The third week of May on the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual calendar is designated as the Baptist Association Emphasis. Baptist associations in America have been around for more than 300 years, historically predating the SBC and state conventions.
The relationship between the churches in Antioch and Jerusalem is, at a minimum, an example of an informal association. Paul instructs the Colossians his letter is to be “also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16). That suggests a fraternal relationship much akin to an association.
Baptists in 17th century Europe provide examples of formal, organized associations, that gave rise to important doctrinal statements like the First London Confession, a precursor of the Baptist Faith and Message. The Modern Missions Movement, whose founding is often credited to a Calvinist named William Carey, was born from Carey and other Baptist ministers who met together in the context of a local association.
Over the past few centuries, local Baptist associations have been an irreplaceable vehicle for church planting, doctrinal preservation, cultural influence, and overall gospel advance. Does the same remain true today? I believe that it can. In fact, in the SBC, I would go so far as to suggest that the era in Church history most needful of the local association is that which lies before us rather than behind us. I offer two reasons for my suggestion.
First, the ease of global travel and communications presents every church with the opportunity for direct involvement in an Acts 1:8 missions strategy. Heretofore, mission work far beyond the borders of one’s state and certainly one’s nation was necessarily left to the work of the North American and International mission boards. While our mission boards remain unquestionably necessary and incredibly strategic, churches feel an appropriate obligation to give and go. Yet, given the average size of Southern Baptist congregations being under 100 and the dwindling financial resources in most of our churches, partnering together through the local association creates the best opportunity for every church of every size to give and go. Whether planting another local church in the community or evangelizing an unreached people group overseas, associations can have a strategic Kingdom role.
Second, our society’s growing isolation of evangelical churches means our churches need one another now more than ever. Attempts to preserve policies guarding religious freedom, whether on the local, state, or federal level, are undertaken most effectively by a well-organized and solidly unified constituency. The local association can have a key role.
Let’s use May 18-24 to celebrate all God has done, is doing, and plans to do through the churches of our Lord as they partner together at the associational level.