Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Let's Associate

I watched a video interview with Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, in which the interviewer asked him about churches that are getting away from denominational distinctions. But Mike mentioned that he had noticed that many of these churches are forming “networks or associations of churches” that replace the denomination. I find this a particularly interesting statement because many of the churches that have chosen to remove the denominational marking off their church sign are Baptist or were at one time, but Baptists have been functioning under an associational structure for centuries. The church I’m a member of is a member of three associations, the Baptist Missionary Association (BMA) of America, the BMA of Texas, and the Tarrant County BMA. The largest Baptist association is the Southern Baptist Convention. Even many of the churches that call themselves Independent Baptists are associated in some way, though my understanding is that in that case it is generally the pastor who is a member of the association, rather than the church.

I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a case where we’ve had some of these associations for so long that the collective understanding of what an association is and why it exists has been lost to some people. So they go off, try to divorce themselves from “the denomination” then start a new association that is essentially the same thing as what they had before.

Baptists generally believe that each church is independent, but we choose to associate with other churches. Though for convenience, we often talk about the Baptist denomination, there really is no such thing. Some people talk about the Southern Baptist denomination, but here again, such a thing doesn’t exist. If a Baptist church can be a member of any number of associations. There are some churches that are simultaneously members of the BMA and the SBC. Neither of these associations has any authority to tell the church what to do. Without that authority, it is not a denomination.

One of the major reasons why Baptists choose to associate is that no one church is capable of carrying out the Great Commission alone. The smallest possible association is of two churches. Imagine if one church has a man who believes God is calling him to be a missionary in Africa, but the church doesn’t have the money to send him. A church down the road has enough money to send someone to Africa, but no one who feels called. Working together, these two churches are able to send a missionary to Africa. Scale that up to a few hundred or a few thousand churches and you begin to see the power of associated work.

And it isn’t just about missions. Associations also help to provide a sense of doctrinal identity. When a person moves to a new city, he can look for a church that is a member of the same association he left and he will find that they teach very similar doctrine. They may even use the same Sunday school literature.
Local associations tend to be small. Some have less than ten churches in them. Some may have more than twenty. Unless the churches are large, associations of this size may not have the means to support a missionary. These associations are more about fellowship and strengthening the ministry of the church. Many churches are small, with less than fifty members. They may have a few youth, but hardly enough to have a youth program. In associations made up of churches like this, we sometimes see the association sharing the effort of providing a youth program. Each church may have two or three youth, but the association may have fifty kids in the youth group. Another thing I’ve seen local associations do is to put on a joint Christmas or Easter program. Each church alone may not have enough people to put on a program, but together they may have a large choir.

As churches get larger, their needs change, but let’s not allow ourselves to get the idea that our churches are members of an association just because that’s the way it has always been. Let’s look for ways that these associations provide greater benefit for the churches than they would have working alone.