Missions, Education, and the Cooperative Program,

or How M. E. Dodd helped to put a baptistry in my family’s garage

and helped to pay your Union tuition

 

Gene C. Fant, Jr., Ph.D.

Delivered at Union University’s Founder’s Day Chapel

February 20, 2004

 

 

No event influenced my life more than that of my parents’ decision to enter into missions when I was four years old.  My parents, Gen and Ramona Fant, were church planters in Fredonia, NY, near Buffalo; we were involved in starting something like nine churches in seven years.  We moved up there from Mississippi when I was four, leaving behind our families and warm weather for Buffalo!  Lake Erie!  Eesh.  While our church was building its own building, we met in a Johnny Carson suit factory and then in our house, the parsonage. 

            Every Saturday night, Dad would shave our heads with his electric clippers, we’d move the furniture in the living room and set up folding chairs.  My brother and I would have to clean our bedroom, because it was where our Sunday school class met.  When we made our public professions of faith, we walked down the aisle between the folding chairs in our living room.  We couldn’t get baptized in Lake Erie because it was either frozen or bursting into flames from pollution, so we had to drive 60 miles to use the nearest baptistry. 

            Soon thereafter, though, our church purchased its very own baptistry.  We put it in the garage.  When we would baptize people, we’d lift the garage door and the congregation would stand in the driveway and watch.  I know that the neighbors thought we were crazy, but after all, they knew that we were SOUTHERN Baptists, and a little weird anyway. 

 

  • So why was that baptistry in our garage? 

 

Because my parents answered the call to go into missions.  They believed that the people of Western New York needed to hear the good news of Christ.  And Southern Baptists answered the call to support such an endeavor.  The Home Missions Board, now called the North American Missions Board, had an initiative underway that supported church plantings in areas with few Baptist churches.  Southern Baptists funneled a part of their tithes and offering into a massive pool of resources, called the Cooperative Program.  My family was able to start that first church in Fredonia even though we had only a handful of families and could not afford a full-time pastor.  The Cooperative Program put that baptistery in our garage, which means that the Father of the Cooperative Program, M. E. Dodd, helped to put it there. 

            The legacy of Dr. Dodd is extensive and reaches to every student, alumnus, faculty member, and staff member in this auditorium.  Currently Union receives about $2.3 million dollars from the Tennessee Baptist Convention, funds that come from the Cooperative Program.  Without those funds, student tuition would be almost $1000 higher than it is.  Truly it may be said that M. E. Dodd helped to pay for your tuition.

           

  • Who was this man and what was his vision?  Why do we celebrate his life on a day like today? 

 

Booker T. Washington, a man whose ideas about education have greatly influenced mine, encouraged a study of the theoretical alongside the practical; central to this idea was the study of great persons.  As Washington wrote, “The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women” (Up from Slavery 26).  This is the idea behind Union’s annual Founder’s Day emphasis.  We study the great persons who have been our forerunners in order to lift up our eyes and to see the potential toward which we ourselves can strive. 

            M. E. Dodd grew up in the Lickskillet community, west of Trenton, a mere twenty-odd miles north of where we are now.  His family farmed and he probably would have continued that tradition were it not for a Union student, Forest Smith, who spoke at the Poplar Grove Baptist Church one Sunday.  Dodd went forward to give his life to Jesus and soon he felt called into the ministry (Daniel 14).  This calling on his life led him to Union, where he was a noted student and athlete.  I was particularly interested to learn that he was the editor of the forerunner of what we now call The Torch, Union’s literary magazine.  While here, Dodd met Emma Savage, the daughter of President George Savage, for whom this very room is named.  They married and embarked on a life of service to God’s kingdom.  Following graduation, Dr. Dodd’s pastored churches in Fulton, Paducah, and Louisville, KY.  In 1912, he assumed the pastorate of FBC, Shreveport, LA.  As a fervent supporter of missions, he led the church to give freely of its resources.  As a fierce advocate of corporate prayer, he often led the church to fall to its knees during worship.  As a firm believer in the priority of evangelism, he led the church in revivals and outreach projects.

            As the church grew in prominence, Dodd was drafted into several leadership positions in the life of the Convention.  At that time, the Convention was loosely knit, poorly financed, and enduring theological crises.  However, Dodd understood something valuable: the solution to these crises could be found in a renewed, sacrificial focus on missions.  In 1925, Dodd’s vision for a passionate support of missions, education, and benevolence articulated itself in what we now call the Cooperative Program.  In this vision, all Southern Baptist churches would commit themselves to funneling at least 10% of their budget to their state conventions, which would then pass along at least 50% of their budgets to the national convention.  In this manner, the pennies and nickels of millions of Baptists could convert themselves into billions of dollars in the support of Christian causes across the nation and the world. 

            For Dodd, the work of the church reached into every aspect of the world, starting in our own communities.  As he wrote in 1929,

“Christ’s churches today are carrying out that full program as a service of: 1.

benevolence to the body, in orphans’ homes, hospitals, and relief work; 2.

education to the mind, in schools, colleges, seminaries, and missionary training

institution; 3. salvation to the heart, in evangelistic and missionary enterprises, at

home and abroad” (Concerning the Collection 32).

Dodd’s vision of Southern Baptist life was that we would join together in sacrificial work for the Kingdom of Christ.  As the Program started, he wrote,

“The Cooperative Program is intercession in behalf of all our great causes which Christ has committed to our trust.  We believe that Southern Baptists should go forward together year by year in high and holy endeavor until His Kingdom shall stretch from shore to shore, and His name shall be known from the river to the ends of the earth.  . . .   It is a Jesus program.  Millions of Southern Baptists are pooling their resources for one purpose—to advance the cause of Christ.  . . . We are unapologetically committed to winning people to Jesus Christ.  That’s our only reason for being!”  (qtd. in Daniel 69).

The campaign was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  Since 1925 Southern Baptists have given over $10 billion to CP causes (Daniel 72).  Tennessee Baptists alone have given almost 1/3 of a billion dollars in the last ten years.  According to SBC.NET, the SBC has over 10,000 missionaries at home and abroad; there are about 15,000 students at our seminaries.  Our disaster relief ministries are important partners with groups such as the Red Cross.  Our children’s villages are national leaders in aiding needy children.  Our ministerial annuity program is almost without peer.  The various Baptist colleges and universities across the convention turn out lay and professional leaders who enrich our communities and our churches. 

 

The best statistic, though, is this one: in 2002, 816,436 new believers were baptized!

 

  • Why would Dodd have had such a vision?  What drove him to see a larger picture that could generate such a successful support of missions, education, and benevolence? 

 

Dodd had a proper perspective on the world.  He knew that God reigns over everything and is, in fact, the ultimate source of every good thing.  As Christians, we cannot be materialists.  We know that viewed from a proper perspective, there is a metaphysical aspect to everything.  That’s why we say that power is not simply about the ability to control and manipulate others.  That’s why we understand that sex is not simply about sensual pleasure.  That’s why we believe that money is not simply about finances and ledger sheets. 

            Dodd knew that our resources should flow in the praise of God and in the service of others.  Our stewardship of resources is an overflow of our spiritual state.  It’s not about financial responsibility; it’s about spiritual discipline.  Dodd wrote, “The highest aim in asking for the church offering is not to get money but to secure the consecration of manhood; not coin, but character; not talents of clanking silver, but talents of mastered manhood” (qtd. in Daniel 83).

            Likewise, Dodd understood that the worth of our tithes and offerings is not defined by the economic value of our dollars: “An ounce of energy, a pound of talent, an hour of time, a dollar of money given to the church will go farther, rise higher, sink deeper, spread wider, last longer, and accomplish more than when given to any other cause in the world” (qtd. in Daniel 15).

 

  • When we read Mark 12:28-31, we gain a glimpse of Dodd’s vision. 

 

This young man came to Christ and asked what was the greatest commandment.  Christ combined two Old Testament passages into one.  We are first to look vertically, to see God in His rightful place in the universe, transcending it as Creator, King, and Redeemer.  Then we are to look horizontally to see others who need love, encouragement, and care.  How amazing that Christ anticipates the Cross in this statement’s vertical and horizontal perspectives!  How awesome to see that the statement applied to the very Incarnation of Christ, as God Himself came down to love humankind sacrificially! 

            Part of the genius of Christ’s response, though, is that it establishes for us a right perspective on the world.  One of the ideas that I come back to time and time again in my own heart is that orthodoxy means little without orthopraxy, and vice versa.  That my right belief in God makes little difference if it is not combined with right action toward my fellow persons. 

            One of the failures of Christianity in our postmodern world is our failure to heed Christ’s admonition.  We look up to God and place a period at the end of verse 30, creating an otherworldly stance toward others that leaves them lost, hurting, and hopeless.  Others in Christendom essentially have placed an ellipsis over verse 30, skipping over the spiritual, vertical foundation of the passage and establishing ministries that bandage wounds without ever caring for the soul diseases that cause the wounds.

            In both of these cases, we find selfishness involved.  Across Christendom, we see churches and institutions dying because they have maintained theological “purity” while ignoring the obvious needs of their surrounding communities.  We see churches and institutions dying because they have established social service programs while completely omitting the Gospel of Christ from their actions. 

            The vision and wisdom of M. E. Dodd was that the Cooperative Program would prevent us from thinking in terms of the horizontal first.  For Southern Baptists, the Cooperative Program has been our primary inoculation against the isolation that so easily afflicts us.  Our polity rightly asserts the independence of the local church fellowship, but simultaneously we are not isolated in our independence, for we are parts of the Body of Christ.  We stay focused on God even as we minister to those around us.  The beauty of the Cooperative Program in Southern Baptist life has been the way that it has compelled us to fulfill the Great Commandment.  By participating sacrificially in Cooperative Program giving, we work together to change lives through Christ’s redeeming power.  We work together in hunger relief, well drilling, medical clinics, and literacy programs. 

            By living our lives in accordance with Christ’s commands, we gain God’s perspective on this world.  We are sensitized to the needs of this world, over and above our own selfish wants and desires. 

            Most of us, however, follow the basic impulse of human nature, selfishness, especially as we grow older and encumber ourselves with more cares and responsibilities.  We stop looking up and instead look to others before looking back unhappily on ourselves.  We look at the supposed wealth, success, and beauty of others and when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we see only lack, failure, and ugliness.  We begin navel gazing (sitting on the sidelines, staring at our own navels and ignoring the world around us) and grow self-centered.  We isolate ourselves in smug selfishness and superiority.  The solution to this attitude is to lift up our eyes and to see God as the center of the universe, and not ourselves. 

            The other extreme of selfishness is a cynical arrogance.  When this attitude overtakes us, we then lash out at others and boast ourselves to be the centers of the universe.  It’s the impulse that reflects itself so clearly in popular culture, causing Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit to rap, “Gonna do things my way, it’s my way, my way or the highway.”  It’s the assertion that Gwen Stefani and No Doubt sing about: “It’s my life.  Don’t you forget.”  And they are lifting up anthems that are not that far removed from Frank Sinatra’s solipsistic brag, “I did it my way.” 

            Well, Fred Durst, it’s not “your way,” it’s God’s way.  And Gwen Steffani, it’s not “your life,” it’s God’s life.  And yes, even to the Chairman of the Board, it’s not about doing it “my way,” it’s about doing it God’s way.  That may even help to reduce the number of regrets you have along the way.

 

  • So how does Dodd’s vision work its way here at Union?

 

Living in the proper perspective touted in Mark 12 lies at the core of what we do here at Union.  One of my mentors, Aubrey Lucas, who is an influential leader in Methodist higher education, once told me that education should cause us to lift up our eyes and see the immensity of the world and of our opportunities in it.  As a university community, Union has articulated this view in our first two core values: we strive to be Christ-centered and people-focused (Union University Undergraduate Catalogue 3).  This is a bold application of Mark 12.  We look to God as the source of all knowledge and Truth and then we to look to the best of what has been thought by others so that we can effect change in this world for the sake of the Gospel. 

            Such a worldview requires us to think redemptively.  As John Milton wrote, The purpose of education is “to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, . . . by possessing our souls of true virtue, which, being united to the heavenly grace of faith, makes up the highest perfection” (On Education 439).

            This redemptive thinking reflects the greatness of the Christian humanistic enterprise.  We look up to learn about God, and we look around us in order to find out more about God.  We want to learn more about God’s nature, so we study science and find Him revealed in our world’s order, structure, and providential design.  We want to learn more about God and our fallen humanity, so we read literature and hear the voices of the centuries that articulate our shared human experiences.  Every academic discipline can pursue such forms of inquiry in such a devotional manner.  In the process, we learn to move beyond our own discomforts, to become compassionate, thinking, globally minded Christians.

            Dodd was no stranger to Christian education; in fact, he was the president of the now defunct Dodd College from 1927-1942.  In Dodd’s classic book Missions Our Mission, he outlined his view of Christian education, focusing on what we now call outcomes assessment:

“Schools under the domination of material philosophers will turn out materialists. 

Schools conducted under the dominating spirit of Jesus Christ turn out men and

women of Christian ideals and principles in life.  There may be occasional

exceptions as there are to all rules.  The character of the students reveals the

character of the school.  A tree is known by its fruits.” (49)

 

            I quickly came to love Union because I see in it a faithful pursuit of the ideals of Dodd and so many others.  When I look at my teaching colleagues who so desperately want to teach in a way that is distinctively Christian AND rigorously intellectual, when I see my staff coworkers who try to encourage the others in our community, when I look around in chapel and see students whose faces reveal their passion for Christ, I can’t help but smile.  When I see how this institution’s leaders have committed themselves to upholding Union’s mission by offering conferences for convention leaders, mission opportunities for anyone who feels called, and financial support for the children of missionaries and Tennessee Baptist church members, I know that Dodd must be smiling even as he sits among our great cloud of witnesses.  I am proud to be able to represent an institution that treats Cooperative Program gifts as a sacred entrustment, rather than an entitlement that carries no responsibilities.

            When I was growing up near Buffalo, my football hero was O. J. Simpson.  I wanted to be a running back just like him; in fact, I broke a number of his records playing in my backyard!  I read every interview with him that I could find; in one of those interviews, I remember him saying that the secret to his successful rushing performances was his focus on the end zone: “Keep your eyes on the goal.  If I look at what’s around me or worry about myself, I get tackled easily.  If I keep my eyes on the goalposts, I can get there.”  I have seen dozens of photographs from his playing days, and in many of those, you can see his face turned and his eyes focused on the end zone, in spite of the tacklers who surrounded him.  He always drove toward the goal, and his career demonstrated the success of this strategy. 

            As Christians, we likewise can learn this lesson: our focus is where we ultimately end up.  If we are focusing on God, we will find success, as defined by His terms.  If we focus on ourselves or on the chaos that surrounds us, we will be distracted and end up failing to achieve the goals that God has set out for us.

            At church this week, I saw several children in front of a mirror watching themselves.  They posed and preened and ignored the fact that people were watching them be so silly.  Many of us, though, do the same thing.  We spend our lives looking at ourselves rather than looking to God and looking around to see how we can serve others and to learn about Him. 

            Where are you looking?  God calls us to live our lives in proper relationship with him.  How are you considering his priority in your life?  Are you looking up?  Is God the focus of your life, your worship, your study?  Are you looking around?  Are you serving others, encouraging them?  Are you living up to the legacy of godly persons like M. E. Dodd, who went before us and who provide us with great examples of Christ-likeness?

            God provided M. E. Dodd a vision of excellence and cooperation.  He offered my family the opportunity to have a baptistry in our garage.  He blessed Union with a central place in Christian education.  What is God’s plan for you?  Look up to Him and see where this perspective will take you.  You never know: you just may end up with a baptistry in your garage.

 

Gene C. Fant, Jr., Ph.D., chairs the English department at Union University, Jackson TN.


Works Cited

Daniel, Jewel Mae.  The Chimes of Shreveport: The Life of M. E. Dodd, The Heart of

the Cooperative Program.  Franklin: Providence House Publishers, 2001.

Dodd, E. M.  Concerning the Collection.  New York: Revell, 1929.

---.  Missions Our Mission.  Nashville: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist

Convention, 1930.

Durst, Fred.  “Gonna Do Things My Way.”  From the Limp Bizkit CD Chocolate Starfish

and the Hot Dog Flavored Water.  2000.

Holy Bible.  New International Version.  Nashville: Holman, 1988.

Milton, John.  “On Education.”  Paradise Lost and Selected Poetry and Prose. 

Ed. Northrop Frye.  New York: Holt, Rinehardt, and Winston, 1961.

SBC.NET.  Search internal links for complete figures and details.

Sinatra, Frank.  “My Way.” The Reprise Collection, Disc 3.  Songwriters credited as Paul

Anka, J. Revaux, and C. Francois.  (http://www.thepeaches.com/music/frank/MyWay.txt).

Stefani, Gwen.  “It’s My Life.”  From the No Doubt CD The Singles 1992-2003.  The

song is a cover of the original by Talk Talk (1984).

Union University Undergraduate Catalogue 2003-2004.

Washington, Booker T.  Up From Slavery.  New York: Dover, 1995.