Throughout the vast majority of my pastoral ministry, if I were to think about SBC life, I would first think about the local church and then the national entities. I’d think about the Annual Meeting, the notable pastors, the entity heads, denominational strategies, the Cooperative Program, Lottie, Annie, and all of this work that we do together. I’d consider the state conventions too, especially my own, and then I’d think about my local association, primarily quarterly when we’d have our executive meeting, which was always over lunch. I participated, but I didn’t put a huge amount of effort into it. When I thought about the SBC I thought small (local church) and big (national entity) and not too much in between.
State Conventions have gotten a lot of attention over the past decade since the Great Commission Resurgence called for more Cooperative Program money to go the national entities like the IMB, NAMB, and our seminaries to train future pastors and leaders. So, many state conventions down-sized. That is good and I supported that, but I also support state conventions and think that they often do great work. I think there should be a middle ground there. Through Disaster Relief, church planting, children’s homes, colleges, and all kinds of other ministries, our state conventions play a prominent role in SBC life.
With 5 entity head positions open and SBC President JD Greear rightly calling for a day of prayer and fasting on Monday, October 8th for these search committees, we are also right to be paying attention to what is happening at top level leadership in the SBC. It is really important and I don’t want to take anything away from that.
But, with all that said and with a need before us of church planting, church revitalization, church health, discipleship, evangelism, local missions strategy, cooperation, and so much more that the local church cannot do by itself, have we missed the greatest tool before us that Baptists have devised to accomplish these things? Historically, before we ever had national entities or state conventions, we had local Baptist associations. Beyond the local church itself, the association is the fundamental organizational grouping of cooperative Baptist life. Yet, we often neglect it.
Do you ever hear a young minister aspiring to be a Director of Missions? Perhaps, but often not. If you step back from it, it seems like it would be an incredible job – to direct missional effectiveness for a network of churches across a region. The Montgomery (AL) Baptist Association where I live and serve has an incredible DOM in Neal Hughes. He is a former Montgomery pastor and NAMB VP who came back to Montgomery to lead our association in planting churches, reaching the lost, being healthy, making disciples, and addressing areas of great need and division in our city with a gospel witness. He is doing a great job and lives and works as a local missionary every day. If every association had a Neal Hughes as DOM, the SBC would be in a very different position, I think. (As a disclaimer, I’m on staff with Neal as a Missional Strategist for the MBA, so he’s my boss, but I’d say this even if he wasn’t.)
The truth is, though, I’ve met quite a few DOMs who share Neal’s heart for evangelism, church planting, church health, church revitalization, and global missions. I’ve met DOMs across the South who are really laying their lives down to do great Kingdom work. But, I’ve also met a lot of pastors who tell me that their association is basically not functioning. I’ve met DOMs who are past what we would consider retirement age, and while their hearts are good and their love for the Lord is genuine, their energy is declining. They need help, encouragement, and support. They can’t do all that is required by themselves and they need people to hold up their arms. And, unfortunately, there are other associations where there is division, lack of vision, and no energy at all. It becomes a monthly minister’s lunch with whoever shows up. That is a shame.
What if we refocused our energy, effort, resources, and some of our most gifted leaders on local association leadership? The Bible Belt is rapidly dissipating and the South has become a mission field. Did you know that the South grew by 21 million people between 2000 and 2015? At the same time, between 2000 and 2017, Southern Baptists have lost 1 million people. We are going backwards while our primary region is exploding in growth. The South is by far the largest region of the country and would encompass the 12th largest nation in the world and the world’s 3rd largest economy by itself. And, immigrants from all over the world have flocked to the South over the past two decades.
Almost half of all first generation immigrant growth in the United States the past 2 decades occurred in the US South, where we have the vast majority of SBC churches. While there has been significant reaction against that politically and culturally, have we considered that God might sovereignly be at work here? In Montgomery, for example, the IMB visited us a few years back and told us that we had an Unreached, Unengaged People Group (UUPG) living in Central Alabama – the Mixtec People from Southern Mexico. They came to us by the thousands over the past 20-30 years. The Montgomery Baptist Association adopted that people group missionally (I have been closely involved in this work over the past 4 years) and we have now planted a Mixtec church in our city with a pastor, baptisms, new believers, and disciples being made. The IMB no longer calls the Mixtec “unengaged,” in part, because of the work our local association is doing.
In the midst of this incredible era of opportunity, how much more could local associations LEAD out in church planting, missional strategy, engaging immigrant and refugee people groups with the gospel, love, and good deeds, and in church revitalization? While I’m happy for the work our national entities and state conventions do, it is sometimes easy to fly at the 30,000 foot level. But, we already have local associations all over the country who are doing great work on the ground and could be doing so much more if they had the resources and focus that some of our other levels of cooperation have had. And, we have many associations that desperately need to be revived and refocused.
Could it be that associational cooperation on the local level is the missing emphasis that could help revitalize older churches, reach the lost (including immigrant groups), develop new leadership, be the ground floor for racial reconciliation, plant new churches, and be a spring board to reach the nations in North America and around the world? There is always competition for dollars and when you have state conventions and national entities constantly needing funds, I know it is hard to stretch offerings. But, what if we saw a strong association as the FIRST thing that our local church focused on instead of what is often an afterthought?
At the MBA we always talk about “doing more with less.” There is no area of SBC life that I’ve seen a dollar go further than in the incredible work of the Montgomery Baptist Association. I know that this is the case elsewhere as well. As both a pastor for many years and now a staff member at our association, I’ve seen it from both sides. And, while I know that associations across the SBC are not all that they should be, what if they were strengthened and became local missions agencies with the purpose of helping the local church reach their region for Christ?
What are some of your ideas? I’d love to see the mission work and church strengthening of the local association grow into one of the strongest aspects of SBC life. How much healthier would we be if this focus was strengthened? How much more leadership could be developed? How could we better reach areas that still have strong churches but are quickly seeing the overall churched population dwindle?
I think there is a lot of good work being done here and a lot of potential for even more. I’ve talked with others about this who agree. I’d love to see a renewal of strong associational life in the SBC that helps bring local churches together to reach their region and grow stronger together. It can be done. What is stopping us?