Editor’s Note: During May each year, Southern Baptists celebrate Baptist Associational Emphasis on the SBC Calendar. The vast majority of Southern Baptist churches cooperate at the state level with one of forty-two cooperating state conventions and at the local level with one of more than 1,170 cooperating Baptist associations. As culture continues to change in what many have identified as a post-denominational, post-Christian era, associational leaders have spearheaded the discussion about how associations will do ministry in the twenty-first century and beyond. SBC LIFE invited Josh Ellis with Union Baptist Association in Houston and Bob Ryan with Mile High Baptist Association in Denver to weigh in on some of these strategic conversations.
For more than three hundred years, Baptist associations have been remaking and re-imagining themselves in the effort better to meet the needs of their churches. Due to a myriad of contemporary forces acting on churches and the populations they serve, a new era of associational work is dawning.
A BIBLICAL BASIS
The apostle Paul saw the needy of Jerusalem and set about gathering an offering from believers outside the great city. This act was both deeply theological and deeply pragmatic. In order to care for the poor as God had commanded, a collective effort was required. The earliest associations were equally pragmatic in nature and theological in spirit. No single church could accomplish the Great Commission alone. Therefore it made sense to band together and strategically leverage the resources found throughout the body of Christ. In one sense, nothing has changed.
In another sense, everything has changed. Growing metropolitan cores, declining rural areas, increasing ethno-linguistic diversity, decreasing denominational affiliation, changing cultural attitudes, new generations of leaders, and the evolving nature of social media dictate that associations operate in a context heretofore unseen.
In the face of so much change, a common—albeit wrong—question frequently comes up: “How will associations survive these changes?” A better question is, “In light of these changes, have the fundamental purposes of the association changed?”
Defining the purpose of associations commonly includes biblical concepts such as cooperation, fellowship, resourcing, missions, church planting, and evangelism. Successful associations are adding terms such as leadership, innovation, cultural context, community orientation, and creativity. Beyond any strategy, principle, tactic, or buzzword, associations must be relevant.
RELEVANCE BEGINS WITH KNOWLEDGE
Associations of the past were purveyors of information. If a church had a program, chances are good the association made every effort to provide information and resources for that program. As the number of programs increased, so did the pressure on associations to keep up. Eventually, a service came along to all churches free of charge and more up-to-date than even the best associational staff: the Internet.
The Internet presents both a burden and an opportunity for associations. Associations can no longer be the primary information source as they were in decades past. However, they can help augment information—now widely available with a simple mouse-click—with wisdom about how to apply it in a local context. In a sea of information, people and issues can get lost. Helping churches strategically sift through issues like human trafficking, poverty, language limitations, and spiritual darkness is a critical service associations are poised to offer. In essence, the association can be the primary local source, not of information, but of sense-making, turning information into knowledge.
RELEVANCE REQUIRES MEETING NEEDS
Churches have always been at the heart of associations, and meeting their needs has always been a core value. From time to time, associations have been guilty of telling churches what they need rather than asking them what they need, sometimes simply providing churches with whatever the state and national denominational entities were offering. Too often, associations viewed the denominational stamp as the sign of relevance and then reacted in horror when churches did not demand the product they were selling.
Meeting needs sounds purely reactionary, but successful associations appreciate the leadership opportunity inherent in this crucial role. Associations must balance responding to the needs of their churches with building awareness of needs not yet known to their churches. If they ignore the former, they will be ignorant of their members and lead no one. However, if associations respond only to the felt needs of the churches, vital community needs may go unmet or unidentified. Striking the appropriate balance requires associations to be hubs of relationships, research, training, and service.
The priority for associations, regardless of their size, must be to understand the differences between the needs they must address, the needs their churches must address, and the needs best met by those outside the association such as state conventions, national entities, secular organizations, or coalitions of all of the above. In strictly organizational terms, there is too much at risk for associations to attempt to be all things to all people. Associations must be the best game in town for the things they focus on and encourage others to be the best at what they focus on. If the association does not possess a niche of expertise and value, how can it expect to be relevant?
RELEVANCE IS CONTEXTUAL
Rural associations spread across hundreds of miles have vastly different needs than metropolitan associations. Pastors of small churches have different needs than megachurch pastors and likely respond differently to the association because of them. However, no one is in a better position to appreciate those differences and adapt to them than a director of missions (DOM).
Successful DOMs have the advantage of placement: their charge is the entire association. This vantage point allows them to survey the totality of their environment, their members, and their community without being consumed by any one aspect. Their vantage enables them to evaluate service gaps, champion the needs of hurting people, communicate to broad audiences, and make the best possible connections between churches and community needs. Without losing sight of the ministry tasks at hand, their vantage also requires them to evaluate the association’s own organizational relevance. Many are predicting the demise of associations. But rather than focus on the death of the association, DOMs must consider the living alternative. If an organization is relevant, it will endure.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Purposes may change, strategies may shift, populations will diversify, but associations that strive to fill relevant niches will not only endure, but thrive. There are reasons to believe the future is bright.
First, a word about the generation just now assuming positions of leadership within our churches. Millennials, in general, crave community and have the highest rate of volunteerism of any generation. Millennials are discerning: they will not support wasted time or redundant efforts, but they will wholeheartedly support meeting real needs in the community. They will drive great distances, donate vast sums, mobilize crowds of people, and dedicate generous blocks of time in the service of others. However, they desire influence. They want a seat at the grown-up table and a voice in the conversation. Millennials have a negative reputation in some circles, but for every apathetic Millennial, there is another who planted a church, started a business, took political office, or created a charity from scratch.
Second, as we look toward the future, let us remember we can always do more through healthy partnerships than we can alone. No single church on Earth is capable of meeting every need, feeding every person, raising up leaders in every culture, or sharing the Gospel in every language. Associations are uniquely positioned to cast vision, create networks, and provide catalytic leadership for the kind of partnerships that can accomplish these goals. There is tremendous value in bringing diverse parties to the table of fellowship, service, and ministry.
Make no mistake. This is not the easiest time in history to lead an association, but there may never have been a more important time to do so with excellence.
Josh Ellis, senior church consultant for Union Baptist Association in Houston, is a member of Ecclesia Church in nearby Clear Lake, Texas.