At least that’s what I’ve heard.
By now I’ve already angered some and others are nodding in approval. Historically Baptist associations served as a connection point for most of our congregations. The association served churches by helping them stay doctrinally strong, encouraging shared evangelistic outreach, and helping churches in various stages of their life cycle – plant, renewal or death. I think they are a valuable part of our Baptist communion.
But it doesn’t take long to discover that participation in the local association is waning. On some levels, its not surprising. Associations that served churches where I pastored often demanded much in the way of resources but gave back very little to member congregations. Some even had leaders who acted like Bishops with control over our church – not a smart move if you are working with Baptists!
Sitting in my local Chamber of Commerce meeting the other day, I began to realize something. What if our associations began to work more strategically and carefully. What if they took on some of the components typical of the local Chamber while they sought to serve the church and advance the Gospel?
While I am sure there are more ideas here, I propose at least 6 major emphases that can revitalize many of our associations while we do the work set out for us in our community. Some of these are for the association and its leaders. Some of the ideas are for the member churches. We can only succeed if we work together!
- Advancement of the community. More than ever before, our associations should be working hard to plug churches into ways we can benefit the larger community. Just as our churches should be working for the good of the city/town/county, so should our associations. By ascertaining and discovering the means by which we can aid in the economic development of the area covered by our association, our churches can more effectively engage the community. The association can help by centralizing efforts to engaged the poor and underserved. Can the association bring together the gifts and talents in a variety of churches for ESL, job training, citizenship/naturalization classes, and even foster care all with the end goal of reaching these men and women with the Gospel?
- Advance the growth of churches in the community. In the same way the Chamber of Commerce works to promote new businesses in the community, so should the association with its churches. Each chamber helps new businesses find ideal locations, celebrates their openings with the chamber community and supports their success. In many of our associations, we are quite good at helping congregations plant churches. What we often don’t see is a concerted effort of the member churches to celebrate new church plants. Unlike a business chamber where a new business is opened and celebrated with fanfare along with other chamber members, our association members often begrudge new church plants and see them as a threat. To shift that attitude, Associations should also be engaged in working to better the health of existing churches and aiding them in maintaining a kingdom-oriented focus.
- Proactively engage members with data. Your local Chamber of Commerce possesses a wealth of information – what new neighborhoods are coming in? Where’s that new freeway going to be placed? How will demographic changes in that neighborhood school begin to change retail markets? Most of our associations have access to the same data. But are many of them pro-actively discussing and working through that data with their member churches? Even annual updates of demographic data can aid a congregation in their short and long-term plans as they seek to engage their communities missiologically.
- Network churches together. This is common sense. We all need community. We all need a broader network that extends beyond ourselves. Many associations do this rather well, but it can often be a very small group compared to the number of congregations in the association itself. While Baptist associations serve autonomous congregations, the main fruit that can come out of a vibrant association is the encouragement by others. For this to work well, associations must navigate maintaining relationships with the larger churches as well as the smaller ones. That balance can be tricky, but to the extent they can manage this, the association gets even stronger. But please note the next point:
- Members keep the Association moving – without consistent engagement with members there will always be a shortfall in the association. After all, associating is voluntary. Our networks are only as good as the members who contribute to it. From those who work for the association, this always comes through service. Baptist associations are not a bishopric where the associational leader rules over the churches. The associational leader discovers ways to encourage congregations to continue their input and value. At the same time, member churches see their value in what is accomplished together as an association of churches. The single most important point in leading this is shared vision.
- Shared vision motivates members – Should this really need to be articulated? Like any organization, associations without a shared vision and purpose become rudderless. Directors spend much of the time putting out fires in congregations or pleading with congregations to maintain their engagement. The best associational leaders are those who lead with a compelling vision that can unite the churches of the associational region for the purposes of expanding the Kingdom of God.
Some have proposed that the day of the local association may well be over. Spending time in my local Chamber of Commerce convinces me otherwise so long as our Baptist associations begin to cast a compelling vision for the future and serve the member churches as they engage the community. We could see a new day! Get your church and yourself involved in your local association for the good of the Kingdom!