Quick! Without thinking for more than three seconds, tell me the name of the Baptist associational handbook that tells how an association must function — the one right way.
There is not one.
Even if there were one, it would only be a suggestion. Each family of churches in association is autonomous and not restricted to one right way of functioning. Each association, as led by God, can organize however it chooses to serve as a local fellowship of churches on mission serving together.
While I advocate for a positive, proactive approach to associations in the Southern Baptist tradition, even this is a suggestion and open for dialogue.
There are so many types of Baptist associations that it would be difficult to declare which one is correct or best.
I have my favorite. You may also. They may not be the same. That is fine.
What are they?
Here is a sample of the types of associations I have observed over the past six decades:
Franchise Association: These associations see themselves as a channel for the promotion of the programs, emphases and strategies of the overall denomination. Their goal is to get every willing church to participate in the things offered by the state and the national convention. The focus of the associational leadership is to produce loyal participation in denominational efforts. This is an easy pathway that does not require in-depth contextual strategies or innovation by associational leadership.
Pastor Support Association: Providing spiritual, emotional and family support for pastors is certainly an important role for every association. This type of association makes this its primary goal. The thought is that healthy pastors produce healthy churches. Whether that is the result of this focus is unclear. Observation of associations that make this a primary focus for a long period of time is that pastors are happy and their churches are mediocre.
Collaborative Ministry Association: Ministering to social, emotional, physical and spiritual needs of various target groups in the fellowship area of the churches within an association is another type. The focus is on various challenges faced by individuals and households. The most common is food, clothing and other urgent assistance, but the situations addressed can be many. Efforts involve multiple churches with coordination handled by the association.
Church Growth Association: Helping every willing church experience numerical growth is the goal of these associations. This often includes an emphasis on evangelism, church planting and replanting and church revitalization. In the typical association up to three-fourths of the churches have plateaued and are declining. This is an important focus of ministry for every association. Empowering these various areas of church growth is an ongoing, multiple-year journey that is never complete.
Church Empowerment Association: Each church in every association is unique. Each has a special call from God for its ministry. Few churches have clarity about their call from God. Fewer churches align everything they do to live into God’s empowering vision for them. Church empowerment associations make it their primary goal to help each church have an awakening as to how God’s overall mission applies to it. Part of this is churches helping churches soar in the direction of their full Kingdom potential.
Missional Engagement Association: These associations use a missiological approach. They assess the demographics, people groups, growth or decline projections and the churching pattern of their fellowship areas. They develop a multifaceted strategy that will help their families of churches apply the Great Commission in the spirit of the great commandment in their context and beyond. They seek to be part of God’s empowerment of every church to address the lost, unchurched, underchurched and de-churched people in their fellowship areas.
What is yours?
Which one of these is most like your association? Which one represents the call of God for your churches in association with one another? It could be that a hybrid of several of these describes your association.
The goal for your association is to have clarity about God’s mission and vision. Without clarity you may be wandering with spiritual and strategic emptiness. Ask God to clarify His purpose for your association.