GCRTF Report Challenges to all Southern Baptists (4): Challenges for Local Associations and State Conventions
By Danny Akin and Nathan A. Finn
From almost the very beginning of our movement, likeminded autonomous Baptist churches voluntarily cooperated through local associations in evangelism, church planting, mercy ministries, and doctrinal accountability. In part because of their aversion to the societal method of cooperation, by the 1820s the Baptists of the South were further cooperating through state conventions. In 1845, they applied this convention method across the entire South when they created the Southern Baptist Convention. Each of these networks was autonomous, but they partnered together through various collaborative ministry arrangements and (since 1925) the Cooperative Program to proclaim the gospel in every part of America.
To this day, most Southern Baptist churches are simultaneously involved in a local association, a state Baptist convention, and the SBC. Though we work for a national ministry, we believe that associations and state conventions are key Great Commission partners that are especially important to a GCR because they are “closer” to most of our churches than any of our national ministries. If we are going to more effectively push back the lostness, then associations, state conventions, and the SBC are going to have to renew their commitment to work together for the sake of the Great Commission and come up with creative ways to advance the gospel to those places with the least access to the good news.
The GCR Task Force has offered a number of challenges to local associations and state conventions in the hope of encouraging a renewed commitment to Great Commission priorities and cooperation. For local associations, the GCRTF recommends the following:
- Enthusiastically embrace the missional vision and core values of the SBC allowing them to guide your work and set your priorities.
- Adopt the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as your confessional basis of association and adopt some shared core values and priorities that characterize the cooperating churches of your association.
There are still some associations that are theologically out-of-step with the doctrine and priorities of the wider Southern Baptist Convention. While the strategies and emphases of each association is necessary contextually, if we are to work together more effectively we must share a common theology and a common commitment to revitalizing and planting healthy, reproducing Baptist churches everywhere. The above challenges represent an important step in that direction.
- Organize quarterly associational prayer meetings for the conversion of the lost and the planting of sound churches in the underserved and unreached areas of North America and around the globe.
- Work with state conventions and the SBC to set aside January of every year as a month of prayer for the conversion of unreached people groups around the globe.
Eight years before William Carey and Andrew Fuller formed the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792, they issued a “Prayer Call” to the Northamptonshire Association. Once a month the association gathered together to pray for the conversion of the heathen, and many of the prayer warriors were convinced these “concerts of prayer” played a key role in birthing the modern missions movement in the English-speaking world. We believe a similar prayer movement could play a key role in bringing about a similar missions movement, and associations (and state conventions) have the opportunity to be catalysts in bringing this about.
- Plan at least one annual foreign mission trip and one annual North American mission trip and encourage all the churches in the association to participate, especially smaller churches.
Many smaller churches lack the resources to regularly engage in short-term mission trips, but many associations plan annual trips and encourage their member churches to participate. The GCRTF calls upon all associations to engage in this vital ministry as a way to mobilize all their churches for the sake of the Great Commission.
- Develop associational collections of evangelism and discipleship resources and regularly inform the churches about the availability of such resources.
Many associations maintain a resource library that they make available to the churches. This is a helpful ministry. It would be an even more effective ministry if associations purchased the best resources for their libraries (including books and curricula not tied to a denominational program or initiative) and regularly made churches aware of the material available to them.
- Work with cooperating churches to plant at least one new church a year in an underserved area within or near to the association.
- Work with cooperating churches to plan at least one mercy ministry focused outreach event every year.
Evangelism, church planting, and mercy ministry are part of the original DNA of associations. Unfortunately, for almost a century many associations have majored on denominational promotion while putting less emphasis on gospel-centered ministries. Healthy associations will assist member churches in planting new churches, evangelizing their region, and finding ways to redemptively meet the physical needs of others.
For state conventions, the GCRTF recommends the following:
- Embrace with enthusiasm the missional vision and core values of the SBC allowing them to guide your work and set your priorities.
- Adopt the Baptist Faith & Message  as a confessional basis for cooperation and adopt shared core values and priorities that characterize cooperating churches.
The same principle applies to state conventions as associations: the more we agree in theology and priorities, the better we can cooperate for the sake of the Great Commission.
- Make church planting a priority and develop church planting partnerships with North American urban centers and underserved regions outside of the Southeast and Southwest.
A growing number of state conventions have prioritized church planting in recent years. We rejoice in this. But most of this church planting has taken place in the regions where Southern Baptists are the strongest. While we need to plant new churches in the South and Southwest (especially among minority people groups and in urban centers), it is those in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, West Coast, and Upper Midwest who have the least access to healthy gospel churches. This is especially true of the major cities. The older, larger state conventions must partner with newer, smaller state conventions and NAMB to plant more churches in those places that have the greatest need. We would suggest that for every one church planted in a Deep South or Southwest state, ten churches should be planted outside the South. That is a bold goal but one we should pursue with passion and intentionality.
- Determine to return to the historic ideal of a 50/50 Cooperative Program distribution between the state convention and the SBC.
The GCR is all about getting more financial resources to the nations. The initial GCR Declaration argued that Southern Baptists get excited about three things in particular: international missions, church planting and theological education. Moving toward this historic goal will allow us to do all three of these vital ministries better. For those of us who serve Southern Baptists in the seminaries, it means we can continue to offer the best theological education as the lowest possible tuition rates with a missional strategy in mind: students graduating DEBT FREE and therefore enabled to go immediately anywhere in the world on assignment for King Jesus!
- Hold state convention colleges and universities accountable to Baptist convictions and an authentic Christian worldview education. Baptist colleges and universities must inculcate a Great Commission mindset in their students and deploy them worldwide in short-term missionary service.
There are still many state colleges and universities that receive Cooperative Program funds but do not represent the convictions and priorities of most Baptists in their respective states. Every Baptist school should be moving toward a greater commitment to orthodox theology, a Christian worldview, and a Great Commission mindset. Those schools that choose to chart their own course rather than represent their constituencies should be changed through appropriate measures or have their CP support terminated and reinvested in other biblically faithful ministries.
- Eliminate programs that do not directly assist local churches in fulfilling their biblical mandate to make disciples of all people.
Every state convention should examine its various programs and assess the degree to which those programs are equipping churches to fulfill the Great Commission. It is entirely possible that every state convention has at least some ministries that are good, but are not focused upon the most important priorities. If state conventions are willing to make some hard decisions about outdated or unnecessary ministries, then churches will almost certainly become increasingly supportive of the work of their respective state conventions.
- Work with local associations and local churches to plan regional evangelism and discipleship training events on at least a semiannual basis.
More state convention resources need to be used in partnering with local churches and local associations in planning regional evangelism and discipleship ministries. These ministries should be orthodox, practical, and contextual, meeting the churches “where they are.” While traditional preaching-oriented evangelism conferences are helpful in many ways, we believe churches would also benefit from more localized conferences that focus on equipping. Every church is different, and state conventions (and associations) must get creative and help churches move beyond a merely programmatic approach to evangelism and discipleship and help them embrace a more missional, organic approach to reaching the lost and discipling the saved.
- Encourage state convention children’s homes to consider deep investment in Great Commission adoption/foster ministries that connect children with Baptist families within the state.
There has been a growing emphasis on adoption and orphan care in recent years, much of which has been born out of a renewed commitment to the clear articulation and practical application of the gospel. Many Southern Baptists have become leaders in this movement. One of the most significant mercy ministries in many of our state conventions are children’s homes. Though it will necessarily vary from state to state, it would be a tremendous Great Commission ministry if children’s homes make it a priority to connect orphans and foster children with Baptist families who are burdened to adopt and/or embrace foster care. We are excited as we think about the ways the Lord could use this ministry!
- Recognize the powerful witness of Disaster Relief programs as Southern Baptist have touched millions of lives in the aftermath of disaster and in a moment of acute need.
- Develop and celebrate mercy ministries which can be used as avenues for churches serve others and open doors for evangelism.
Disaster Relief, which is coordinated through state conventions in cooperation with the NAMB, is one of the most recognized ministries among Southern Baptists. It is perhaps the most visible way that Southern Baptists serve as the hands and feet of Christ to those in need. Disaster Relief should continue to be a central ministry among state conventions and, when possible, further expanded. Other mercy ministries, which will vary from state to state, should also be championed as we try to love our neighbors by both living the gospel and preaching the gospel. We repudiate the unbiblical division between evangelism and social justice, and hope that state conventions will take the lead in helping our churches embrace both of these gospel priorities for the sake of the common good and for the furthering of the gospel among all men.