Most Southern Baptists are familiar with the term “Association” since each church is typically part of a local Association of Baptist churches, historically because of geographic location, but sometimes because of theology or doctrinal positions.
Associations of Baptist churches have been around since 1650 and their purpose has changed over the years to reflect the needs of member churches. The first Associations in England existed to encourage fellowship and assistance between member churches. Some of the first Baptist Associations in America were instrumental in developing a broader concern for missions. Decades to follow saw Associations change from a focus on their congregations to being program promoters of the SBC and state conventions. Years later another philosophical shift took place and the role of the Association was to develop a local missions programs with local strategies.
The role of the Association over the years has also been to:
- lead and assist churches to impact lostness through church planting, community ministry and evangelism.
- support and assist churches in the making of disciples through leader development, training and resources.
- lead churches to cooperate and accomplish what one church cannot do alone.
- provide strength and support for needy churches.
- commend individuals to ministry at other churches.
- maintain doctrinal and moral integrity of churches.
What do you believe should be the role of the Baptist Association today?
The role of the Baptist Association will continue to change and must, if it is going to endure and remain relevant in our constantly changing world.
Josh Ellis, Unity Baptist Association, Houston, Texas, has said that:
“If an organization is relevant, it will endure. If not,whatever replaces it will demonstrate what was needed.”
What is needed in your Association and will your church commit with others to that purpose? In light of our current reality, there’s never been a more critical time for Association’s to re-dream and evaluate their role. I challenge Associations to assess and review their current strategies and organizational structure to ensure they are providing value and effective ministry assistance to their member churches.
The Kentucky Baptist Convention offers assistance to Associations wishing to review current structure, evaluate effectiveness or develop new strategies. I believe strongly that Baptist Associations today must be functional, streamlined and practical in their approach to strategically challenge and assist member churches in fulfilling the Great Commission.
Our association (Oldham-Trimble) is experiencing the very thing you’ve expressed in this article: the need to retool and refocus to serve the Kingdom among our churches and communities. About 10 years ago, our former Director of Missions led the association to develop a mission and vision process similar to what some churches have done, and from that, we discerned the core values which energize and sustain our ministries. Now, we are in the process of a new work, led by our current DOM, Randy Jones, who has put in place a “Strategy Development Team” to once again focus our efforts and ministries in the most effective areas of Kingdom opportunity for our churches and the people we serve. It is a daunting task, but one which, as is true for many churches, must be undertaken if we are going to be relevant and redemptive in our time.
The association traditionally functioned in ways that we currently desire: relevant and a conduit for connection. Unfortunately, the association has in many cases become simply another level of denominational bureaucracy. Or worse, it has done less to enable local churches to perform ministry and has actually performed the ministry itself–functioning almost as another church body. The latter scenario becomes more troublesome when you consider the fact that the local church bodies contribute to the budget of the “associational church”. The association is not beyond repair but it has to be streamlined in order to do so–staff, facilities, vision, etc. If leadership development and equipping for ministry become the focal points, then associations can be invaluable to the local church. When we emphasize these simple yet profound elements, we may not see associations “regain their former glory” but we can see them return to relevancy and perhaps witness more lives changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.