When is a Missions Offering Not Really a Missions Offering?

Disclaimer: The thoughts, beliefs, and conclusions drawn belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Port Royal Baptist Church. The concerns expressed here by the author have been previously discussed with associational leadership.

The Baptist association of which our church is a member of has an annual missions offering. This offering was established in 1992 in honor of a former Home Mission Board (North American Mission Board) missionary and Director of Missions. This namesake believed greatly in the importance of church-planting. Every year our association sets aside one week in order to promote and collect this offering. Sound good so far? On the surface, yes.

When is a missions offering not really a missions offering? The answer: when it is not used exclusively for mission work. Let me explain. When our current missions offering was established, the council recommending its creation did so with a troubling stipulation. The council wrote, “we further recommend that the proceeds of this offering be dedicated to the general associational missions budget to supplement the gifts of the churches.” Since 1992, except for the few years when a former Director of Missions arbitrarily designated portions of the offering, we have had, in essence, a “catch-up” offering that is counted as income toward our overall operating budget.

Why does this matter? Some would say that it doesn’t. I would dare say that to some of our member churches it does not matter at all. It matters because of our member churches deserve better. Allow me to explain further. The current method of promoting, collecting, and distributing our missions offering is flawed in at least two ways.

1. The current structure makes education and promotion at the church level problematic.

When I as the pastor of a church stand before God’s people and ask them to support and give to a specific cause or need, they deserve to know, to the very best of our ability, what their gift is supporting. Currently, our missions offering is forwarded to the general operating budget. It is true that portions of this offering do find their way to real missions needs. It is also true that portions of the offering support things such as lawn care, copy/printing, salaries, electricity, insurance, and other non-missions items. Our offering does not exclusively support missions and mission work. If one of my church member asks this question, “What does our associational missions offering support?” I have no choice but to give an ambiguous answer that has to be extensively qualified. Instead of an answer such as “our offering supports A, B, or C”, the answer looks more like, “our offering goes into A where it is disbursed to all budgeted items”.

2. The current structure lessens the importance of the offering itself.

The idea that a missions offering exists to “supplement” the gifts of the churches seems, at least to me, to be counterproductive. As a member church, we give a percentage of our receipts to our association for its general operation and existence. The majority of our member churches do likewise. This legal “double-dipping” seems to diminish and lessen the importance and impact of the offering itself. Some say that “it’s all missions”. Simply not true. Others say, “We need to have lights, or we need to have a building”. This may be true, but that is the purpose of our monthly contributions and not a missions offering. A missions offering should never be used to cover shortfalls or cover operating expenses. As those in the pews learn how the offering is distributed, I am afraid that they will see it for what it really is and choose not give at all.

When is a missions offering not really a missions offering? The answer: when it is not used exclusively for mission work. If our season Southern Baptist missions offerings were allocated the same way our associational missions offering is, I believe there would be fewer missionaries in the field and their work would be handicapped. In my opinion, there are areas of ministry within our association not being explored, at least in part, by a lack of funding. At a point in our associational history, many felt that the man for whom our offering was named had made such a lasting impression that a special missions offering should be created in recognition of his commitment to missions. I did not know this man. From what I have heard and read about him and his life’s work, he was not an office man. Rather, he was regularly in the field ministering to the member churches and to the unchurched. The spirit of our associational offering does not match this man. It should.

Contributing Factors to the Current Decline and Eventual Demise of the Baptist Association : Part #3

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?”

Contributing Factors to the Current Decline and Eventual Demise of the Baptist Association : Part #1

Disclaimer: The thoughts, beliefs, and conclusions drawn belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Port Royal Baptist Church.

Lately I have been giving serious thought to the work and ministry of the local Baptist association. Three years ago I wrote about the purpose, challenges facing, and future of the Baptist association. You can read my thoughts here, here, and here. So why write about it again you may ask. Have my thoughts and opinions changed? No. The reason for writing: Good or bad, the Baptist association is part of our church’s life. What it does or does not do effects us. We choose to willingly cooperate with a group of like-minded churches tethered by similar and agreed upon doctrinal standards. Member churches are asked to support the association’s work through financial revenue and manpower. It is important to me that our investments be utilized for the greatest good possible. I am not anti-association. However, I do believe the Baptist association has a major uphill battle before it.

I have been in the gospel ministry for fifteen years and have been part of four associations in two different states. During this time I have served in leadership roles at different times and in different capacities. This participation has led me to a position of belief. Simply, the importance and significance of the Baptist association is in decline and if no correction is made, will one day cease to exist in its current form. Over the next three posts, I will share what I believe are the (7) factors that are contributing to the current decline, and future demise, of the Baptist association.

1. Failure to properly train leaders. John Maxwell is credited with the words, “everything rises and falls on leadership”. This statement is true whether leadership the offered is secular or spiritual. Most associations have a similar structure which consists of departments (ministries) such as Men’s Ministry, Women’s Ministry, WMU, Youth Ministry, Evangelism, etc. Directors of these ministries make sure that their respective ministries are planned, promoted, and carried out. At times however, there is a breakdown in ensuring proper leadership training takes place. In my experiences, I have observed a two-fold failure in this area.

First, associational leadership has failed to train the department leaders. Often, leaders are elected to a position and then left to figure out for themselves what their duties and responsibilities are. How can a department leader train and equip leaders from the member churches if they have not been properly trained themselves? What happens in this case is that leaders either create their own way to carry out their jobs or thy settle into that safe place of tradition. Second, department leaders have failed to provide and ensure training for those within their own department. There are a number of departments within associational life that are tiered based on age-related or ministry-specific needs (Sunday School, Discipleship Training, WMU, etc). Enlisting people to serve without proper training leads to frustration, embarrassment, and a reluctance to serve in the future. I could only speculate as to why leaders are not training leaders. I do know that training is available so the issue has to lie somewhere else. If the next generation of ministry leaders are not prepared and trained for service, the Baptist association will be ill-prepared to face the ministry challenges of the future.

2. The choice of pastors/church leaders to be involved in networks as opposed to associations. Traditionally, Baptist associations are defined and determined by rigid geographical boundaries such as city limits, counties, and townships. As a result, pastors/church leaders become part of the association because the church they serve is a member of that association. Some pastors/church leaders find that within that association of churches there are differing theological preferences. Over the past couple of years, networks have begun to offer a different means of communication and fellowship. Pastors/church leaders are connecting with other like-minded leaders not based on a geographical location. Instead, they are connecting based on passion, theological interpretation, and ministry practice. Within these networks there is something tribal about the loyalty given to the leader. Consider this example. A pastor whose church is a member of a Baptist association and is reformed in his theology and influenced by the teachings of John Piper and J.I. Packer may choose to network with other like-minded pastors whether they are Methodist, Church of God, or Presbyterian. In the years to come, I believe that more and more pastors/church leaders will prefer networks over associations. It is here that they will be able to enjoy the freedom of collaborating with those they most closely identify with without the baggage that comes with the Baptist association.

What Should Be The Standard of Cooperation In The Local Baptist Association?

Cooperation is the tie that binds in the local Baptist association. Cooperation is vital. Cooperation is fragile. Cooperation must be fostered and nurtured. Cooperation is what defines us as Southern Baptists. In a Baptist association, individual churches make the decision to come together and share resources, spiritual gifts, spaces, and finances as they work together toward a common agreed upon goal. The goal is different in every association and can be cloudy and undefined at times. Certainly the goal, at the minimum, should be the desire to see the Great Commission fulfilled. It is also  the prerogative of every local association to determine what it will accept from its member churches as the minimal level of participation as a cooperating church. The choice that is made here is so very important. This decision says a great deal about what the association values. It says a great deal about what the association pursues as its passion. This decision is often reflected in its governing documents. It must be remembered that the association is, at best, a “para-church” organization. The church has the final authority in the matter of contribution or affiliation with the association or any other institution.

I serve a church in the Savannah River Baptist Association which has 33 churches and missions. From where I sit, there seems to be some uncertainty as to what the standard of cooperation is. A standard is defined as “a basis for comparison; a reference point against which other things can be evaluated.” If there is no clearly defined statement of faith (i.e. Baptist Faith and Message) put forward by the association to unite the churches, everything becomes subjective. The Savannah River Baptist Association has no such defining statement of faith. It is this uncertainty that I want to write about openly, honestly, and in a way that is educational. Should the standard of cooperation be member participation, financial contribution, or something else all together?

Associations can choose to adopt (whether written or unwritten) the standard of member participation. This standard says that each church is expected to actively participate in and contribute to the events, fellowships, and decision making process of the association. The association as a whole benefits when this happens. When all of the member churches come together and share their talents, knowledge, and resources, the whole association prospers. There are some member churches who feel the association has nothing to offer them. That may be true. However, the member church that thinks this way may have much in the way of knowledge, experience, and resources to give that the remainder of the association could benefit from. I personally believe that participation is much more than just sending in a check every month. Looking at the  attendance numbers of both the spring and fall sessions of the Savannah River Baptist Association from 2000-2010 (11 years), I want to make a few observations. (The following numbers are based on 30 churches. Three of our churches are new works and were not active this entire time period).

* In the 11 year period between 2000-2010, 13 churches sent representatives to the Spring Session of the SRBA 6 or fewer times.

* In the 11 year period between 2000-2010, 17 churches sent representatives to the Spring Session of the SRBA 7 or more times.

* In the 11 year period between 2000-2010, 10 churches sent representatives to the Fall Session of the SRBA 6 or fewer times.

* In the 11 year period between 2000-2010, 20 churches sent representatives to the Spring Session of the SRBA 7 or more times.

* In the 11 year period between 2000-2010, 1 church sent no representatives to the Spring Session of the SRBA at all.

* In the 11 year period between 2000-2010, 2 churches sent no representatives to the Fall Session of the SRBA at all.

I am certain that churches have their own reasons why they don’t participate. Perhaps they feel the association has nothing to offer them. Perhaps they feel they are not being led adequately. Perhaps they feel abandoned. Perhaps they feel their local church work is more vital. I don’t know.

An association can also choose to adopt (whether written or unwritten) a standard of financial contribution. This standard would say that the financial gifts (frequency and amount) a member church gives defines whether or not they are cooperating. I believe there is a reality that we can all agree upon. Ministry requires money. This is true from the church pew to the foreign mission field. In all fairness, in the same way not all churches participate all the time, not every church financially supports the association every single month. This is no secret. I don’t know what the reasons are for this. Perhaps the reasons are the same as above. Perhaps they are completely different. There is one major difference. How you handle the two.

In my estimation, again, this is simply my opinion, I sense our association leaning toward the position that the standard of cooperation should be financial contribution. Our association will be voting on a significant overhaul of the Constitution/By-Laws in October. There are some really good things I agree with, and some not-so-good things I don’t agree with contained in this revision. The wording of this new document seems to speak to what I am have written here. Here is an example from that revision. Under the present constitution, there is a section entitled “Non-Reporting Churches” and it reads like this:

“When churches fail to support the work of the Association a committee appointed by the moderator shall consult with said church as to their desire and intent to continue in fellowship.”

This seems to allow for a variety of issues to be dealt with, whether those issues are lack of participation, financial, or doctrinal. Now, the proposed revision renames “Non-Reporting Churches” to “Non-Supporting Churches” and reads as follows:

“If a church fails to financially support the work of the Association, the Moderator shall request the Finance Committee to consult with said church to encourage its continued fellowship with and support of the Association. The Finance Chair shall report their findings, with or without recommendation(s), to the Executive Board at its next meeting.”

This proposed revision zeroes in exclusively on the financial aspect of support and participation. I believe the intention is very clear. How else could this be perceived, except that the member church’s  financial gift is what matters most. If this were not so, why then would the Finance Committee be asked to “consult with said church to encourage its continued fellowship with and support of the Association.”? If you combine past practices with the proposed policy, here is what you will get, whether intended or unintended: “It’s alright if you don’t come see us, just send your check. However, if you stop sending your check, we’ll come see you.”

Feel free to leave your comments and thoughts. This is a dialogue that we need to have.

Annie Armstrong Easter Offering; A Missions Offering That Goes To Missions

Spring brings many things. Some wanted and some unwanted. This time of the year we see the blooming of flowers, warmer weather, and baseball. Spring also brings pollen and a time change. I look forward to spring because we have the opportunity and privilege to participate in the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American missionaries. Our Southern Baptist missionaries serving in North America are supported by the gifts that Southern Baptist churches give through the AAEO. I’m very proud to serve in a denomination where the work of our missionaries on both home and foreign soil continues uninterrupted. Think about this for a moment. Our missionaries don’t have to leave the field to travel back to their home churches, or set up speaking engagements, in order to raise the funding for the work they have been called by God to do. Through the cooperative efforts and gifts of all Southern Baptist churches to this missions offering, the fields are not vacated and the message of Jesus Christ remains present and consistent. I think this is truly amazing.

As a pastor, I am comforted by the idea that I can stand before the people that I lead and with confidence assure them that every penny that is given to the AAEO in the name of missions actually goes to mission work in North America. From the North American Missions Board’s website, “When people give to the offering, 100 percent of their gift will be transformed into missionary salaries and ministry supplies. Those missionaries and supplies will help others hear the message of Christ and respond in faith to His offer of salvation. Time and again our missionaries relate how the offering is their lifeblood. They know that behind each penny given, there is a Southern Baptist who believes in what they do and are affirming the need to equip them to share the gospel with those who need a Savior.” This is critical to the local congregation. The people of God who pray and give sacrificially to this effort, and other missions efforts, deserve this kind of confidence. The confidence of knowing that missions gifts are used solely for mission work accomplishes at least two things.

 First, the local congregation can give, with a sense of peace, and what may already be limited funds, knowing their gifts can positively affect the need presented to them.

 Second, when funds are used for the stated purpose, a greater sense of trust is established between the local congregation and the leadership who encourage them to give.

We are participating in the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering this year. I believe in it. I believe in the work of our North American missionaries. We are fortunate to have a missionary on staff with us in our local Baptist association. We are able to see the some of the results of the gifts given to the AAEO in our local communities through his ministry with us. Our goal this year is $2500. Will we make it? I don’t know. What I do know is this. Whether we raise $2500, $250, or $25 matters less than the knowledge that every dime given goes to actual missions work across North America. To me, that is satisfying.

The Problem With The Associational VBS “Expo” Model

VBS training is in full swing. State conventions are training associational leadership, and associational leadership are in turn preparing to train church leaders to have evangelistic and life-changing Vacation Bible School’s. These times of training take on different looks. One of primary ones is the clinic on the associational level where, traditionally, the local church is trained on how to lead the individual age groups and rotation sites.  Recently I learned that a few of the associations across our state are employing an “expo” style of VBS clinic. What this means is that the association will set up a display of some or all of the other publishers, in addition to Lifeway, who offer Vacation Bible School material. Some of those publishers include Group, Gospel Light, Standard, Regular Baptist Press, Concordia, and Cokesbury. Once the seven or eight options are presented, churches from the association “shop around” for the curriculum that best fits their need. In my opinion, this process of selecting a Vacation Bible School is flawed on several levels.

Now let me say up front, as a disclaimer, that I don’t believe that Lifeway is perfect. It would be unwise for me to say or to infer that. I believe that Lifeway is the best of all the rest. I personally have areas that I struggle with within the area of publication choices. Some of my children’s Sunday School teachers have some valid concerns with teaching material that I hope to see addressed one day in the future. I have pastor friends of mine who struggle with the cost of curriculum that is passed on to the churches. I have been involved in the teaching of VBS leaders at the state level for many years for two state conventions. I have intentionally studied other publishers VBS materials. In years past, I have used publishers other than Lifeway for our church’s VBS. I feel confident and qualified to say here, and hereafter, that Lifeway VBS is the best of all the rest. I don’t expect everyone to agree, and that it fine. I’m OK with that.

I want share why I think the “expo” style of clinic for the association is flawed. The reasons I believe this style of clinic is flawed are the same reasons I feel Lifeway VBS is the best one for our churches. Two come to mind.

1. The Issue of Doctrinally Integrity

Lifeway’s VBS is doctrinally sound. Churches that choose to use Lifeway curriculum won’t have to worry about the biblical content. There is a confidence in knowing that the material is written through the lense of the Baptist Faith and Message. The flaw of the “expo” model is that the DOM or some representative of the association would have to make sure that each of the publishers they were allowing to be modeled was doctrinally sound. Someone has to ask a question like “Does this curriculum present Jesus Christ as the sole means of salvation?” Someone has to ask a question like “Does this curriculum present the Bible as the perfect word of God?” Someone has to ask a question like this one “Does this curriculum acknowledge that man is lost and in need of a Savior?” In an associational “expo” clinic, that someone should be the DOM.

2. The Linking of  Southern Baptist Missionaries

In addition to being doctrinally sound, Lifeway VBS draws attentions to the work of our Southern Baptist missionaries. With the inclusion of a Missions rotation, students have the opportunity to study real life missions and missionaries from around the world and understand how Cooperative Program monies work. I believe this is invaluable for our children and adults as well. In the “expo” clinic model, this is absent. I cannot for the life of me understand why a Southern Baptist association would choose to model for its churches a VBS that does not highlight what our Southern Baptist missionaries are doing.

Some may say that it is “just” Vacation Bible School, it is no big deal. I don’t buy that. Some would say just pick the best looking theme that the kids would like. That should never be basis for a decision. Some would say that cost should be the deciding factor. I don’t believe that should even be the deciding factor. VBS has the potential to affect and change the lives of children, adults, and churches. I believe that within the ministry of VBS our future teachers, pastors, missionaries, and lay leaders will be called out. This is the reason why that as a pastor I am so passionate about VBS . It is also the reason why I believe it should not be treated so lightly and as carelessly as it seems to be treated at times.

Are We There Yet? Part #2

“Getting there”. In yesterday’s post, I began looking at the question that is being asked of all Southern Baptists during this Christmas season as we study about, pray for, and give to our missionaries through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. The question is “Are We There Yet?” The “there” is the lost world. The “there” is the culmination of our witness so that everyone has heard the name and gospel of Jesus Christ. Along the way, questions must be answered. The status quo has to be challenged. Priorities must be re-shuffled. Today, I want to offer two questions that surely will have to be dealt with before we can get “there”.

Question #1: Are we there yet in our willingness to place the funding of our missionaries as a top priority?

Our Southern Baptist missionaries are on the front-line in the battle over spiritual darkness and are funded solely by monies contributed through the Cooperative Program. This enables our missionaries to remain on the field engaged in training leaders, planting churches, building relationships with local people groups, and other gospel-proclaiming endeavors. The flip side of the issue is this. If churches decrease their giving, then less money will reach the mission field overall. If state conventions decide to keep for themselves larger and larger percentages of the CP dollar, then less money will reach the mission field.

It is a reality that ministry requires money. It is just the simple truth. Reaching the lost, and the nations for that matter, requires the individual believer, the individual church, the individual association, and the individual state conventions to give selflessly, in whatever manner is available to them in order for Christ to be proclaimed. Budgets reflect priority. It does not take an economist to tell that financially our county has been hurting for a few years, and continues today. I am also a firm believer that financial challenges further reveal priority.  When faced with financial challenges, churches can decide to either make missions and ministry a priority or play it safe and look within. At Port Royal Baptist Church, we have recently made decisions to further invest in what is fruitful and decrease what is not seen as fruitful. Associations, when faced with financial challenges, can either choose to cut ministries and play it safe or aggressively speak for the nations on behalf of the fellowship of churches. State conventions, when faced with financial challenges, can either decide that missions work beyond the state lines is as equally important and worthy of equal funding, or can allow the lobbying of the state agencies and entities to drown out the call for needed funding from overseas.

What makes me question whether or not the willingness is there or not comes from what I have seen over the past several months across the SBC. This willingness can be seen in several state conventions have voted to move their CP division to a 50/50 split, meaning the state retains 50% of funds sent to them from the churches and forwards the other 50% to the SBC. This is encouraging and exciting thing to see happen. It is at the very least a recognition that more funding is needed beyond the state in order keep already appointed missionaries where they are and fund the ones who are standing by. As I had mentioned in a earlier post, our state convention is South Carolina during it’s annual meeting voted to keep any excess funds beyond what is required to meet the operating budget within the state and divide the excess between the seven state entities, agencies, and schools. Do difficult financial times in our country give us a free pass on reaching the nations with the gospel? Absolutely not. Until we as Southern Baptists possess a willingness to make missionary funding a priority, “there” will remain just beyond our reach.

Question #2: Are we there yet in our realization that “business as usual” is no longer acceptable in our efforts to reach the lost?

 I believe this was the genesis for the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force. Going back to the original motion in 2009, there has been a realization across the SBC that on present course we are, at best, treading water in our efforts to fulfill the Great Commission. This passion and desire to get our practice right as it relates to the Great Commission is real. It is just as real as the passion and desire was to get our theology right during the Conservative Resurgence of the mid-late 1980’s. From time to time it takes something to rattle us and wake us up from our slumber. I believe GCRTF has put before us as Southern Baptists the picture of lostness and legitimate recommendations that would enable us to fulfill the Great Commission. These recommendations, if implemented by the various agencies, will change the face of our denominational structure and how we do “business”. I was encouraged to read what Dr. Kevin Ezell, President of the North American Mission Board, said recently at a missionary appointment service. Dr. Ezell said “As we go through changes, absolutely every change we make and every reduction we make is to put more missionaries in the field.

 It is very easy to get settled into routines, schedules, ministries, programs, and structures; and as a result, place our trust in them. Any changes to the present structure will be questioned and difficult. Territorial spats are already occurring and changes have only been proposed. Recently, a group of directors of missions from Alabama wrote an open letter to the SBC encouraging a slow down on the Great Commission Resurgence. I’ll be writing a response to that letter in the near future. How do you hope to slow down a renewed desire and passion to fulfill the Great Commission? Better yet, how dare you ask such a thing? I sat in the convention hall of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Orlando this past June, it was clear that Southern Baptists were saying “business as usual” is no longer acceptable. It is a willingness to let go of “business as usual” and set aside turf wars and territorialism that will determine our ability to get “there”.

The Baptist Association : Part #3: Future

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.”

The Baptist Association : Part #2: Challenges

In part one of this series I put forth historically what the purpose of the Baptist association is. The history and purpose of the association is well documented (well beyond what I have documented here). My working definition of a Baptist association is “a collection of churches who share common beliefs that come together along specific geographic boundaries and voluntarily cooperate together in carrying out the Great Commission”. In much the same way that the local church is challenged in carrying out its purpose, the Baptist association is as well. I have been involved in the local Baptist association for over ten years. I have seen some good things where the association was able to fulfill its purpose. I have also seen some bad things where the association struggled in fulfilling its purpose.

Through my years of associational involvement, I have seen, and am seeing, certain challenges plaguing the local association. Let me say right here that I am not anti-association. Just the opposite. I want desperately to see the association succeed. I also believe in being honest. Introspection can be a positive and helpful thing. I want to share what I feel are the challenges facing the Baptist association today.

Challenge #1: The training and support that is offered to the local church at the associational level is readily available at the state level.

For the most part, the local Baptist association has ministry areas that closely mirror those of the church. The association may contain departments such as Sunday School, Discipleship Training, Music, Youth, Men’s Ministry, Women’s Ministry, WMU, and others. From time to time the association may offer training and resources to help the local church to be better equipped in these areas. This same type of training and resourcing is available to every church at the state convention level. Often times this training and resourcing is available quicker, in greater volume, and from staff with years of specific experience. The church has to make a decision. As a pastor, I have to answer a question much like this one, “If it becomes necessary to receive some of my training and resourcing from the state convention, why would I not receive all of it from the state convention?”  This is the challenge of assistance. The association faces the challenge of being an effective and consistent avenue of training, support, and resource.

Challenge #2: The local Baptist association may not be able to adequately resource and support the local church with the ministries that are specific to their own community.

This is not the same as challenge #1. As local churches explore their community, as they determine felt needs, as they identify new and specific ways to communicate the gospel, there will be a need for specific help and support. Churches are discovering new and emerging fields of ministry in the community that reflect segments of the population. These segments could include multi-housing ministry, skateboarders, resort and vacation settings, and the military. Each one of these fields requires specific support and even specific training. As a pastor, I have to answer a question much like this one, “Once I have identified ministries specific to my community, where is the best place to go for training and support?” This is the challenge of relevance. Can the association, in its present form, be of real and lasting help to the church? To be fair, the association cannot be “all things to be all people”. But, if the church determines that business as usual will not reach people with the gospel, the Baptist association faces a decision as well.

Challenge #3: The local Baptist association taking on ministry that is the responsibility of the local church.

I was once part of an association that felt that if the churches in the association were not doing ministry at a level they thought was acceptable, the association would sponsor that ministry. Instead of encouraging the churches to develop a comprehensive men’s ministry, the association sponsored the event. Instead of providing training on how to do it, the association just did it for them. That may seem fine on the surface. That may work for a time. However, it is not profitable for future ministry. Here is what I mean. In the event the association was no longer able to sponsor this type of ministry, the local church had not been equipped and empowered to do it. I witnessed this same practice in the area of youth ministry. Instead of bringing in training and empowering the church, the association just did the ministry. As a pastor, I have to answer a question much like this one, “Is the local Baptist association capable of performing ministry for the church instead of strengthening the church for ministry and hope to remain needed? This is the challenge of priority. Here is the struggle as I see it. Can the association do ministry, of course. But, the association has the responsibility to first assist and equip the local church to better conduct ministry.

Challenge #4: The local Baptist association faces financial challenges as their sole source of support is the local church.

Associations have budgets. These budgets are met by contributions from the local churches that cooperate in the association. Each church determines how much money is forwarded to the associational level. This amount usually either a percentage or a specific amount. The challenge for the association is to encourage and persuade the local church to give in a consistent manner.  There are times that the vision and priority of the local church and church pastor do not match up with the vision and priority of the associational leadership. Southern Baptist churches have a desire to cooperate. It is in the very DNA of the church to do this. It is not always easy for the local church to support everything the association does and plans to do. There are times when differing visions of purpose strain the cooperation between the church and association. Churches want to see the funds used in a meaningful way. Churches want to see real life-changing ministry taking place. As a pastor, I have to answer a question much like this one, “Am I able to stand before my congregation and assure them that the money that is sacrificially given to the Baptist association is being used for the furtherance of the gospel?” This is the challenge of accountability. Right or wrong, when visions differ at the associational level, churches don’t give as much or they reduce their giving. This is challenging to the association because, again, their entire source of funding comes from the church. If the church decides to re-route their giving to what they deem as meaningful, the association still has a budget to meet and must make up the difference.

In my next post, I will share what I feel is the future of the association.

The Baptist Association : Part #1 : Purpose

I am not a theologian. I don’t claim to be. I am not an excellent Greek or Hebrew scholar. I don’t claim to be. I am simply the pastor of a Southern Baptist church. I care deeply about the local church. I care about the people who make up the New Testament church today. Therefore I care about the things that affect the church that I pastor. The basis for this series of posts is to simply share my thoughts about the local Baptist association as I see it based on my personal experiences. I have been part of four associations (three in Florida and one now in South Carolina) and have served in leadership positions there. I will begin with the purpose of the association, move on to the challenges facing the association, and finish with the future of the association.

The reality of the local Baptist association is not foreign to Southern Baptists. In fact, the great majority of all Southern Baptist churches are members of a local Baptist association. This is their choice to make. When considering the purpose for the association, you may find many different viewpoints. For example, the members of the local church have their own thoughts as to why the association exists. These vary from congregation to congregation. The pastors of local churches have their own thoughts as to why the association exists. These thoughts vary from pastor to pastor. The leadership of the association has their own thoughts as to why the association exists. These views vary from association to association. The state conventions have their own thoughts as to why the association exists. Again, these thoughts differ from state to state. In order to find some kind of cohesive purpose for the local Baptist association, we must take a look at what this purpose has been historically.

Next to the local church, the Baptist association is the oldest unit of Baptist life. The Baptist association had its’ beginning in the United States in 1707 with the formation of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. From its’ beginning the association has served at least three fundamental purposes. Although there may be other purposes that have emerged over the years, there seems to be three at the center. Those three are fellowship, missions/evangelism, and doctrinal integrity.

1. Fellowship: In those early colonial days in the Philadelphia Baptist Association, the local Baptist churches struggled with their own individuality. These churches were weak financially and in weak in terms of resource. They were isolated from each other by distance. This led to a solitary existence. Churches were also very fragile due to all the circumstances occurring in colonial America just prior to the birth of a new nation.  Churches were few, small, and in need of mutual support. The Baptist association gave these churches the opportunity to come together, work together, and be encouraged by one another. The association would also give credibility in their area by identifying them with other churches who were like-minded. This same thought of fellowship has continued and evolved through the years. Today, the association still offers this much-needed fellowship between like-minded churches. The Baptist association offers churches the opportunity to come together under the same banner and fellowship together and be strengthened by each other. Under the umbrella of fellowship is that of churches helping each other. Dr. Jimmy Draper, past president of Lifeway Christian Resources made the following statement about this fellowship and cooperation, “It is the essence of our faith that the stronger help the weaker, that the greater help the lesser, that the larger help the smaller. In that sense we need to heed the Lord Who served with a towel in His hand.” Dr. Richard Harris, Director of Missions for the Santee Baptist Association in Sumter, South Carolina wrote, “There is a need for fellowship. None of the things listed above [accountability, encouragement, counsel, support] can happen if we remain isolated and separated from one another. We can be a mighty force and army for God, or we can go our separate ways, be disjointed and ineffective, weak, and powerless.”

2. Missions/Evangelism: Across Southern Baptist life there is a statement that we all know very well, “we can do more together than we can do by ourselves”. It is this thought that leads us to cooperate together and work together for our common faith. Historically, the association has been involved in mobilizing the local churches to be involved in mission work, church planting, and reaching beyond themselves. Again Dr. Draper writes, “In the latter half of the first century of the Philadelphia association, that entity turned from inward matters to outward matters of religious liberty and ministerial education. As the churches standardized their own internal life, the inevitable role of the association was to help them look out beyond themselves to the emerging world in Colonial America.”  Dr. Harris again wrote, “There is a need to be involved in a purpose greater than oneself. To avoid growing introverted, selfish, and ineffective, churches need exposure to ideas, methods, and opportunities for kingdom growth beyond their own church family.”

3. Doctrinal Integrity and Accountability: I believe in doctrinal integrity and accountability. I believe that all churches who choose to cooperate together in an association of churches should have certain agreed upon doctrinal positions and commit to hold to them. This is the reason for the Baptist Faith and Message. The BFM is our statement of faith as Southern Baptists that provides a comprehensive outline as to where we stand biblically on important doctrinal positions. Local churches “join” a Baptist association based on the promise to cooperate together and uphold those agreed upon biblical positions (BFM for example). Through the membership at the associational level, the church affiliates with the state and national convention. So, there is a sense that the Baptist association exists for this purpose doctrinal accountability. Dr. John Sullivan, Executive Director of the Florida Baptist Convention wrote, “The association is the theological watchdog of Southern Baptists”.  Dr. Harris wrote, “There is a need for accountability. Pressures from the culture, changes in current thinking, challenges from within church membership can cause compromised beliefs to become accepted. Knowing that there are standards for common beliefs and practices help keep the stresses of the moment from misguiding the church.” The Baptist association historically has been on the “front line” of doctrinal accountability, as seen in Dr. Draper’s statement, “But those earliest churches needed one another in other ways. In the absence of any seminaries, national or local denomination, in the pristine days of the emergence of our nation, they needed help with everything. The minutes of the Philadelphia Association reveal constant questions about baptismal doctrine, ordination, church disputes and other theological issues. The first Baptist association in America was a clearing-house of information on church polity and doctrine. The fellowship of an association is grounded in the unity of faith and practice. Each association may differ from others in particular doctrinal matters that are important to their fellowship and the amount of diversity tolerated on those issues. However, the association is, by its nature, a doctrinally based fellowship.”