A “rope of sand with strength of steel” is the imagery James L. Sullivan used in his 1974 book to describe the tie that binds Baptist churches together. The metaphor captures the heart of voluntary cooperation – a longstanding Southern Baptist distinctive, said Lester Evans, team leader of associational partnerships for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
Despite the unique challenges threatening to dissolve the bonds of 78 local associations across the state, Evans said, the enduring practice of cooperation among autonomous congregations continues.
Dougald McLaurin Jr., president of the North Carolina Baptist Associations Conference and associational missionary for the Tar River Baptist Association, agreed. “Churches that really want to make a difference, they’re going to find ways to work together,” he said.
The willingness to cooperate is the greatest resource of North Carolina Baptists, said Evans and McLaurin, but the obstacles are significant.
“The most pressing challenge that our associations face is having a clear and focused vision of their purpose,” said Evans. Some of that springs from a lack of associational leadership.
Nearly 20 percent of North Carolina’s local associations have vacant or temporary leadership positions, often called directors of mission or associational missionaries. That number is down from 32 percent in recent years.
In addition, some churches don’t feel the need to participate in the cooperative ministries of a local association, said Evans and McLaurin. Competition among pastors sometimes leads to a “lone ranger” approach to ministry. Furthermore, the increasing convenience of travel and communication technology allows people to feel connected to other ministries or churches outside a specific geographic location. Long-distance availability can diminish the desire for fellowship through a local association.
Fewer participating churches in a local association usually leads to decreased funding, amplifying other problems and making it ever more difficult to secure permanent staff positions.
Shifting demographic trends in some areas of the state are forcing local churches – and their cooperative ministries – to rethink outreach strategies. How well an association adapts to new circumstances also factors into its overall health. “If we’re content to do associational work the way we did it last year, or yesterday,” McLaurin said, “we’re going to become irrelevant very quickly.”
Despite growing difficulty, Evans is optimistic about the future of North Carolina’s Baptist associations. He believes cooperation naturally occurs in the life of each believer and the corporate life of each congregation.
“It is part of the DNA of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer,” Evans said. “You can’t fulfill the Great Commission by yourself, so there’s this driving force in you to link arms with other believers. When you do that, churches get formed.
“That same DNA is in the corporate body. So, churches have this DNA to link with other churches because they can’t fulfill the Great Commission alone.”
It’s for this reason Evans said associations will endure. He continued, “If every association disappeared today, that DNA would drive churches. They’re going to network together.”
Evans admitted that future partnerships may look different in name or function – such as networks, alliances and so on – but he emphasized, “They’re not going away.”
In times of need, some associations have undergone radical changes in order to continue – and sometimes expand – their ministry. For example, the Stanly and Montgomery associations are now sharing staff and resources to become more efficient. (See story here.) The South Roanoke association totally revitalized and refocused their ministry strategy after nearly closing the doors due to financial struggles. The Metrolina association sold their property after being deeded a former church building. The facilities and funds are now used to host and support a wide variety of ethnic churches and ministries. (See story here.)
McLaurin encourages large and small membership churches to remember the abiding purpose of cooperative ministry. “I really do think the associations have a strong role in helping the smaller membership rural churches, and any other church that’s willing to embrace the cooperative program principle,” he said. “If you’re too big for an association, I think you’ve lost sight of helping your sister churches.”
Evans added, “It’s the one entity that’s closest to the local church at ground level, in terms of knowing what their needs are, what resources are available and connecting them together so they can help strengthen each other.
“That’s where association happens. It’s churches helping churches to become healthy enough to reach their communities and reproduce disciples.”