Why have an association?

Think about a forest . . .

There is a fungus in the soil that allows trees in a forest to cooperate instead of compete with one another – water, nutrients, even sunlight can be shared by connected trees.

God has given us a means of cooperating instead of competing, helping our churches reach the place where we’re planted for Christ.

It’s called an association – a family of churches.

Metrolina Baptist Association: A Good Idea!



A Message by Dr. Jimmy Draper, President, LifeWay Christian Resources
July 20, 2005

We can learn much of what the association is from its history. The first Baptist associations can be historically documented in England in the 1650’s. These associations were formed by Baptist churches in England to express mutual care. The principle of mutual concern of the churches, by the churches was theological, practical and philosophical. The need for widely scattered congregations to accomplish the mighty work they envisioned with the worldwide responsibility given in the New Testament was the need out of which Associations grew.

It was on April 17, 1704 that the London Association of Baptists was formed. The messengers were from churches with incredible names: Seventh Day Particular Baptist Church and the Little Wild Street Baptist Church. Surely there was something prophetic in a Baptist Church being called “Wild Street.” The talk of Europe that year was the War of the Spanish Succession. The talk of Boston that year was the first newspaper published in the American colonies. But for the sake of the Kingdom of God, the most significant thing was the formation of that first Baptist Association.

There in that little meeting of humble, anonymous Baptists in London rested in seminal form the very idea of Baptists associating, the very beginning of the British Baptist Union, the very idea that led to the Southern Baptist Convention with all of its agencies and vast resources. Those British Baptists who huddled together in the chilly April fog of a London morning had no idea that they were the vanguard of a mighty army to follow, harbingers of the centuries to come of Baptist cooperation all over the world.

Three years later, in the century and the city that would witness the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, the Philadelphia Baptist Association was formed. During the eighteenth-century in America, the Philadelphia Baptist Association was the single most important institution in Baptist denominational life. From 1707, the date of its founding, to 1814, the Philadelphia Baptist Association served essentially as a national convention for Baptists in this country. How many Baptists today have a clue that when they visit Independence Hall, look at the Liberty Bell, eat a Philly cheese steak sandwich or walk up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that they are in the very city that gave birth to all that we are and have been and hope to be as a national body of Baptists?

In those early colonial days at the first dawning light of Baptist life in colonial America, individual Baptist churches had struggled in the isolation of their own individuality. Weak, separated, isolated, fragile, individual and solitary, their witness flickered in the trade winds and crosscurrents of a nation being born. It was only when they associated themselves together that the first tiny trickle of what would one day become the mighty river of Baptist witness emerged from the wellspring of that little association of five churches and 300 members in Philadelphia.

We well should remember the alarming words of the famous philosopher George Santayana written ominously 100 years ago in 1905: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness…when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience.”

Is it too strong to ask, “Will we become Baptist barbarians, forgetting our past so we are condemned to repeat it? Will we be perpetual infants, sanctified savages that exist in our individual churches while forgetting the great battles won in the formation of Baptist associations?” If we take that path, neglecting the basic unity of Baptist life, we will repeat history and wind up fragmented, isolated, independent, self- absorbed local churches that in trying to save their own ecclesial lives will lose them. God help us to remember the associational history that is ours, or we shall once again suffer the weakness of isolation and the powerlessness of unregulated individuality without the sacrificial impulse to associate with one another as churches.

Even trees do better when they are in associations. Until the 1800’s, many northern California coastal valleys were covered with coastal redwood trees similar to those now found in Muir Woods National Monument near San Francisco. The forest along Redwood Creek in today’s Muir Woods was spared from logging because it was hard to get to. Noting that Redwood Creek contained one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s last uncut stands of old-growth redwood, Congressman William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, bought 295 acres here for $45,000 in 1905. To protect the redwoods the Kents donated the land to the United States Federal Government and, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national monument. Roosevelt suggested naming the area after Kent, but Kent wanted it named for conservationist John Muir.

The coastal redwoods in Muir Woods, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, tower in a splendid cathedral of trees that are more than a thousand years old. Each tree is an individual, but a striking physical phenomenon takes place in the Muir Woods. The trees are very tall yet have very shallow roots. They literally hold one another up because their roots are intertwined. When wind or fire or disease threatens one of them, it is held up by its intertwined roots with the others of them. As discrete, individual trees they nevertheless hold each other up.

As we consider the past value and the contemporary importance of Baptist Associations, we might well use that image to ponder the significance of local Baptist Associations now and in the future. Just as individual believers need to intertwine their roots to hold one another up, so also do churches in local associations. In the soon-coming year 2007, we will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Baptist association in North America. That small group of Baptists met in Philadelphia in 1707 to form an association of Baptist churches. These churches were few, small and in need of mutual support. In fact, the record shows that in 1761 there were only 29 churches in the association. The three largest churches were by today’s standards small churches: 134, 110, 104 members respectively. Nineteen of the 6 churches had less than 50 members. It was a gathering of small churches. This suggests the first lesson for us to learn from the history of the Baptist association in America:

  1. WE NEED ONE ANOTHERGone are the days of Colonial America and here are the days of the post-modern wireless world. Yet the dynamic that Baptist churches need one another has not changed in 300 years. Baptists in Philadelphia were surrounded by a world hostile to the Gospel and not friendly to their witness. Have things changed that much? We need one another.Even though thousands of our churches are larger than any of those struggling Colonial churches, many of its are not much larger. It is the essence of our faith that the stronger help the weaker, that the greater help the lesser, that the larger help the smaller. In that sense we need to heed the Lord Who served with a towel in His hand. Our larger churches have an obligation to help sustain the ministry of all of our churches. Our smaller, weaker, poorer churches must join with one another to do together what none of us can do separately.

    From the macrocosm of the universe to the microcosm of the individual body, reality exists in sympathetic associations. Consider the microcosm of the human nervous system. In the last decade it has been more firmly established than ever before that the cells of the nervous system transmit vibrations from one to the other, which explain the transmission of pleasure, pain, impressions of the mind and thought itself. No single nerve cell creates thought or transmits beautiful images. it takes an association of cells vibrating together to transmit thought and meaning.

    At the other extreme, in the macrocosm of the universe, galaxies exist in associations. Most galaxies are not alone in the vast expanse of space, but are connected to one or more other galaxies. Groups can be small, such as two galaxies orbiting each other, or large, like the rich Coma cluster of thousands of galaxies extending for more than ten million light years. These are the largest objects in the known Universe, and they have many properties that make them great astrophysical laboratories. Galaxies exist in association with other galaxies.

    Wherever you look, at the tiny world under the microscope or at the enormous world through the telescope, God prefers to do things in association, not in isolation. The Holy Trinity itself demonstrates that God is an associative God, not a God Who exists in splendid isolation. Why should it then be a surprise to us today that individual, autonomous churches need to exist in associations?

    But those earliest churches needed one another in other ways. In the absence of any seminaries, national or local denomination, in the pristine days of the emergence of our nation, they needed help with everything. The minutes of the Philadelphia Association reveal constant questions about baptismal doctrine, ordination, church disputes and other theological issues. The first Baptist association in America was a clearing-house of information on church polity and doctrine.

    The fellowship of an association is grounded in the unity of faith and practice. Each association may differ from others in particular doctrinal matters that are important to their fellowship and the amount of diversity tolerated on those issues. However, the association is, by its nature, a doctrinally based fellowship.

    So also it is today. There are those who wish to suggest that no level of organized Baptist life should have anything whatsoever to do with what a local Baptist church believes or practices. That is historical nonsense. The earliest Baptist association in America actively advised its churches on the widest range of polity, doctrine and practice. The Doctrine of the Priesthood of the Believer has never in history meant that every local Baptist church with its autonomy could associate with other Baptist churches regardless of its faith of practice. There must be at the local level of Baptist life an organic unity of cooperating churches that in some way sets benchmarks for what it means to be a Baptist. Can any local Baptist church opt out? Of course. But the association of churches can certainly say who opts in.

  2. CALLING OUT CHURCHES AND INDIVIDUALS TO MISSION:Another timeless aspect of the earliest association was an emphasis on “calling out the called.” William Carey, the father of modern missions, preached his influential sermon “Expect Great Things from God. Attempt Great Things for God” to his association’s meeting in Nottingham, England in 1792. The minutes of the Philadelphia association demonstrate a constant lament for a better-organized church and a trained ministry. Churches needed pastors. Pastors needed training. And the association was the bedrock institution that served as the frontline of ministerial call, training and recommendation.This remains the case today. As a matter of operational and spiritual reality, thousands of our churches turn to the association for help with ministry and mission recommendations. Baptists have always had a healthy fear of centralized power and authority. We do not want all power to be in Nashville or the state Baptist convention offices. Particularly are we aware that recommendations for the ministry of local churches seem best to be handled in a local way. For 300 years the local association has been the catalyst in helping local churches and encouraging those who are called to go further in and deeper down in ministry and mission.

    In the latter half of the first century of the Philadelphia association, that entity turned from inward matters to outward matters of religious liberty and ministerial education. As the churches standardized their own internal life, the inevitable role of the association was to help them look out beyond themselves to the emerging world in Colonial America.

    Is it not the case that the local association is that entity which first turns our local churches outward from their own parochial and internal concerns to look at the larger concerns of the world outside? it is the association that keeps us from the narcissistic consumption with our own internal problems and challenges and makes us look outside at the most immediate mission field around our churches. The association has been doing that for 300 years.

    When last I served as pastor in the Tarrant Baptist Association, churches of all types and sizes had worked together for decades to do what we could not do separately. Our inner city mission work, church camp and its program, jail ministry and chaplains’ program and missions coordination to strategize for property and new church sponsorship caused all of us to look beyond the consuming needs of our own local church to the wider vision of what we could all do together.

  3. THE PATTERN FOR DENOMINATIONAL LIFE:In the largest sense, the Philadelphia association became the generative force from which all other levels of Baptist life in America emerged. All of our early societies, state conventions, national conventions, boards, agencies and international bodies emerged from that seminal center of Baptist life. That is to say, the growth of the Baptist life we know today started with the association and moved outward. The local association is the mother of us all in organized Baptist life.As Baptists we are known to be fiercely independent. It is at the associational level that we learn to be fiercely interdependent as well. It is this dialectic of independence and interdependence that is the unique stamp of Baptist polity. And this has been born out of the association.

    Turning from history to today, we must proclaim that the Baptist world needs the local association as never before. The Southern Baptist Convention has three churches that average more than 20,000 in attendance. Yet this is having no impact on the development or proliferation of small churches. Small churches are normative worldwide. In the SBC alone there are 26,500 small churches with 5 million members. Most new churches are small. As Lyle Schaller said, “Denominations that grow start new churches; declining ones don’t.” In fact, new churches feed the growth of megachurches.

    Yes, we are in an era where stellar pastors lead megachurches with high profiles nationally. Yet we must never, ever forget that we are a denomination of small churches. It is the fact that we shall always be a denomination of smaller churches if we thrive. The megachurch is the exception. America is not pastored by the megachurch. In the Review of Religious Research sociologist Roger Finke of Purdue University traces the subtle but dramatic transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention from a group of small, fiercely independent churches to a 15 million-member denomination of large congregations increasingly run by professionally trained clergy.

    During the past 70 years, congregation size has more than tripled to nearly 400 members, Finke said. But at the same time churches have been getting larger, what researchers have found is what early Southern Baptists knew all along: There is strength in small numbers. In small groups, members are more accountable to one another and are able to maintain a high set of religious standards. Supportive social networks, fervent testimonials and a sense of belonging are but a few of the advantages of small religious groups, according to Finke.

    The figures bear out a high level of commitment in small churches. Churches with less than 100 members have the highest rate of Sunday School enrollment, with some 86 percent of congregates in churches with less than 50 members participating; in contrast, less than half the members in midsize churches are enrolled in Sunday school. Finke also said the total contribution by membership size also is higher among small churches, with an average contribution of $374 per member in churches of less than 50 members in 1990. Churches of 200 to 300 members reported an average contribution of $235. Yet what is the unit of Baptist life that creates, nurtures, affirms and launches these new small churches? It is the Baptist association! We will either continue to embrace, enhance, enliven and energize our local associations OR we will die.

    If we think that our future depends on megachurches alone to survive, we will perish in that erroneous assumption. Yes, megachurches will continue to dot the landscape of Baptist life with their taller steeples commanding more attention than their smaller sisters. But America will be reached not with the imposing presence of the superchurch but rather with the association of smaller churches joined together in local Baptist associations to do together what they can never do separately.

    The vibrant growth of our Baptist churches in the South occurred in the days when local Baptist associations were vital and throbbed with the volunteerism that put a Baptist church on the corner of every neighborhood. The decline of our affiliation in local Baptist associations will sound the death knell to our growth as Baptists. We Baptists proclaim as part of our heritage that every church is independent, autonomous and free. What biblical right do we have to believe churches should form associations?

    The word ecclesia occurs 114 times in the New Testament. Most of those times ecclesia refers to individual assemblies of believers. Yet there are times when it obviously refers to a cluster or group of churches existing and acting together in a regional, territorial alliance. Acts 9:31 refers to churches through all Judea, Galilee and Samaria as a unit of churches acting in concert. In Galatians 1:2 and 1 Corinthians 16:1 Paul makes clear that he considers the churches of Galatia to be a unit, associating together. In 2 Corinthians 8:1 Paul refers to the churches of Macedonia in northern Greece as a collection of churches functioning together in an associated way.

    One of my predecessors, James Sullivan, referred to the Baptist way of doing church as a “rope of sand, strength of steel”. At first glance that seems to be a bold oxymoron, a contradiction to the point of the ridiculous. Yet it is not. Sand is a mighty force. The great sand dunes of the Sahara consist of billions of particulates, individual discrete grains of sand. But when the winds blow them in the same direction, they are one of the mightiest forces on the earth. Nothing can stop them.

    In the same regard, our Baptist way of doing church may appear to many to be a rope of sand. But in another way, it has the strength of steel as it is a mighty force of individuals and individual churches, dependent and interdependent, that has built the greatest denomination in American history and the greatest force for world missions in the history of the Christian faith. The local unit beyond the local church of that rope of sand is the Baptist association. May the wind of the Spirit of God blow those grains of sand in the same direction until we are a mighty force taking all before us.

    American evangelicalism has become a zoo filled with the wildest species of idiosyncratic individuality, isolated nomads leading churches going nowhere except their own obsessive and unregulated individuality. The genius of the Baptist association in our history has been to provide a check against the more peculiar, the more outlandish, the more outrageous and the more idiosyncratic of our brethren. Our very system of independent, autonomous churches cries out for an affiliation, a gathering, a subtle but very real defining of norms in the midst of the freedom of Baptist life. If our churches exist only in splendid isolation, we will produce backwaters of doctrinal vagaries, sidetracks of ecclesial purposelessness and dead ends of churchly confusion. We need one another in the local association to balance out our own individuality in churches. The high church needs the low church. The big church needs the small church. The urban church needs the suburban church. All of this happens in associations.

    There remains a great mystery in the life of the church: The church is both divine and human. The church is both eternal and historical. The church is both holy and imperfect. The church is both universal and local. The church is both invisible and visible. The church is both militant and triumphant. The church is both means and goal.

    All of the contrasts above call out for the local Baptist association to rise to its future and destiny. If the church were only divine, there would be no needs to associate. The church is all too human, and as humans we must stand together in close affinity or we will freeze in the chilly winds of the post modern world. The church is indeed holy and imperfect. Because of our individual, local, congregational imperfections, we need the norm of associations that give us a standard of normality in a generation of religious individuality. The church is indeed invisible and visible. The visible church must associate itself with other visible churches in the higher profile of visibility that is the Baptist association. The church in heaven is indeed triumphant, but on earth we are still enlisted in the church militant. Our vast cities await to be conquered by the gospel in their urban sprawl and suburban isolation of individual families behind gated communities that do not know the names of their own neighbors. From the beauty of the Puget Sound Association to the flatland of the prairie associations of the heartland, from the thronging urban congestion of Manhattan to the rural vistas of Montana, from the teeming multi culture of Miami to the homogeneity of a West Texas county seat town…we need the association.

    In our obsession with what is new in world of church growth, let us not forget that all traditions are not bad and all of the past cannot be jettisoned. It is our tradition that builds our communities. The bedrock of that tradition in Baptist life is the local association.