Monday, January 31, 2011

The Strategic Role of Associations in Church Planting

As I mentioned in my last post, I'll be spending the next few weeks on this site talking about effective church planting in the local Baptist Association. For my readers who are not part of my denominational "tribe," please excuse some of the "insider" conversation that will neccesarily be a part of this discussion. It is my hope that my non-Baptist brothers and sisters will nonetheless learn some principles that they can take back into their own affiliations and more greatly emphasize church planting. The truth is that we need all evangelical denominations and non-denominational churches thinking deeply about these issues if we hope to change North America for Christ. But since my denominational home carries the label "Baptist," expect the next several posts to deal with issues within my own tribe.

Second, I fully realize that touting an organization you simultaneously work for as a "highly strategic" entity runs the risk of heavy bias and self-promotion. I also realize that not all Baptist Associations are strategic when it comes to starting new churches, and that some will never be. My purpose in this post is simply to point out why, of all denominational entities, the local Association can play a very strategic role.

Third, I don't want this post to be interpreted as "competitive" with other denominational entities at the state and national levels. One of the highly unfortunate results of the recent GCR conversations across our convention is that there has already been quite a bit of ungodly "one-upmanship," as "fans" of the various SBC entities have taken cheap pot-shots at other entities they perceive should just "get out of the way." This is not my intention in this post. On the contrary, there is no way for Southern Baptists to be unified nationally under a continent-wide strategic framework without the help of the North American Mission Board. Additionally, the specialists in areas like ethnic church planting and context-sensitive areas like urban ministry simply can't be afforded by most local associations and therefore, without the cooperation of state conventions, we might end up "flying blind" in many of our church planting efforts.

At the same time, the local Association has its own unique and very important contribution to make in the effort to start effective, disciple-making churches in North America. In particular, our proximity, flexibility, and accountability provide the opportunity for a rich environment within which new churches can be birthed.

1. Proximity: Simply put, our state convention has to keep up with more than 500 churches in Maryland/Delaware. And the further south you go, the tougher the job. The Baptist Convention in my home state of South Carolina serves the mission of more than 3000 churches! Our association, on the other hand, serves the mission of only 58 of those congregations. Where church planting is concerned, the reality is we have a greater proximity to our churches and thus, a greater propensity to develop the relationships neccesary to develop the culture within which new churches can be launched.

This is not to say that state and national entities can't also have strong relationships with churches. I am certain, for example, that the state staffer who directs Vacation Bible School has a much closer relationship than I do to many laity within our churches. But for the most part, when it comes to church planting, I am most keenly aware of the lay of the land in my association and thus, our association is in the best position to know which relationships can be best leveraged to facilitate more new congregations. My relationships with our 58 lead pastors have different degrees of intimacy and understanding. But of those in this group who are best equipped to help us plant churches, I can say I know ALL of them very well. And after more than six years in this part of the North American mission field, I know the importance of the relational dynamics between pastors and churches in this area when it comes to church planting.

I also know my field. Our churches are located in almost every kind of context that exists in North America, from the ultra-urban to "town and country," from southern Pennsylvania to College Park, from Baltimore city west to the Frederick County line. Within this area I can tell you the three most high impact sites that needed a new church yesterday. Not only can the local Association more easily keep up with high growth areas, it has the capability to know the internal psychographics of each area better than anyone else..

In short, our proximity to the mission field, to our churches, and to relationships gives Associations a high propensity for strategic influence when it comes to planting new churches.

2. Flexibility: Another aspect of Associations that make them a strategic church planting partner is a flexible structure. State Conventions and NAMB are, by neccesity, more beaurecratic. This is not a criticism of these entities, but simply an acknowlegement that the bigger you are, the more policies and procedures are neccesary in order to function consistently.

For example, when large sums of financial support are aimed by a single entity toward a new church, it makes sense that there would be tighter parameters around how those monies are invested for the sake of accountability. At the same time, creativity is always limited in such a scenario. This is where Associations, if they are structured properly, can help compensate.

One recent example in our own association will illustrate this well. We are currently targeting a high impact area for a church plant, and have a potential planter for the job. He has passed our assessment process, but desires to intern with a church planting network with whom we are partnered for this particular effort. The internship will require him to relocate and leave his current position on the pastoral staff of one of our churches, and he is now in the process of raising support for the internship. Typically, funding at all levels of denominational life only begins once the planter has actually been deployed to plant the church. However, Associational leadership discovered that because of this internship, the planter will deploy with a sizeable "hot core," all of whom will be supporting the new church financially. With this unique scenario came the opportunity to utilize a more creative approach to funding the entire church planting effort, and since Associational funding of such efforts is not captive to highly restrictive policies, but instead at the discretion of our Missions and Multiplying Churches Team and Executive Board, we were able to quickly aprove significant funding for this planter DURING his internship should he agree to plant in the high impact area we have targeted.

Additionally, strategic flexibility begins with a thorough understanding of what will be needed for effective church planting. Since every context is unique, it only makes sense to build the strategy from the Associational level.

3. Accountability: Much has been made over the past two years of the Biblical principle that "churches plant churches." I am thrilled to see this principle more practically "fleshed out" in the GCR reccomendations. And my strong belief is that the local Association can be the first resource utilized by local churches to start new churches.

For one thing, the local Association is the only entity in denominational life that is DIRECTLY responsible to local churches. Other entities throughout our SBC are neccesarily governed by Boards of Trustees. But local churches have the power to make the Association whatever they want it to be. Thus, if local churches with a passion for Kingdom multiplication desire to transform the Association into the effective tool that it can be in this area, they are free to do so.

All of the above are reasons I believe the local Association can play a vital role in the multiplication of new churches throughout North America. At the same time, I'll readily admit that not every local Association WILL play a vital role. For the realities I mention above to translate into new churches, the churches that make up Baptist Associations must have the right mindset. This requires a particular kind of culture to be cultivated within each association. In the next installment, I'll be speaking to this issue of how those who lead Associations can create a church planting culture within these vitally strategic networks.

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