JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Baptist state conventions are not the church. State conventions are nowhere in scripture. Only the local church was given by Christ to fulfill the purpose of His Kingdom.
Local Southern Baptist churches, though, autonomously have decided to cooperate, and one of the best ways of achieving such cooperation is by affiliating with a state convention.
Consequently, state conventions can play a vital role in assisting churches and associations as they fulfill ministries under the direction of Christ.
So what are the unique things that state conventions do to help churches and associations carry out their assignments for the Kingdom of God? Here are seven:
1. Sound the trumpet. In Old Testament times, leaders in a particular jurisdiction were given the privilege, the permission and the power to convene the people – to sound a trumpet and assemble the people for a common purpose. Old Testament prophets were called on to assemble the people. Joel 2:15-16 says, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; set apart a fast, a day of restraint and humility; call a solemn assembly. Gather the people….”
In the Book of Acts there are examples of leaders who assembled to make determinations about various issues facing the early church. Church history bears record of numerous councils formed by church leaders from various geographic locations for the purpose of seeking wisdom and determining perspective. There are times when the people of God need to be convened to consider the purposes of God and how to collectively fulfill the mission.
In the context of Southern Baptist life, this is the role of the state convention. No one church or national entity can summon the people called Southern Baptists who live in a particular state or region. The state convention can do so because of a principle called “jurisdictional leadership.”
Here is how jurisdictional leadership works: Churches summon their local members. Associations call together the people that live in their particular area. State and regional conventions call Southern Baptists living in that jurisdiction together to determine the protocols of their cooperative ministries. Southern Baptist leaders call together Southern Baptists on a national scale to determine the scope and practice of the national and international ministries. Every level has the power to convene the people.
Southern Baptists use the term “leadership” rather than jurisdictional “authority.” Southern Baptists have a history of resistance to hierarchical structures in our ecclesiology. In Southern Baptist life, there are four levels of jurisdictional leadership founded on the Acts 1:8 model. Every level cooperates in shared ministry. Every level values the other levels for the significant contributions they make to the work of the Kingdom. There is the sense of partnership and fraternity, not dominance, over each other.
Effective state conventions understand that part of leadership means they work with the associations to convene the people in a local area to accomplish a particular goal. State convention missionaries do this with an attitude of service and partnership, not authoritarianism. Effective national entity leaders understand that partnering with state convention leaders maximizes the capacity to encourage the people in a given jurisdiction to join in an initiative. This is sometimes referred to as consensus building, a vital component of organizational life.
The state conventions convene the people in their respective jurisdictions at annual meetings for the primary purpose of reporting on the previous year and setting the goals and policies for cooperative work in the future. The state convention also networks with its churches and church leaders through personal relationships, writing, events, supply preaching and other methods of communication to tell the story of God at work in and through the cooperative churches in their jurisdiction.
This is part of how we do our work as cooperating Southern Baptists. Somebody must lead the cooperative work in a state or region. State conventions and their respective state missionaries have that particular assignment.
2. Strengthen churches. State conventions are only as strong as the churches in their jurisdictions. Effective church leaders are perpetually engaged in strengthening their local congregation in the seven functions of a local church. Those seven functions are worship, evangelism, discipleship, leadership, stewardship, ministry and missions.
State convention leaders are constantly equipping church leaders with the tools for improving these functions. This makes for stronger churches and healthier ministries that impact local churches, local associations and the greater cooperative global work. State conventions assist churches with leadership training and organizational structuring so that local churches become more effective in evangelizing, disciple-making and congregationalizing.
3. Support pastors and servants of the Lord serving the local church. The most important key to healthy, evangelistic and missions-minded churches is effective leadership. State conventions facilitate the work of pastors and staff members by providing leadership training, strategic planning and personal mentoring initiatives. It doesn’t matter if the pastor is in a traditional congregation or a congregation birthed in the last six months or six years. Leadership equipping is vital for 21st century ministry.
When relational trauma erupts in a congregation or association, the state convention is a primary resource for navigating the potential hostilities. Most state conventions have some level of coordinated care ministries for pastors and staff members who experience forced termination. Many local churches turn to the state convention for the training of search committees, transitional leadership and resumes for potential candidates. State conventions ought to have a goal: No church without a pastor. No pastor without a friend.
4. Start churches. Every New Testament church is a Great Commission church. Every church with effective evangelism, discipleship and missions ministries is engaged in starting new churches. Churches start churches, but who coordinates the churches that are ready to be part of launching a new church? Who works with churches and associations to launch churches, equip the leaders and develop standards and benchmarks of accountability? That work is one of the primary tasks of the state convention.
The state convention synergistically works with multiple churches, associations and a pool of church planters to strategically facilitate churches planting churches in a state or region. One exceptional model for this is the state convention in Ohio that has planted more than 200 churches in the past 14 years. One church alone cannot begin to do that.
Even national church planting networks comprised of mega-congregations do not have the kind of track record reported by this one Midwest state. State convention missiologists, who constantly study the demographics, partner with local churches and associational leaders to probe strategically into new areas of ministry that have the greatest potential to help churches plant churches.
5. Send the light to the nations. In multiple spheres, state conventions are involved in sharing the gospel to the ends of the earth. One of the ways a state convention does this is through its promotion, collection and distribution of Cooperative Program mission funds received from churches. This requires careful accounting and clear protocols so that funds from churches are moved through the state convention and on to national entities. National entities are dependent on the faithful and trustworthy work of state conventions to fulfill their ministry assignments.
Another way a state convention sends out the gospel light is through strategic planning of multigenerational ministries. Only a small minority of churches has the capacity to provide multigenerational and multi-people group ministries. Such a task can be overwhelming for the majority of local churches, so state conventions orchestrate ministries with churches and associations to accomplish this goal.
For example, every university campus in North America needs an evangelical gospel outreach and discipleship ministry that helps students become evangelized, missions-oriented and congregationalized. State conventions coordinate Baptist Collegiate Ministries so that a comprehensive, on-campus ministry exists.
State conventions also facilitate missions networks for volunteers. Whether coordinating trained Disaster Relief teams or Baptist Builders, state conventions harness the willingness of volunteers from multiple congregations to make a difference for the sake of the gospel.
Since state conventions have a particular geographic area to reach with the gospel, they facilitate strategies to reach every people group residing in that particular jurisdiction. It doesn’t matter if that people group has a particular ethnic composition or speaks another language or lives within the parameter of a prison. State conventions partner with local churches and associations to reach all the peoples.
Another component of this aspect of state convention work is that of promoting special missions offerings (state, national and international). Through the network of Southern Baptists in a particular state, promotional materials as well as training and motivational events are provided. These encourage individual Baptists and their churches to use special offerings for the purpose of reaching the state, the nation and the ends of the earth with the gospel.
6. Synchronize the work of entities. The organizational work of cooperative churches is an amalgamation of state and national entities that are constantly working together toward Great Commission goals. Whether it is a state Baptist liberal arts college, the International Mission Board, an associational camp, student work on a college campus, equipping conferences, disaster relief ministry or children’s services, there must be a “sychronizer.” This is so that institutions avoid duplication of ministries and minimize holes in the safety net.
The state convention, through its leadership, is the organizational “touch point” that promotes fraternal relationships between churches, associations, state convention entities and national ministries. This is so that Great Commission ministries are accomplished with maximum effectiveness and efficiency.
“Fraternal” and “partnership” are important words that characterize the working relationships between a state convention and the associations and state entities in its jurisdiction and between a state convention and Southern Baptist Convention entities. This factor is one of the reasons we have the Cooperative Program. Instead of every church, every association and every state and national ministry acting independently, we have learned we can synchronize our work and accomplish far more for the glory of our God than we could ever do on our own.
7. Shine the light in the public square. State conventions have a powerful cooperative voice in state legislatures for good and right. Any legislator will tell you that in a congressional hearing, a person representing an individual church does not carry the same weight of influence as a person sharing the perspective of 1,900 churches. Cooperating churches shine a greater light in the public square.
There are special interest groups in every state using state laws to bend the culture away from biblical principles and to regulate the activities of churches. For example, municipalities and states are desperately looking for revenue. There is a move in state government to remove the exemption of ad valorum taxes on church property. If this were to pass, one can only imagine the financial impact on existing and potential new churches. A state convention of cooperating churches has enormous influence to help legislators keep church properties off the tax rolls.
There was a day when legislators and governmental administrations respected the domain of churches. They understood the invaluable contribution churches made to a community’s infrastructure. In many places that perspective has evaporated with the growing secularization of the culture. The state convention is the most effective and efficient means of addressing a state’s moral, social, regulatory and liberty issues with prudence and strategic statesmanship.
The question is not whether we are pro-life. The issue is, “What does God say?” Psalm 139 is clear. Every life is precious and sacred. The soil of our land is stained with the blood of 60 million innocent children sacrificed on the altar of humanistic choice. How long will God extend mercy on our nation for this atrocity?
How do state conventions, associations and churches work together to make their states abortion-free? We won’t do it sitting on our blessed assurance. We must stand up. We must stand up together.
So what do state conventions do? State conventions serve at the direction of cooperating Southern Baptist churches. Churches assign to state conventions larger scale functions that are more than what a single church can do. State conventions work with small and large churches and local associations to fulfill those functions.
The beauty of Southern Baptists is that no matter the size, every church is valuable. Every association has worth. Every state convention is needed. Every SBC entity has an immeasurable role to play in the Kingdom of God. We must count everything as loss for the sake of the Cross. It’s how Southern Baptists do our work, now and until we hear the trumpet call pronouncing the Day of the Lord.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – John Yeats is executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention and recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.)