Disclaimer: The thoughts, beliefs, and conclusions drawn belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Port Royal Baptist Church.
This is the final post in a series of in what I believe are the contributing factors to the current decline and future demise of the Baptist association. The first four factors were:
1. Failure to properly train leaders.
2. The choice of pastors/church leaders to be involved in networks as opposed to associations.
3. Inability to effectively assist member churches in navigating the changing culture.
4. Duplication of resources.
5. A favoring of church plants over established churches. Let me say this from the beginning and please hear me clearly: I am not opposed to church planting. Just the opposite. I believe more churches are needed in order to reach the groups of people that the established church can’t or are unwilling to reach. I applaud the efforts of or North American Mission Board in making church planting a priority in the major cities across North America. In fact, it is my prayer that our church will be able to partner with a new church plant this year. This emphasis on church planting has found its way into the Baptist association. More and more associations are developing policies on how o fund, support, and sustain new church plants. In some areas, associational leadership is taking on new designations that reflect this new priority (i.e. Directors of Missions now being called Church Planting Catalysts). I have no problem with this. The concern I am expressing here is a real one because I have seen it first-hand.
For a period of time, I was under the leadership of a Director of Missions who gave the impression that he favored church plants over established churches. As I observed it, more time and attention was given to church plants than to the established churches that were struggling and could have benefited from the same passion and care. To this day, that association is splintered as a result. With a renewed emphasis on church planting, balance is critical. Established churches and church plants need each other. Established churches can be of benefit to church plants. They offer funding, experience, leadership, and encouragement/prayer support. Church plants can be of benefit to the established church. They offer refreshing views on vision, focus, ministry, and they challenge the established church to stretch. For the Baptist association to remain meaningful to its member churches, there has to be a commitment to both/and when it comes church health. To shift to an either/or model will cause all churches to suffer. (Note: the North American Mission Board has also launched a Church Revitalization emphasis geared to help struggling and unhealthy churches become healthy again.)
6. Lack of participation. This is not so much a contributing factor as it is a signpost along the road. Lack of participation is the natural outcome of the previously mentioned factors and is the symptom that cries out the loudest. I have heard it said throughout my years of ministry that people vote with their wallets and their feet. If they support something, they will give to it and go to it. If they do support it, they won’t give and they won’t go to it. We are seeing some of this in the Baptist association today. I can’t explain it exactly. Of all the reasons that could be offered, I believe one key issue may be leading to this lack of participation: generational challenges. There is an ever-widening gap between the ages. There are more and more senior adults participating and less and less young adults participating. To be fair, this same trend is seen in many of our churches today. In our association, by far the most highly attended and visible event is our senior adult celebration which sees more than 200 in attendance. This is not a bad thing. Since, no other age-related event/ministry is given as much attention and planning, what message is being sent?
Our association has thirty member churches. This lack of participation is seen in a number of areas such as the annual meeting (78 in attendance this year), bi-monthly executive board meetings (average of 8 pastors in attendance), and monthly minister’s fellowship meeting (average of 4 in attendance). I believe there are some difficult questions that need to be asked and answered. Strong and focused leadership is needed. I believe the days of “participate because you belong” are over. If participation continues to wane, and associational leadership can’t right the ship, the future of the Baptist association seems dim.
There are some really good things coming out of our associations today. As a church, we will continue to support (financially, volunteer, etc.) our association in any way that we are asked and able to do so. Decline is reversible. When all is said and done, I believe the Baptist association has a place and function in the Kingdom. The question that the Baptist association will have to answer is one similar to this: “In light of current decline, are we willing to make the necessary changes in order to equip and assist our member churches in ministering more effectively in their individual contexts?”