Because this is associational emphasis week in the SBC, I began yesterday to explore the answer to the question; are Baptist Associations still necessary? Today I intend to give my answer. I find it interesting that the first two responses to this post at SBC Impact happen to express opposite opinions on Baptist associations. Before I answer, in the interest of full disclosure, I should let you in on my bias today. I serve on my associational youth team, I am an associational messenger from my church, and I participate regularly in associational ministers meetings. (I even spoke at one.)
My church is a member of a very large association. The NSRBA has over 100 churches spanning 3 counties. To drive from The Bridge Community Church to Union Grove Baptist Church (one end to the other) would take well over an hour. Many of our churches are extremely rural, and some of our churches are quite urban. All of this diversity should benefit everyone, but there are still those who feel the association is unnecessary.
As I see it, here are some of the weakpoints of the local association.
- Big churches don’t participate – this is obviously not a hard and fast rule, but during my 12 years of ministry in 3 different associations there are very few big church pastors who feel the need to be active in the association. I’ve never been in leadership of a church that averaged more than 150 in Sunday school so I can’t speak with certainty, but my thought on why large churches don’t participate on an associational level is that they don’t need the resources that the associations can provide
- The flat world means that small churches now have less need for what associations can provide – The training, resources in the form of media, curriculums and technology, guidance, and even the financial assistance available through associations can all be procured elsewhere
- Some associations are just not good – There are associations with poor leadership who do nothing, or who pander to every complaining pastor. There are associations that take in churches that are cast-offs from other associations because of theology or disagreements. And there are associations which make no effort to impact their local area for Christ
Despite those problems, I still feel that associations are viable and worthy of continuing into the 21st century. Here are just a few things that associations offer.
- Fellowship for pastors – Pastors, as God-called leaders of their congregations, need someone with which to fellowship. Obviously they need to be a part of their church’s community, but occasionally there needs to be someone outside the church who shares the same sense of calling with which to discuss common issues and decision making. I realize that this could be done apart from the association, but the association makes this easy, and you will find a distinct lack of this sort of fellowship when you move to independent church situations. (Youth ministers also, are notoriously poor at this type of fellowship.)
- Vision for the community – This is where local associations can truly thrive. Associations are broader in their ministry scope than local churches are. But much more focused than a state convention could hope to be. And even in an association as diverse as the NSRBA, the association can have a vision of ministry for greater Fayetteville that no single church should be concerned with. This should guide where church plants are needed, and where specific ministries can best be focused. This is a function that the state convention could never hope to carry out. (Also, state conventions have a tendency to focus outside themselves and look to inter-state partnerships and even international partnerships for ministry opportunities.)
- Cooperating allows for greater ministry – This is the entire concept behind the cooperative program. (I’ll add here that associational money is not CP money.) The simple fact is that we can do more together than we could ever do alone.
- Cooperative local ministries – There are many worthy ministries that would be too large a task for any one church to carry out. For example, in the NSRBA we have a ministry to the workers at the Cumberland Co. fair. One church may be able to provide bottled water, lunches, and some counseling, but this ministry also provides a dental bus and lasts the duration of the fair. That would be a huge burden for even a very large church. Without a dentist and a few hygienists in membership it would not even be possible. There are also ministries to migrant workers, a Christmas toy store for needy families, and two thrift store / food pantry ministries. These things would simply not be possible by any single church.
The state convention could simply not do any of those things. Fellowship with a group too large is not possible. It could never see the need for ministry at the local level, and even if it did, coordinating thousands of churches would be too difficult.
My conclusion is that the local Baptist association is still very useful and will serve a Great Commission function into the 21st century.