Over the past two posts, I have attempted to make the purpose of the Baptist association a little more clear. I also wanted to show that the association has some challenges facing it that will keep it from accomplishing its’ intended purpose. When you mix together the purpose of and the challenges facing the association, you are left with one question, “What is the future of the association?” “Does the association even have a future?” Depending upon whom you ask, the answer to this question is both varied and consistent, positive and negative, hopeful and hopeless. For example, Monty Hale, Director of Association and Pastoral Ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention said, “The association will be the face of Southern Baptists in the future. Most church leaders relate to the association to accomplish their God-given task of reaching the world for Christ.” Dr. Jimmy Draper, former president of Lifeway Christian Resources made the following statement, “In our obsession with what is new in world of church growth, let us not forget that all traditions are not bad and all of the past cannot be jettisoned. It is our tradition that builds our communities. The bedrock of that tradition in Baptist life is the local association.” Pastor Kyle Waddell of Pine Level Baptist Church in Early Branch, South Carolina says, “If I could sum my view up in one word it would be bleak. I personally have served in churches from three different associations in our state and have never seen the total effects come from any association in the capacity it was created to produce. I believe as do many in leadership in the SBC convention that the local association has outlived its usefulness in its present state and that if it were to close its doors many of our churches would never know.” Dr. Jerry Nash, Director of Missions for the Harmony Baptist Association in Trenton, Florida writes, “With cooperative Southern Baptist pastors and effective leadership, the future of the Association is very bright. It ultimately is at the local level that working relationships are built and trustworthiness is established. As the SBC and state convention leaders and entities acknowledge and affirm the local Association we will be stronger as Southern Baptists. It is just my opinion, but I believe to ignore or bypass the local Association will ultimately lead to the decline of Southern Baptists.”
I want to begin by saying that I believe the local Baptist association can have a future. I hold out hope that it is a bright future. I don’t believe it is automatic. It is my belief that the association’s future will look different than it does in the present. It appears to me that a great majority of associations still operate, at least in some manner, to the way they did fifty to sixty years ago. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Baptist association served as a conduit for denominational programs from the SBC (Nashville) to the local church. For the most part the association still has the same programs (Brotherhood, WMU, Youth, Sunday School, Discipleship Training, Evangelism, Music, etc.) The strain comes when local churches either no longer utilize established programs or develop new ministries while the association continues with the traditional ministry structure. I believe relevancy is the Achilles heel of the Baptist association. Bobby Gilstrap, Director of Missions for the Huron and Southeastern Associations in Michigan wrote, “In the past, the associations and its leadership had predominately focused on two things: (1) How to get more churches involved in associational ministries and meetings, and (2) How to increase the giving of the churches to the association. As a result, there was a clear problem of relevance to our churches. The pastor’s frustration was they found no relevance in the association and our ability to provide for them as they struggled to fulfill their mission and calling. This brought me to a reality check. Our associations could not be the same as in the past or even the present. Our organization had to reinvent itself to be relevant and effective. We first realized that the association is not a church. That seems obvious, but many associations have been trying to do things that the church should be doing. That means, that the Associational Director of Missions is not the pastor and the association is not the church. The association should be a resourcing organization. In other words, the role of the association is to assist and resource the God-given vision of the churches.”
There are some who say that the association should not do ministry for the church. Others will say that this is not a problem. I believe it is in this discussion that the relevancy issue comes to light. Again, Dr. Nash writes, “As with the local church, there is a strong correlation between the strength of the ministry and missions program and the vision and leadership of the leader. There is disagreement about whether it should be churches or Associations who do missions and ministry. I challenge those who say Associations shouldn’t start churches or have ministries. In the world in which I live, I do not have a single church which would be able to fund our Pregnancy Center. But together we have a vibrant ministry.” These are the issues that will shape the future of the Baptist association.
The future of the association is going to be shaped, at least in some part, by the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force recommendations that were approved by SBC messengers this past June. Mike Day, Direcctor of Missions for the Mid-South Baptist Asssociation in Memphis, Tennessee has an interesting opinion as to how these recommendations will shape the future of the association. He wrote, “Most associations I know of, large or small, struggle with “activity overload.” Our efforts to be all things to all churches often result in us becoming less than what we are supposed to be. We design programs, events, and ministries that often position us as a substitute for the church. As we affirm the GCR Recommendations, particularly the core values set forth in Recommendation #2, we are affirming the centrality and primacy of the local church and its Great Commission assignment for penetrating lostness and taking the gospel to the nations. An association’s acceptance of this principle puts us in position to affirm that the Great Commission was given to the church and not to a denomination. It provides us opportunity to focus on the “organism” that is the church rather than the organizations of a denomination. Our association will be strengthened as we sharpen our focus and concentrate upon what we can do to help the churches accomplish the Great Commission, rather than what the churches can do to help us accomplish our objectives.”
For the Baptist association to have a viable and fruitful future, the local church will have to be the focal point. The future of the Baptist association will depend upon the success of the local churches. As I see it, the church does not exist for the benefit of the Baptist association. If there were no association, the church would still exist. The association exists for the benefit of the local church. If there were no church, there would be no association. I believe that Dr. John McInnis, former Sunday School Consultant for the Florida Baptist Convention, said it right, “The association will be viable and effective to the extent that it understands and operates its mission to help churches accomplish their individual missions – one church at a time.”