One of the questions on the table in this new era of SBC life and the rethinking of our institutions is whether the State Convention is still useful going forward or if they should be dismantled in favor of Associations and the National Convention. I would argue that there is indeed an important ongoing role for State Conventions. Here are a few reasons I believe we still need State Conventions as we partner together in Kingdom work.
- State Conventions cast vision for cooperative ministry within a state. Southern Baptist are a partnering people. We are also a people of vision for reaching the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While our SBC entities and leaders are helpful in casting vision for reaching the nations and North America for Christ, State Conventions have a unique role in casting a vision for ministry and mission within a state. States are a natural layer for thinking about mission (the Acts 1:8 metaphor comes to mind) as it speaks to our American culture who largely identify with our home state, even as we view ourselves as Americans and part of the global community. State Conventions help to cast a corporate vision for reaching our region/state with the gospel and making Christ known where we are. While there is a place for the abstract vision of reaching the nations with the gospel, there is also a need for the specific, concrete vision of reaching the area in which we are planted. State Conventions have a unique role in uniting churches around a common vision for saturation evangelism and church planting in their region.
- State Conventions fund what Associations can’t and the SBC won’t. One of the beauties of the Cooperative program is that it helps us to fund a full array of Christian ministries at the same time and in such a way that churches can be a part. Certain ministries like colleges, hospitals, children’s homes, and a wide array of other needs based ministries have been supported by CP dollars at the state level. Each state can set its own ministry priorities and fund those things that they believe are important and needed. Many of these ministries are too significant and costly to be funded at the association level. Associations are just not capable of such support. At the same time, these same ministries do not fall under the mission of the SBC as a whole and have historically not been funded at the national level. If State Conventions cease, these ministries will have to find alternative sources of funding and many will cease to exist. We may differ on what we believe are the most important ways to use our limited resources in the current era of SBC life, but make no mistake – to argue that State Conventions should cease to exist is to argue that those ministries are not a funding priority for Southern Baptists.
- State Conventions are the most efficient channel for NAMB partnership/resources. Specific funding decisions, policies and strategies about church planting, evangelism, and revitalization are best made closer to the local level. Thus, it makes sense that NAMB would partner with smaller entities to implement the vision of North American Missions. State Conventions are the ideal partner in this regard. The sheer number of associations in our Convention and the wide variation in their health and personnel, make the idea of direct partnership with associations an unwieldy and unworkable strategy. Conventions following our natural cultural groupings as states are a logical partner for the national entity. State Conventions are large enough, few enough, and healthy enough to be the channel for effective partnerships in Great Commission work. State Executive Leaders and their teams have a thorough knowledge of their fields and the churches and associations they serve making them the best partner for distribution of NAMB funds and oversight and mentoring for planters.
- State Conventions develop pastors and strengthen churches. While we focus much attention on the larger churches in our Convention, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of our churches are small. Using a variety of methods, State Conventions play an important role in helping support the smaller churches by equipping pastors and churches to fulfill their mission. State Conventions work with associations and churches to provide training, consultation, encouragement, resources, retreats and events to help strengthen the ministry of their churches. State Conventions often offer opportunities for mission partnership and fellowship among churches that otherwise might not exist. State Conventions tend to be staffed with competent leaders who can assist churches in addressing the various issues they face as they seek to grow, reach their communities for Christ, partner in home and international missions, resolve conflicts, face financial challenges, start new ministries, improve church health, train leaders, and a myriad of other issues. Convention Leaders often provide or facilitate mentoring and coaching relationships with pastors and planters. While some associations are capable of providing such services on their own, most are not and certainly not to the extent that can be achieved at the state level. In smaller, non Bible-belt states especially, the State Convention is the primary resource for such services.
These are just a few reasons I continue to support the ministry of our State Conventions. I agree that there are changes that can help Southern Baptists and State Conventions be more efficient and effective stewards of cooperative program resources. But I do not agree that ending State Conventions is a good strategy.