Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher



June 2012



Some Thoughts on Associational Revitalization

Written by , Posted in Ministry, Missions, SBC

The May-June issue of the 9 Marks Journal focuses on “apostolic pastors.” If, like me, you want to know what that potentially confusing term means, according to Bobby Jamieson’s editorial,

Here’s what we have in mind: pastors who care deeply about the progress of the gospel beyond their local churches. Pastors who encourage, disciple, and partner with other pastors. Pastors who lead their congregations to link arms with other likeminded local churches for evangelism, church planting, and more. By “apostolic,” we don’t mean someone who is personally commissioned by Jesus to bear witness to the resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). Instead, we mean someone who shares some of the apostles’ priorities and concerns, even though he doesn’t share their office.

Gotcha. Not sure I would have called that “apostolic pastors,” but I’m totally tracking with the 9 Marks guys on the importance of the principle they’re underscoring. The entire issue of the journal is interesting and helpful, and I’d commend it to you.

One article that stood out to me is Matthew Spandler-Davison’s “Don’t Pull the Plug on Your Association Yet.” Upon beginning his current pastoral ministry assignment, the author learned that the local Baptist association in his area was floundering. He tells the story of how he and other pastors worked to revitalize their association so that it became a better resource for cooperating churches. Frankly, I was very encouraged to read about a group of mostly younger pastors who cared enough to not only participate in their association, but took the lead in moving the association in a healthier direction. May their tribe increase.

I confess that I’m a big fan of local associations. For almost as long as their have been Baptist churches, there have been Baptist associations. The associational principle is at the heart of how like-minded, autonomous Baptist churches cooperate together for the sake of the gospel. Even our state and national conventions are, at their core, simply wider applications of associationalism. At one time, associations were “ground zero” for Southern Baptist cooperation, though over the past century they’ve been gradually eclipsed (in most cases) by state conventions and (for some churches) the broader Southern Baptist Convention. There are many factors contributing to this trend, including the Cooperative Program (which largely bypassed associations, at least in larger states), theological apathy and declension (which affected the entire denomination to varying degrees), and advances in transportation and communications (the world is flat and many local churches have become glocal churches).

I’m convinced one crucial ingredient in ongoing gospel renewal and Great Commission advance among Southern Baptists is a renewed commitment to healthy  associationalism. I know of some very healthy, vibrant associations (often led by missions-minded, theologically driven directors of missions). I also know of some that are (to be generous) pretty stagnant. Many are no doubt somewhere in between these two poles. I suspect many readers are also familiar with associations across the spectrum.

It’s my earnest prayer that more pastors, engaged church members, and associational personnel will intentionally partner together to make associations a key resource for cooperating churches by promoting local evangelism and mercy ministries, contextual church planting, church revitalization, gospel-centered fellowship for pastors, and collaborative missions and service opportunities. I praise God as I see this sort of revitalization already occurring in many associations. But many associations still have a long way to go. Pastors, I urge you, don’t disengage from a weak or dysfunctional association until you’ve attempted to become involved and have a voice in the association’s vision and priorities. Perhaps Spandler-Davison’s article can help generate some conversations along those lines.

I also hope those churches located in areas where it would be poor gospel stewardship to partner with an existing association will resist the temptation to “fly solo”  without any meaningful cooperation with sister churches. Churches that come to the conclusion that they can no longer participate in a problematic association must work hard to cultivate new avenues for intentional cooperation with like-minded SBC churches in their area. Since this type of cooperation is, in fact, informal associationalism, perhaps it will lead to some new associations that will embrace a better way.

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