosity. If Southern Baptists were giving according to biblical standards, there would be more than enough money to reach every unengaged, unreached people group in the world; plant 15,000 new churches in North America; increase accessibility of affordable theological education; revitalize 28,000 plateaued and declining churches; support collegiate ministry at unprecedented levels; express vibrancy, passion and urgency for evangelism; address human suffering; increase ministries to hurting children; and expand moral advocacy efforts in the public square.
Usually Cooperative Program giving and church plate offerings tend to move together, but not this time. The 2013 ACP data confirms our churches are giving more to missions through the Cooperative Program while church members are giving less through their churches.
On this cusp of something new, there has never been a better time for Southern Baptists to settle the Lordship issue about money and honor the Lord through tithes and offerings.
C. Ashley Clayton is vice president for Cooperative Program and stewardship with the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.
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