Cooperation between local churches has long been a hallmark of Baptist identity. Going all the way back to the earliest English Separatists, Baptists have always understood that, though local churches are autonomous, we are better able to accomplish the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations when we partner together. Our history is filled with example after example of local churches that have worked together to fund, train, and send missionaries around the world. In many ways, these precedents are the foundation for the denominational structures that exist today. Whether it is the national convention, the state conventions, or the local associations, all of these entities exist to facilitate the cooperation of like-minded churches for the advancement of the global cause of Christ.
Of course, it goes without saying that the strength and effectiveness of these entities is directly dependent on the participation of local churches. This is particularly true at the level of the local Baptist association; their ministry suffers drastically when local churches do not participate regularly. One factor that has contributed significantly to the weakness of associational ministry is the rise of the mega/multi-site church. The overabundance of people and resources in these churches enables them to operate as independent self-sufficient organisms, essentially negating their need to cooperate with other churches in the area. In my own local association, there is a relatively large church, a megachurch by all comparative measurements, and while their name appears on the association roster, their participation therein is practically nil save a token monthly financial contribution.
Whatever the reasons, when local churches do not participate in the ministry of the local association, all of the churches that partner with that association suffer. Local associations, especially those in more rural areas, have largely become weak, ineffective, and irrelevant due to the widespread apathy that characterizes attitudes in most local Baptist churches. It has come to the point that we might even begin to wonder why these entities still exist and whether they should continue at all. As the Apostle Paul would say, “May it never be!”. The point is that we desperately need to recover the value of local association ministry, and in the space that remains, I would like to highlight just a few of the ways that participation in the local association benefits the local church.
First, the local association provides pastors the opportunity to build relationships with other pastors. More often than not, pastors cannot find the kinds of relationships that sustain long-term ministry success in their own congregations. This should not be the case, of course, but being a pastor can sometimes feel very lonely. Building relationships with other pastors through the local association can help to alleviate that isolation; it is a place where pastors can turn for encouragement, accountability, and mentoring. The latter of these is particularly important for younger first-time pastors. The value of being mentored by seasoned, experienced, faithful pastors is a resource that will bear fruit long after those pastors retire. Older pastors have the opportunity to invest in and influence the next generation of pastors through meaningful self-giving relationships, and the best place for these to develop is through the local association. Or to put it more simply, pastors need each other.
A second way in which participation in the local association benefits the local church is by cooperative mission efforts. The simple fact of the matter is that the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, while it is certainly not less than, it is so much more than the isolated ministry of one local church. Most local churches, the vast majority of which average less than 100 in weekly attendance, simply do not have the financial or people resources to develop an effective mission program. However, when those resources are pooled together with other churches through the local association, we are better able to reach not only our Jerusalem, but our Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. This is essentially what the Cooperative Program is all about; in the Southern Baptist Convention, churches pool their resources through the cooperative program primarily for the purpose of national and international missions and theological education. If we truly care about the cause of Christ, then this kind of cooperation must begin at the local level.
Lastly, participation in the ministry of the local association helps churches cultivate a kingdom-first mentality. This may be more of a result of the first two, but the point is that participating in the local association reminds us that Christianity is bigger than our little slice of the pie. The Kingdom of God is much more than our particular sphere of influence. However, it is all too easy for churches, particularly those that are experiencing seasons of meaningful ministry, to begin to believe that the work of the Kingdom revolves around the ministry efforts of their particular church. Pride begins to spring up in our hearts, and we develop a kind of competitive attitude where we measure our successes and achievements against other local churches. But, the fact of the matter is that local churches should not be in competition with each other. We are all on the same team, all striving for the same goal, and local association ministry helps keep this reality at the foreground of our ambitions.
I love the local church; I believe in the ministry of the local church. The local church is the primary avenue of God’s work in the world to bring people to faith in His Son and transform them into His image. But the Kingdom of God is bigger than individual churches; the Great Commission is bigger than individual churches. And denominational organizations from the local association all the way up to the national convention exist to facilitate and support the cooperation of like-minded churches for the cause of Christ. Denominations are not perfect, because they are made up of people that are not perfect. They can be frustrating, ineffective, and even disappointing at times, but when local association ministry is done well, it makes it all worth it.
Phillip Powers is a pastor serving in Northeastern Arkansas. He blogs periodically at phillippowers.wordpress.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhillipPowers.