Should We Abandon Local Associations?

Regularly my inbox is filled with questions like this one. Church planters, by necessity, lean on one another for wisdom and insight regarding the practical questions of local church leadership. We trust one another, so we ask questions. This process often results in an ongoing thread where various pastors express their thoughts on the matter in question and interact with one another on points of agreement or disagreement. The blogosphere is filled with helpful posts regarding theology, missiology, and local church leadership. Rather than replicating these posts, we decided it might be fun and edifying to allow the reader to eavesdrop on these conversations. So, for the next few months, we plan to pick a topic and ask a few church planters to engage on the blog. They will interact with the topic at hand, offer their insights, and then, after a few posts, return to one another’s blogs to interact with the content. We hope that this will serve as an example of the value of partnership in refining the decisions local church pastors face.

This month’s question is: Should church planters partner with local, Baptist associations, or should they simply partner with like-minded, affinity based organizations?

Dr. Nathan Finn recently made the argument that Baptist churches have a biblical, theological, and practical rationale for partnership with one-another. With the Baptist denomination, this partnership has often taken the form of geographical associations of churches who unite for shared objectives such as theological education and missions. Today many church leaders are questioning the usefulness and viability of such formal associations - with some leaders jettisoning involvement with local associations in order to form affinity-based networks with churches regardless of geographical proximity.

One thing is clear – local churches will always associate with other churches. The question is how? Has the missional climate of the U.S. culture changed to the degree that local associations are no longer useful? Are these associations simply a relic of a pre-technological age? Should new pastors simply abandon local associations altogether?

Maybe – but not yet.

There is no denying the reality that the next decade of the church’s existence will bring a host of unpredictable changes. The decline and death of many existing church buildings is likely. The loss of cultural status and the marginalization of the remaining churches is all but certain. The handwriting is on the wall for the subsequent loss of tangible benefits, such as the tax exempt status of religious organizations. These changes will have seismic implications for local churches and baptist associations but I’m not convinced that pastors should throw in the towel on local associations just yet for a number of reasons.

First, local associations can provide partners for contextualized missions within a defined geography. Who better to know how to reach a neighborhood, community, or people group within a community then those who live, work, and play within that locale? Local associations can provide an environment where local church pastors unite, discuss the needs of the city, ascertain the gifts of the churches within the city, and develop a common missionary strategy to ensure that all people see and hear the good news of the gospel. This is something that affinity-based networks will struggle to do since they are often serving in distinct, and radically diverse, geographies that make it difficult to “talk shop” on practical matters of missiology.

Second, local associations can create a context for trust among pastors ministering to the same community. People talk, especially in small towns. Members on one local church know members of an adjacent church. At times, people from one church leave to go to another church – often for less that ideal reasons. When the new church shows up in town, people talk. Who are they? What are they about? Why are they planting a church here? Local associations can provide relational glue for pastors to know, trust, and support their fellow pastors in mission and ministry. Pastors can, and should, connect with another pastors if someone pursues membership from a sister church. They can work to ensure that these individuals leave well, reconcile relationships where possible, and do not bring volatile baggage from one church to the next. Pastors can also serve to advocate for new pastors by publicly supporting those seeking to start new churches for the right reasons.

Third, local associations can facilitate relationships that allow diverse pastors to learn from one another. Affinity-based networks, particularly church planting networks, are prone to be radically homogenous. This homogeneity allows for ease of mission and partnership but it can create blind spots due to naivety or foolishness. Local associations can provide a means of multi-generational partnership that can help younger leaders navigate a complex landscape that will not always fit neatly into their predetermined boxes. It can also allow seasoned pastors to rub shoulders with younger pastors and learn from the agility of their missionary and disciple-making practices.

Fourth, local associations can provide an opportunity for new or young pastors to demonstrate humility and respect to those who have served faithfully for decades. To bypass local associations may communicate hubris that will hinder the long-term effectiveness of new pastors in the city. If we neglect the association because it no longer serves to meet our needs then we, perhaps unintentionally, communicate that we have it all figured out and have nothing to learn from those who have invested much in the mission of God in the cities that we love.

Fifth, local associations can provide a role for those gifted in strategy and visionary leadership to develop theologically robust and missiologically savvy to serve a group of churches. The role of pastor-teacher has been elevated to the chief of gifts among many local churches – often relegating those gifted in leadership and strategy to parachurch organizations or international missions. Local associations could allow those men who are gifted strategic vision to create effective missionary strategy for their fellow pastors.

The local association can serve the church in this way. Does it? Will it be able to in the future? I’m not sure. Simply because the association can provide these things does not mean it will be able to in all cases. Like the local church, associations must be able to adapt to cultural changes in order to facilitate these objectives. Antiquated models may render the association impotent from forging these paths. The needs of declining and dying churches may hinder the ability of the association to serve new, or missionally effective, churches. The giftedness of those in leadership may cause associations to focus on pastor-shepherding needs rather than on missional strategy.

But, I’m not ready to give up yet. In fact, I see sub-networks of associations already forming within defined geographies. These networks are often made up of churches who have bypassed traditional associations in favor of affinity-based relationships. These pastors, however, see the need for localized networks and are seeking to reform associations along these lines. Given enough time, these new networks will face the same complexity that many current associations face today. We will all be confronted with the task of discerning how church’s can best work to reach the mission field that God has given us. In one form or another this work will always involve local associations.