If there had been travel miles incentive programs in the 1800s, John Mason Peck, a young American Baptist with a heart for missions, would have held platinum elite status.
Influenced by Luther Rice, Peck traveled extensively throughout the West, organizing numerous ministry societies. In the 1800s, Baptists primarily used a society model for accomplishing Kingdom ministry. Home mission societies were formed to bring the Gospel to frontier regions in America. Foreign mission societies were formed to send missionaries overseas. Bible societies were formed to publish and distribute Bibles. Sunday school societies were formed to promote Christian education. And the list goes on.
Peck realized that funding for these societies would eventually atrophy without individuals making regular visits to supporters, so he developed a circuit itineration where he visited individuals and churches to collect funds for the societies. He was like the person who calls just as you are sitting down for dinner to see if you would be willing to support his cause.
When Southern Baptists separated from the Triennial Convention in 1845, they had a decision to make: Did they want to consist of individual societies, or did they want a true convention structure?
Societies are funded by individuals and have a single-ministry focus. They generally have a committed membership as well as a simple organizational structure. Leaders in the society model have to travel extensively, making appeals and garnering support for their ministry. There may be several societies all working toward the same purpose, such as foreign missions. One might equate them with para-church ministries today.
A convention, on the other hand, is funded by cooperating churches rather than individuals and has a multi-purpose focus. This model creates a centralized, official denomination that is able to support efforts in missions (both home and foreign), theological education, publications and other important ministry endeavors.
Conventions avoid the duplication of efforts—i.e., 20 churches working together rather than each doing the same thing—and the duplication of organized societies.
Additionally, a convention model provides the means for a centralized budget, affirms the local church as God’s primary vehicle for accomplishing his work, and shows the body of Christ working together for specific purposes.
In the end, Southern Baptists opted for the convention model, feeling it was the most effective way to accomplish widespread ministry. Concerned about a top-down structure within the denomination, they created a democratic organization and placed decision-making power in autonomous local churches.
Technically, the Southern Baptist Convention only exists two days each year at its annual meeting, where messengers adopt a budget, propose and vote on resolutions, and celebrate the Southern Baptists’ involvement in the Lord’s work around the world. Individuals sent by cooperating Southern Baptist churches are considered messengers rather than delegates because they represent themselves and are free to present motions and vote their conscience. Thus, the power of the convention rests in the hands of local church members.
One of the benefits about this structure is that any messenger can propose anything he or she wants. Of course, one of the frustrations can also be that any messenger can propose anything he or she wants.
One of the joys of being Southern Baptist is knowing that local churches can partner together to achieve much more than they ever could alone. In the next issue of the Scroll, we will examine how the Cooperative Program fits into the convention model.