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Moderate Baptist Leader Says SBC Neglecting the Hungry

The one-time director of hunger concerns for the Southern Baptist Convention said a downturn in giving to an annual hunger offering indicates the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has turned its back on the poor.

“Southern Baptist fundamentalists are simply unfaithful to the Bible,” said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “No more proof of this truth is necessary than the downward trend line over the past 15 years in hunger giving, resulting from the lack of educational and promotional efforts of the denomination.”

Last year the average Southern Baptist gave between 30 and 45 cents to the SBC’s World Hunger Offering, according to statistics reported by the denomination.

Baptist Press reported last week that Southern Baptists gave $7.4 million to fight hunger overseas and in America in 2006. According to the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention annual, Southern Baptists contributed a total of $5,045,586 for World Hunger Relief in 2005-2006.

Claiming a membership of 16.3 million, either figure is much less than Southern Baptists donate to other concerns.

Feeding the hungry is a strong theme in Southern Baptist heritage. The convention’s most famous missionary, Lottie Moon–for whom an annual foreign-missions offering in named–died of starvation after refusing to eat so girls she taught at a school in China could have food.

But the denomination didn’t develop a systematized approach to collecting designated funds to fight hunger until the 1970s.

Despite international attention to food shortages in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1970s, Southern Baptists gave only $889,190 to the denomination to combat hunger in 1977. The following year 450 Southern Baptist leaders met at Ridgecrest, N.C., to discuss hunger concerns.

Their efforts led to adding a World Hunger Day on the official denominational calendar in 1978. Heavily promoted through the convention’s missions magazines, a unified world hunger offering raised $63.7 million in its first decade.

Widespread media attention to famine in Ethiopia in 1984-85 prompted the “Do They Know It’s Christmas” charity single and July 1985 Live Aid concert, which raised $100 million. In 1985 Southern Baptists gave a record $11.8 million to world hunger, shattering a previous record of $7.2 million established the year before.

After the television cameras went away, Southern Baptists’ level of hunger giving leveled off at about $9 million for the next three years. Denominational leaders attributed the continued interest to promotion of the World Hunger Offering.

After a leadership change at the SBC’s Christian Life Commission (since renamed the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) shifted the denomination’s moral agenda toward issues like opposing abortion and homosexual rights, focus on feeding the hungry started to wane.

Hunger giving slipped to about $7.8 million a year in the early 1990s. Between 2002 and 2004, hunger gifts were down to $6 million a year. According to the SBC Annual, in 2005-2006 the hunger offering was just over $5 million, a 24-year low.

Parham founded the Baptist Center for Ethics in 1991 after working with the SBC Christian Life Commission to promote the hunger offering.

“The biblical witness speaks over and over about our moral responsibility for those who are hungry and at risk to hunger,” Parham said. “Yet fundamentalists ignore those passages and prioritize a few passages related to abortion and homosexuality. The global poor pay the price for the moral indifference of the SBC’s fundamentalist leadership.”

While some religious denominations support large stand-alone agencies to deal with relief and hunger ministries, the SBC promotes human needs as part of a spiritual strategy to share the gospel.

Promotional materials point out that 100 percent of each dollar given to Southern Baptists’ World Hunger Fund is used in ministry and that every project “is designed to not only meet physical needs, but also to accelerate, enhance and support evangelistic and church-planting field strategies.”

Seeing first-hand this summer how Southern Baptists were working to provide clean drinking water to nomadic people in remote northern Kenya, SBC President Frank Page commented: “They are a people in need of the Lord and the Gospel, and meeting human needs is a great entree for that.”

Defending the denomination’s record on social concern, Page pointed out in May that Southern Baptists have given nearly a quarter of a billion dollars–more than $220 million–to domestic and overseas hunger relief since 1974.

In recent years Southern Baptists have won praise for volunteer efforts like disaster relief, rebuilding homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina and a hands-on mission education program for students called World Changers.

The focus comes at the expense of traditional ministries targeted toward the chronically hungry.

In September the South Carolina Baptist Convention, the first SBC-affiliated state convention to institutionalize its hunger giving, reported it had run out of money for hunger ministries for the year.

“Our current requests have exhausted the existing fund,” South Carolina Baptist Convention Mobilization Strategist Ronnie Cox told the Baptist Courier.

“We cannot distribute funds we do not have,” he said. Citing increased demand on food pantries in the state run by associations, churches and other ministries, Cox said: “We appreciate the willingness of our people to give and to staff pantries. Our pantries have simply used the funds.”

Promoted during World Hunger Sunday on the Southern Baptist Convention denominational calendar Oct. 14, the SBC’s designated offering for hunger is divided for distribution between the International and North American Mission Board, with 80 percent funding international efforts through the IMB and 20 percent for domestic hunger through NAMB.

According to the SBC Annual Southern Baptists last year took in total offerings in excess of $10.4 billion and gave $500 million to the Cooperative Program, a unified budget that funds both state Baptist conventions and the SBC.

The value of congregational property reported in 2004-2005 was more than $42 billion.

The average SBC messenger spends between $600 and $2,000 to attend the convention’s annual meeting.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Baptist World Aid, the relief-and-development arm of the Baptist World Alliance, observes Hunger Month in October.