The pattern of membership in our Baptist denomination is straightforward. Individuals are members of churches. Churches are members of an association, and they affiliate with their state convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Some exceptions exist, but this is the general pattern. One exception occurs when associations are waning in a state convention. In that case, the state convention may embrace the concept of membership rather than affiliation.
The most common exception is that some churches are not members or affiliates of all three dimensions of our denomination. Some churches pick and choose.
Consider that churches and associations are organisms. State conventions and the SBC are organizations.
Thus, the idea of membership in churches and associations and affiliation with state conventions and the SBC makes sense. Churches can choose how to join and affiliate with the different dimensions of the denomination.
Church membership informs and offers some insight into the multiple patterns for joining and affiliating within the denomination.
People may join a church through conversion followed by baptism, a transfer of membership from another church or a statement of faith from a previous church.
A few people become a formal part of a church under watchcare. This means they are members of another church in a different location, but they temporarily live away from that church while in school or for other reasons.
An increasing number of people who profess Christ as Savior and Lord never join the church they attend. Yet they may be very active and hold a leadership role in a program or ministry.
Associations often mirror the membership pattern of churches and the diversity of affiliations with the state conventions and the SBC.
The most common pattern is churches being full members of the association and also affiliating with the state convention and the SBC.
A second category of churches are full members of the association, but are not always affiliated with the state convention and the SBC. An example are churches who are members of other Baptist groups. Some are members of one or more of the four national Baptist denominations.
Both church categories serve on the association board and can send voting members to the association’s annual meeting.
A third category is what I call church network connections. These churches are involved in the fellowship, programs and ministries of the association but are not full members. They cannot serve on the association board or vote in matters before the annual meeting.
Who are these church network connections?
Some are Baptist churches that are no longer aligned with the current doctrinal position of the association but were members for many years.
Others are Baptist churches located outside the fellowship area of the association. They are primarily members of another association, but they become a church network connection with a second association to engage in peer fellowship, learning experiences, missional efforts, church planting and church revitalization and replanting.
These churches are encouraged to maintain their primary associational membership.
Another group is churches that desire to become members of the association. These churches can be accepted initially as a church network connection. This allows the family of churches in association to get to know the churches before a formal vote of membership occurs.
On mission together
A fourth church network group is non-Baptist churches who want to be on mission with a Baptist association. Perhaps there are no other churches of their denomination. They want fellowship with other churches, and they are evangelical in their focus and compatible in many doctrinal areas.
Is this approach to membership in an SBC-affiliated association legitimate? Absolutely. The autonomy of each dimension allows this.
Is it without controversy? No, it is not. It is a Kingdom approach that affirms full membership as the standard. It also accepts others as church network connections.
The standard says every church must be a full SBC church with associational membership and state and national convention affiliation.
Which approach is right for your association? The one which God is leading your association to embrace. Your association gets to choose.