In 1940, the first leg of the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened as a limited-access, interstate-type highway. It predated the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways by 16 years. These early highways had two lanes traveling in each direction, but three lanes soon became the norm.
The three dimensions of the Southern Baptist Convention can be illustrated by reflecting on a three-lane interstate highway. Each dimension heads in the same direction, traveling at varying speeds and in a designated lane.
In which lane would you place associations, state conventions and national entities? That likely depends on your perspective. Since I am an associational advocate, you should not be surprised I place associations in the fastest lane. They can be, at their best, the quickest and most responsive to congregations.
The three lanes allow our denomination to journey together with a harmony of purpose.
None of the three is in charge. Each is equal to the other. They travel in different lanes because they have differing roles and functions.
Deciding who is in the lead is often debated. Each dimension is autonomous and voluntarily chooses to communicate, cooperate and collaborate with one another.
Mutual respect is an essential characteristic each must possess.
The three lanes of our denomination must remember that because of our congregational polity, local congregations are always in the lead.
Each lane should empower congregations to fulfill the Great Commission in the spirit of the Great Commandment.
Many congregations travel in express lanes, characteristic of congested areas around major metropolitan areas. The three lanes of our denomination seem to be lagging the leading-edge congregations in some areas while also changing lanes without signaling (clear communication). Each dimension of SBC life must fulfill the intentions of their designated lane while not requiring all congregations to accept one right way to do things.
When any expression of the denomination travels outside its lane, it creates a vacuum that cannot be appropriately filled by any other expression. The distinctive roles are each valuable enough that they need to focus on their own lane. Otherwise, valuable resources will be lost.
An association should never try to be like a state convention. Doing so will cause it to lose its very nature as an organism characterized by deep relationships among congregations. It will slow down as it slides toward the middle lane.
A national entity is part of what congregations need, but not everything they need. If they swerve toward another lane, they are selective as to who they serve and leave great gaps.
State bodies are often caught in the middle. They desire the agility of an association and the capacity of a national entity. Moving toward an outside lane will cause them to lose their best role as the broker of contextually relevant services to associations and their congregations.
One way to understand the distinction of the lanes is to think about the vehicle each group drives.
Members of associations ride together in a family vehicle as they deepen relationships and collaborate on Kingdom endeavors.
State conventions drive a delivery van to bring the associational family customized products, programs, processes and events in response to their request.
National entities commit themselves to the long-term missional viability of congregations and associations. They do this best through cooperative agreements with state and regional organizations. Their vehicles are race car long haulers that contain the cars and crews essential for missional significance.
How it all comes together
Associations, state conventions and national entities need to understand how each — through communication, cooperation and collaboration with one another — can best help congregations reach their full Kingdom potential. They do this by staying in their lane.
Editor’s Note — George Bullard spent 45 years in denominational ministry. He served on the staff of three associations, was a key staff person working with associations in two state conventions and served on the association missions division staff of the former Home Mission Board of the SBC. He retired in June 2022 as director of Columbia Metro Baptist Association in South Carolina. He has led strategic planning processes in more than 100 associations and has written extensively in this area. Bullard now serves as a strategic thinking mentor for Christian leaders through his ForthTelling Innovation ministry and a correspondent for The Baptist Paper. To request permission to republish this article, email email@example.com.