Denominational structures have been regularly challenged, even hammered, in recent decades. Generations past have enjoyed the favor and security of cooperative ministry through associations and conventions in Baptist life. But, younger generations have virtually no loyalty to religious institutions and often fail to see their value.
After more than 300 years of very effective ministry in North America, most local associations are fighting for their survival. In our calling to serve you, your Biblical Recorder staff is addressing the challenge of associational ministry.
The Aug. 27 print edition of the Biblical Recorder points to some examples of effective ministry in the Metrolina Baptist Association and in the partnership between the Montgomery and Stanly associations – all in North Carolina. Coming editions will tell the story of other associations in our state.
Associations have great value. Like the local church, they are subject to conflicts, disagreements and other human limitations. But they exist because there is a basic need for fellowship. Call it what you like – networks, associations, conventions, connections, organization or structure. Ministry cannot be effective in isolation. We need each other, not only for fellowship, but for a partnership that maximizes the multi-leveled skill sets of believers from different congregations.
Over the years I’ve heard many church leaders look at their local association and ask, “What’s in it for me and my church?” That’s not only the wrong question, it exposes the wrong motivation for missions, also.
There are many benefits that return to a local church from the ministries of an association of churches. But churches do not contribute to their local association in order to get something back, any more than we give to international missions in order to get something in return.
We give to international missions and North American missions because the working partnership is far more effective than anything we can accomplish on our own. It is a matter of effectiveness and efficiency in obeying the Great Commission. Cooperation allows more churches to reach more people and to do more ministry than we could ever imagine doing alone.
The association operates with similar advantages, but the focus should be primarily on local outreach and the coordination of local church partnerships beyond the immediate community. There are advantages drawn from the fellowship or networking that happens in a local association. Pastors connect with other pastors, staff connect with other staff and lay leaders connect with other lay leaders. Additional benefits are seen through local training events and neighborhood impact projects.
Pastors are the key to cooperation within associations. As one who pastored churches for more than 35 years, I understand the many ways pastors view the ministry of associations. I understand that pastors want to be part of an association that has a clear, missional focus.
But I also understand that effective pastors never stop learning. So perhaps we can benefit from a recent blog post by Chuck Lawless titled “Four Reasons Pastors Don’t Trust Each Other … and Five Ways to Address It.” He is dean and vice-president of graduate studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He knows and understands pastors, and he is passionate about helping godly men be better pastors. Although his intent was not to address Baptist associations, I believe Lawless’ comments ultimately address a root cause of the challenges in associational ministry.
- Pastors are often competitive.
- Much church growth comes from “swapping sheep.”
- We struggle trusting people in general.
- We’ve been burned in the past. (Read his full comments at ChuckLawless.com.)
Let’s be honest and add a fifth observation. Pastors can be jealous. On the positive side, some of that may come from the protective nature of a shepherd. But there is something wrong when we feel justified to criticize other pastors or churches. There is a tendency to battle with the success of other churches through the lens of obstacles we endure in the church where we serve. In the end, we’re uncomfortable associating with “those churches.”
Joel Rainey posted his very insightful comments on the value of associations on the SBCVoices blog, Aug. 8, 2013. The blog is titled, “The Future of the Baptist Association.” He is lead pastor at Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and a former director of the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network.
He states, “The only entity that has a purely [b]iblical warrant for its existence is the local church, and the legitimacy of all others is tied to how well they can serve the church as she accomplishes her mission.”
Then Rainey addresses “six things associations must overcome to survive and thrive in the 21st century.”
The list includes:
- An unclear purpose
- A hyper-centralized mission
- Ecclesiastical socialism
- “Scorecard” confusion
- Closed systems that prohibit meaningful cultural engagement
- A focus on “Survival.”
Read Rainey’s full explanation at SBCVoices.com.
We hope the articles will help you weigh the value of associational partnerships.
BR content editor Seth Brown spoke with Dougald McLaurin Jr., president of the North Carolina Baptist Associations Conference. Read his insightful comments here.
Coming editions of the Recorder will include other stories about ministry in associations. I hope you will share your stories with us, also. Let’s talk about how we can be more effective in fulfilling the Great Commission in North Carolina and beyond.