A little more than 300 years ago, British Baptists created a localized entity for the purpose of greater cooperation in missionary work among churches of like faith and order. Patterned largely after the English trade guilds that existed at the time, these organizations were effective at multiplying the efforts of local churches that desired to work together. This success was mirrored when this model of missionary cooperation was exported to the American colonies. And that, as they say, is where it all began! Philadelphia, in 1707.
Over the years, local Associations have experienced their own share of contextual change, and the 21st century is a context in which many local Associations have struggled to find their place. I'm sometimes asked "do we need Associations anymore?" There are several ways to answer this question. From a purely exegetical standpoint, we have never needed them--or the state conventions, or any of the national level SBC entities. The only entity that has a purely Biblical warrant for its existence is the local church, and the legitimacy of all others is tied to how well they can serve the church as she accomplishes her mission.
Another way of answering this question then is to bluntly reply "it depends on which Association you are talking about." I've had the honor for the past nine years of serving a great group of churches here in central Maryland known as the Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, and in that period, change has been the only constant. Though our mission remains the same, our way of "doing business" has had to undergo some changes--some of them major--in order for us to remain true to our vision. I'm sure I haven't led these shifts perfectly (and a few church leaders here would no doubt testify to that fact!), but I have noticed some common pitfalls that we have tried to avoid as we move into the future with our churches. What follows are six things Associations must overcome to survive and thrive in the 21st century. Over the next several weeks, I want to discuss each of these in greater detail:
1. An Unclear Purpose. Simply put, if you don't know why you exist, sooner rather than later, you won't exist! The problem with Associations is that, in the past, many tied their own identity exclusively to the larger SBC and simply adopted its larger purposes on a local level. But in the day of the internet and globalization, churches don't need a local representative of a national entity any longer.
Conversely, since each Association exists in a unique geographic and cultural context, each has an ability to define its own unique mission in ways that are impossible at state and national levels. Next week, I hope to elaborate more on the necessity for churches to leverage their local Association to contextualize and execute the mission in their own context.
2. A Hyper-Centralized Mission. It's wrong to constantly talk about "what our Association is doing." Instead, we should be talking about "what our churches are doing together through the Association." If I control it all, there is a severe limit on what we can do, and eventually, log-jam prevents any further extension of our collective work.
Our Association has planted more than 30 churches in the last 9 years. We have seen hundreds come to Christ through local prison and trucking ministries. We have worked with local governments to serve the urban poor and minister to the homeless, and we have shared Jesus and planted churches on every inhabited continent. We have been able to do all this because our churches aren't "joining us." Instead, they are using us as a resource for execution, and we are responding by advising them, training them, bringing other churches around them, providing limited funding, and releasing them! I'll talk more about how to create this kind of environment as well.
3. Ecclesiastical Socialism. Taking money and resources from big, rich churches, and redistributing them to smaller, poor churches isn't missionary work! The Association's role is to empower, not enable, and the best way to serve small churches is not to give them money, but give them a vision and allow them to live it. One of our most effective international efforts is led by a church of less than 75 people, but includes churches of over 400 people. If we had simply taken from the latter and redistributed to the former, this would have never happened. This, I'm convinced, is one of the greatest hindrances to effective Associational missions, so expect me to say much more about it in the coming days!
4. "Scorecard" Confusion. The standard measurement for "success" in many churches has been the size of the crowd, the size of the offering bucket, and the size of the building. None of these are unimportant, but neither should they be the primary measurements of success in a church. If Associations are to change the environment on this issue, they can't use these at all when it comes to measuring Associational success. The size of my Associational office has nothing to do with whether we are being truly obedient to our collective calling in central Maryland and around the world. In later weeks, I'll speak about how I believe we should "define the win" at the Associational level.
5. Closed Systems that Prohibit Meaningful Cultural Engagement. Local Associations need to be structured so that communication and collaboration with local school systems, county government offices, and chambers of commerce are more easily attained than collaboration with the North American Mission Board or one of our seminaries! If an Association has mechanisms that even implicitly only allow for meaningful partnerships within our own tribe, we are in trouble! More about this is coming as well.
6. A Focus on "Survival." Someone once said that thousands of churches die every year in North America, and along with them are hundreds of others that probably should have died. I believe the same can be said of any Association who is only looking to "pay the bills." To be sure, I do enjoy getting a paycheck! But the existence of Mid-Maryland Association is about far more than providing Joel Rainey with a job, and if its not, Joel Rainey should find another job!
So there you have it! I believe the 21st century could be the most effective time in the history of local Associations, if they can reinvent themselves in a way that will best serve churches determined to meet that future. I look forward to extending this conversation in the coming days.