The Missing Emphasis in SBC Life: Local Associations

Throughout the vast majority of my pastoral ministry, if I were to think about SBC life, I would first think about the local church and then the national entities. I’d think about the Annual Meeting, the notable pastors, the entity heads, denominational strategies, the Cooperative Program, Lottie, Annie, and all of this work that we do together. I’d consider the state conventions too, especially my own, and then I’d think about my local association, primarily quarterly when we’d have our executive meeting, which was always over lunch. I participated, but I didn’t put a huge amount of effort into it. When I thought about the SBC I thought small (local church) and big (national entity) and not too much in between.

State Conventions have gotten a lot of attention over the past decade since the Great Commission Resurgence called for more Cooperative Program money to go the national entities like the IMB, NAMB, and our seminaries to train future pastors and leaders. So, many state conventions down-sized. That is good and I supported that, but I also support state conventions and think that they often do great work. I think there should be a middle ground there. Through Disaster Relief, church planting, children’s homes, colleges, and all kinds of other ministries, our state conventions play a prominent role in SBC life.

With 5 entity head positions open and SBC President JD Greear rightly calling for a day of prayer and fasting on Monday, October 8th for these search committees, we are also right to be paying attention to what is happening at top level leadership in the SBC. It is really important and I don’t want to take anything away from that.

But, with all that said and with a need before us of church planting, church revitalization, church health, discipleship, evangelism, local missions strategy, cooperation, and so much more that the local church cannot do by itself, have we missed the greatest tool before us that Baptists have devised to accomplish these things? Historically, before we ever had national entities or state conventions, we had local Baptist associations. Beyond the local church itself, the association is the fundamental organizational grouping of cooperative Baptist life. Yet, we often neglect it.

Do you ever hear a young minister aspiring to be a Director of Missions? Perhaps, but often not. If you step back from it, it seems like it would be an incredible job – to direct missional effectiveness for a network of churches across a region. The Montgomery (AL) Baptist Association where I live and serve has an incredible DOM in Neal Hughes. He is a former Montgomery pastor and NAMB VP who came back to Montgomery to lead our association in planting churches, reaching the lost, being healthy, making disciples, and addressing areas of great need and division in our city with a gospel witness. He is doing a great job and lives and works as a local missionary every day. If every association had a Neal Hughes as DOM, the SBC would be in a very different position, I think. (As a disclaimer, I’m on staff with Neal as a Missional Strategist for the MBA, so he’s my boss, but I’d say this even if he wasn’t.)

The truth is, though, I’ve met quite a few DOMs who share Neal’s heart for evangelism, church planting, church health, church revitalization, and global missions. I’ve met DOMs across the South who are really laying their lives down to do great Kingdom work. But, I’ve also met a lot of pastors who tell me that their association is basically not functioning. I’ve met DOMs who are past what we would consider retirement age, and while their hearts are good and their love for the Lord is genuine, their energy is declining. They need help, encouragement, and support. They can’t do all that is required by themselves and they need people to hold up their arms. And, unfortunately, there are other associations where there is division, lack of vision, and no energy at all. It becomes a monthly minister’s lunch with whoever shows up. That is a shame.

What if we refocused our energy, effort, resources, and some of our most gifted leaders on local association leadership? The Bible Belt is rapidly dissipating and the South has become a mission field. Did you know that the South grew by 21 million people between 2000 and 2015? At the same time, between 2000 and 2017, Southern Baptists have lost 1 million people. We are going backwards while our primary region is exploding in growth. The South is by far the largest region of the country and would encompass the 12th largest nation in the world and the world’s 3rd largest economy by itself. And, immigrants from all over the world have flocked to the South over the past two decades.

Almost half of all first generation immigrant growth in the United States the past 2 decades occurred in the US South, where we have the vast majority of SBC churches. While there has been significant reaction against that politically and culturally, have we considered that God might sovereignly be at work here? In Montgomery, for example, the IMB visited us a few years back and told us that we had an Unreached, Unengaged People Group (UUPG) living in Central Alabama – the Mixtec People from Southern Mexico. They came to us by the thousands over the past 20-30 years. The Montgomery Baptist Association adopted that people group missionally (I have been closely involved in this work over the past 4 years) and we have now planted a Mixtec church in our city with a pastor, baptisms, new believers, and disciples being made. The IMB no longer calls the Mixtec “unengaged,” in part, because of the work our local association is doing.

In the midst of this incredible era of opportunity, how much more could local associations LEAD out in church planting, missional strategy, engaging immigrant and refugee people groups with the gospel, love, and good deeds, and in church revitalization? While I’m happy for the work our national entities and state conventions do, it is sometimes easy to fly at the 30,000 foot level. But, we already have local associations all over the country who are doing great work on the ground and could be doing so much more if they had the resources and focus that some of our other levels of cooperation have had. And, we have many associations that desperately need to be revived and refocused.

Could it be that associational cooperation on the local level is the missing emphasis that could help revitalize older churches, reach the lost (including immigrant groups), develop new leadership, be the ground floor for racial reconciliation, plant new churches, and be a spring board to reach the nations in North America and around the world? There is always competition for dollars and when you have state conventions and national entities constantly needing funds, I know it is hard to stretch offerings. But, what if we saw a strong association as the FIRST thing that our local church focused on instead of what is often an afterthought?

At the MBA we always talk about “doing more with less.” There is no area of SBC life that I’ve seen a dollar go further than in the incredible work of the Montgomery Baptist Association. I know that this is the case elsewhere as well. As both a pastor for many years and now a staff member at our association, I’ve seen it from both sides. And, while I know that associations across the SBC are not all that they should be, what if they were strengthened and became local missions agencies with the purpose of helping the local church reach their region for Christ?

What are some of your ideas? I’d love to see the mission work and church strengthening of the local association grow into one of the strongest aspects of SBC life. How much healthier would we be if this focus was strengthened? How much more leadership could be developed? How could we better reach areas that still have strong churches but are quickly seeing the overall churched population dwindle?

I think there is a lot of good work being done here and a lot of potential for even more. I’ve talked with others about this who agree. I’d love to see a renewal of strong associational life in the SBC that helps bring local churches together to reach their region and grow stronger together. It can be done. What is stopping us?

 

Evangelism or Compassion?

I’m excited about the recent upswing in public words of affirmation for local baptist associations. I love hearing about the good things happening all around our convention related to the very important (I’d even say pivotal) role that the association can play in permeating the larger local area with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My heart aches for my pastor friends serving areas in which the association does not have the support and strength it could (and should) have. Let me just remind you, pastors, YOU have the power to make the association be what it can be.

The New Orleans Baptist Association of Churches (NOBA) is at the forefront of what I think is groundbreaking work. We have specialized ministry sites, a blessing of a fantastic office complex, a great relationship with the city, and have pastors of all sizes of churches attending meetings and serving in leadership roles. We have also launched medical clinics that are serving under-served areas of New Orleans in a way no one else is doing. We function with a small but gifted staff and do what we do well – with good stewardship. We do not all always agree on things but we disagree with love and patience, without accusations and suspicion knowing that hearts can be right while particulars can be debated.

The men that lead us, lead us well. Jack, Leroy and Alex serve with humility and devotion. I am thankful for them. I am particularly thankful for a great article that Alex penned and posted today. I asked him if I could post it here for you. You can find that original posting here. I’d like to encourage you to go take a look at our NOBA site and peruse the work going on in the metro area of New Orleans. Have a said how much I love serving here? 😉

 

To Such as These: Evangelism or Compassion?
by Alex Brian

How many times, as Southern Baptists, have we heard compassion ministries pitted against evangelism—as though the two are separate, as though the two are contradictory?

One of my favorite things about Jesus is the way he answers the questions people ask him—or rather, he doesn’t. He answers the question which should have been asked; he responds to people’s motivations. We see it again and again throughout Scripture:

“Who is my neighbor?” You’ve kept the law, but you don’t have love, so you have nothing. You’re rich, but you’re destitute.

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” God’s salvation won’t save you from trouble in this world, but it is good.

“Should we worship in the high places or in Jerusalem?” You’re worried that you are too sinful to ascend to heaven, but I have come down to you.

Christ still responds to us in this way. We ask, “Lord, in our interactions with the world, should we focus on evangelism; or compassion and justice?” The reason so many brothers and sisters in Christ can debate this question and never arrive at a clear answer from the Lord is because the Lord is not answering this question. He never will, because he will respond to the question we should have asked, and he will respond to our motivations.

One of my favorite examples of Jesus answering the question that should have been asked is in Joshua, when he asks the angel of the Lord, “Are you for us or our enemies?” and he responds, “No, but I am the commander of the Lord’s army.” Then the angel reveals the world’s worst-ever battle plan to conquer Jericho, which was an impossible task even with the best strategies and methods. You see, the question they should have asked is, “Lord, how will you establish your kingdom here?”

When we ask the Lord whether we should invest our church resources and time in evangelism or in compassion ministries, he answers, “No, but I will establish my kingdom with the least of these.” Then he lays out the world’s worst-ever church growth strategy: go to those who have no money, no influence, and no societal standing; shout God’s praises, watch the walls fall, and keep none of the spoils.

My point is this: compassion and evangelism are necessarily tied. We are quick to remind those who seek to meet physical needs that every person’s greatest need is his or her need for Christ, and this is true; it’s just not a reason to fail in compassion. As a denomination, we are less ready to remind all those who seek to evangelize that evangelism without compassion is hypocrisy. It’s saying “be warm and well fed” without giving a coat or a meal. It’s praying for the Samaritan as we pass by him on our way to temple.

Jesus’ answer to us is that we must have both, that we can’t separate evangelism and compassion—in our churches or in our individual lives.

This article is rooted in central city; it sprung from a recent nola.com article and documentary following a football coach who has seen 28 of his former players killed in the neighborhood. Ask yourself, what does the life and death of Jesus Christ mean for that neighborhood today? How should the people of God in this place respond to such violence? We should bring the gospel, and peace with it. Attempting to do either without the other is vanity.

Your context may be similar, or it may be vastly different—our association ranges from churches meeting in the projects to those nestled in affluent bedroom communities—but everyone has need, first of Jesus, but also of other things, be they material or relational. (Some of the wealthiest communities in our nation fester with a violent loneliness.) Part of the work of ministry is to find the needs where you are and systematically, wisely, sustainably, begin to meet those needs alongside a compassionate, bold, direct sharing of the gospel; both. Shout God’s praises, watch the walls fall, and keep none of the spoils.

Signs of a Healthy Church? Lessons from Multiplying Churches in Asia (Don Dent)

In the summer of 2018, I joined five other Southern Baptist theological educators visiting IMB work in a specific segment of Asia. For 9 days we studied and assessed networks of reproducing churches organized in networks – 20,000 new churches in 8 years. One motivation for this assessment was to see whether such movements are producing healthy churches. Frankly, many critics in America simply do not believe healthy churches can develop so quickly. Here are vignettes I witnessed that raise the question of what really is a healthy church.

1. These churches multiply, i.e. churches plant churches that plant churches. Instead of seeing that as a problem, we should recognize this as a significant sign of spiritual vitality. In this one segment of Asia, local partners of our missionaries have started 180 streams with at least 4 generations – church starts church starts church starts church! Missionaries and their partners have assessed 20,000 new churches. Really, some say we should slow this down?

2. Evangelism is normative among these churches and a large portion of the believers are actively sharing their faith. New believers are trained to share with 20 oikos members in the first few months. Church growth and multiplication are driven by massive gospel sharing that produces fruit in a generally hostile environment.

3. There is accountability to share the gospel. I saw one church service where each adult was asked how many times they would share that week. The answers were written down and next week they will share testimonies of their efforts. How many American church members would miss church next week?

4. Almost all additions to local churches are through adult baptism following conversion from another religion. For instance, one whole network of new churches did not have a single member transfer in from another church and this is not untypical. How many adults has your church baptized in the last 2 years?

5. New churches result primarily from evangelism and baptisms instead of planning, money raising, and grand openings. In a three-year study period, one network of churches saw an average of 17 baptisms in the first year of each new church. When we remember that these churches started from the witness of approximately 2 people, then that is an astounding percentage growth. Does that seem unhealthy?

6. I met several teenagers who have already started one or more churches. They heard the gospel and believed and immediately started sharing the gospel with dozens of friends and relatives and churches resulted. So, how would your church do if we counted the number of youth who have started a church before they graduate from high school?

7. Local church leadership is almost always chosen from within the group on the basis of who is faithful in sharing their faith and training the new believers in discipleship. Unlike our Western practice, church leadership in those churches is functional before it is positional. Which sounds closer to the New Testament?

8. Intensive mentoring is a primary means of raising up quality leaders. For instance, missionaries choose faithful men and then spend 60-90 days a year mentoring them life-on-life. How many US church leaders invest that kind of time in equipping people?

9. These churches show a deep commitment to mission partnership. For instance, although the average income for many families is below $1000 per year, one network of churches gives 30% of their offerings to mission work outside their local church. How does that stack up against our SBC churches giving out of our wealth?

10. Although gospel proclamation is the priority in ministry, the believers also pray for the sick and demonized. Most networks can report several miracles that brought more attention to the gospel. Why does this make most Westerners nervous?

11. A commitment to on-the-job practical training is essential to growth. Every believer is trained to share their faith and follow-up new believers. In 2013 missionaries provided training to 1000 emerging pastors, but by 2017 they and their partners had trained 20,000+. How are we doing in equipping emerging leaders?

12. Several networks that are approximately 5 years old have planted churches in several other countries. Although they are working hard to reach their ‘Jerusalems,’ they are not waiting to go to Samaria and beyond.

13. In many networks, a majority of the leadership is between the ages of 22-40. They show both maturity and energy in their service. Truthfully, wouldn’t we like to see that pattern in our church?

14. False teachers are trying to infiltrate the church, but leaders are equipped to counter them. When God is working powerfully, then Satan will try to copy and deceive. Instead of proof of a problem, this is actually a sign of health. Groups of pastors practice interpreting Scripture, developing sermons, and writing doctrinal statements from Scripture under the watchful eyes of mature mentors.

15. This growth is taking place in a climate of persecution, where it is illegal to become a Christian. Believers can be beaten, thrown out of the village, and jailed. Yet, we heard multiple testimonies of people who heard the gospel for the first time and asked to be baptized immediately. A policeman broke into a house church meeting and told the believers to stop meeting or he would see they were punished. A grandmother stood and walked up to the officer and said, “Kill me first. We will not turn back and will continue to worship Jesus. If this is wrong, then kill me first.” The policeman has been defending the church since that day. What are we afraid of?

 

Don Dent has served as an IMB missionary and now works at Gateway Seminary. 

Understanding Diversity and Its Denominational Implications: Unmasking Marginalization as Southern Baptists (Vinh T. Nguyen)

Many memories have been etched into my mind in both the years I’ve spent as a minister and an academic, but one memory stands out in particular. I had just finished my third semester as a bible student at Ouachita Baptist University and was visiting the church I grew up in where my father-in-law was serving as the student pastor. The youth group looked different in at least two different ways. First, it was quite a bit larger than it was when I was a teenager growing up. Second, the room now had just as many, if not more, African-American and Asian teenagers as it did Caucasians. Like many first-year bible students, I was excited to hear the bible lesson (aka offering my two cents from what I had learned in an introductory hermeneutics or exegesis course). Little did I realize how much I would end up learning on that night, from the most unexpected person, in the most unexpected environment.

Sitting in the corner was a young black teenager (we will call him Zane because that was his name). In typical fashion, the lively and talkative group of teenagers began to quiet down when the student pastor (we will call him “big Mike” because that was his name and the adjective was accurate) asked “who wants to read our bible verses today.” As every eye sheepishly looked to their left and right to see who would rise up to the challenge, Zane—who at this point was halfway sunk into the all familiar donated youth room sofa—slowly raised his hand. Panic and perhaps a bit of embarrassment began to set in as Zane frantically flipped through the pages in front of his peers, scrambling to find the book of Acts. After being reminded to use the table of contents, Zane located Acts 13 and began reading the passage. A snicker and quiet laughter filled the room as Zane began stuttering and stammering through the passage. With his voice booming above both the reading and the laughing and snickering, big Mike interjected and said, “and which one of you guys volunteered to read—I didn’t think so.” Suddenly panic and embarrassment seemed to switch places and the room was attentively listening. Big Mike, as far as I could remember, seemed to have this effect on people. Zane, now full of confidence, resumed to stutter and stammer through the reading mumbling over the words he couldn’t pronounce. As Zane approached Acts 13:1 and began reading through the names of the prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch, he got to Simeon with eyes wide and jaw dropped and said, “Simeon called ‘and a word I can’t say’….”

I share this story for two particular reasons. First, I was struck by Zane’s thinking concerning the word Niger, that is, his acknowledgment, whether conscious or not, about the negative connotations that have come to be associated with the word even as an African American. Second, the ability (and arguably unlikely nature) of a six foot something, bald headed youth pastor with little formal theological training, to grow a ministry full of diverse students whose thinking about life and God were even more diverse. I think there is something to be said and to learn about diversity in churches when it comes to this, considering that same ministry is now only a fraction of the size it was and only has Caucasian student since undergoing new leadership.

It has become apparent, at least to me, that one major reason, though there are others, diversity continues to be an issue in churches is because people have limited it to what a person looks like. I would like to suggest that marginalization will continue to happen in churches, particularly in Southern Baptist life, if such a limited understanding of diversity persists. Merriam-Webster, for example, offers two glosses for diversity:

1) the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety; especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.

2) and instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities: an instance of being diverse; a diversity of opinion.

The first gloss, while offering a description of what diversity often involves (i.e., different types of people such as races or cultures) is quite limiting—I think. The second gloss, while a bit vague, does a better job at capturing what diversity is about. A diversity of opinion relates to how one thinks about matters more so than what one looks like.

Let me first explain what I mean by diversity having to involve more than what a person looks like before offering suggestions for a way forward. I was honored to be asked to write a quick post about the important topic of diversity (which I suspect happened first because I was Asian and only second because I might be able to offer a different thought on the topic). In many ways; however, I fulfill the role of what some may consider a “token” Asian because I pretty much grew up in America and think a lot like many American Christians do. This is one of the glaring problems in the understanding of diversity seen in many churches today (even those who claim to be multi-ethnic, though I have witnessed particular churches do multi-ethnic well). Christians often mask marginalization by describing their churches as being “diverse” simply because they have a few different races represented. In 2008 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Southern Baptists celebrated the “growing ethnic diversity” of their churches and LifeWay Christian sources. But “ethnic” on what grounds and growing in what way? Nearly a decade later, SBC messengers denounced the “alt-right” movement as a “virulent and destructive form of racism.” Perhaps we took one “small step” in 2008 and one “giant leap” in 2017, but I doubt it. Perhaps the celebration came prematurely considering Jarvis Williams 2010 book “One New Man” along with his recent contribution (along with Kevin Jones) in 2017 “Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention.” Diversity needs to include differences in thinking and not just differences in appearance (backed by the familiar and often cited Rev. 7:9 passage describing the innumerable multitude standing before the throne) if there is going to be a reason to celebrate.

In what ways, then, should we understand diversity? I would like to offer just a couple of preliminary suggestions that are meant to be less controversial and more to spur on the conversation. First, true diversity can only take place in the presence humility. In my experience, learning best takes place when one takes a posture of humility. First, I emphasize humility because I think it should be the prerequisite to any theological conversation. Second, I emphasize conversation because, in my estimation, it is significant and needs to take place if we want to see true diversity in our churches. Conversation necessarily involves listening to others and asking questions rather than dismissing those whose opinions and perspectives don’t align with our own. In many ways, humility undergirds the points I emphasize because it leads one to engage in conversation, then to actively listen during the conversation, and (perhaps most important) shift one’s positions if need be. This by no means implies that one should abandon all of their own convictions, but to listen in such a way that the breaking of bread, and the bond of fellowship, is not so easily broken or abandoned on the grounds that some people just don’t think about matters of theology, the church, and the world in the same way as others do. While this is not the place to have a discussion on matters of soteriology, the SBC has faced numerous consequences because of the insufferable behavior of some of its members (from both sides) concerning their thinking the topic.

Understanding diversity as something worth celebrating, particularly as Southern Baptists, means no longer marginalizing those who do not think about things in the way we want or would like them to think. I would challenge all of us to be more willing to practice humility, engage in conversation, actively listen, and to not be afraid to move from our long-held positions if need be. If, as Southern Baptists, we cannot do this within our own convention, how then will we embrace true diversity from those whose theology and perspectives are not shaped by our own Western American context? Sandra Maria Van Opstal, in her book The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World says it well when she comments:

“As long as our worship makes people feel excluded or in constant visitor status, we are not accomplishing the ministry of biblical hospitality. . . . However, when we are creating an inclusive table in which there is room for all, the meal and the experience will represent all who sit at the table. . . . In a multiethnic community no members should be made to feel like they are perpetual guests.”

I have the privilege of studying alongside Koreans, Africans, Lithuanians, and Christians from other countries whose thinking on matters of theology, church, and the world do not align with my own views. I have listened and I have learned from brothers and sisters all around the world, and my own understanding has grown along with my ability to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which I have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3). Some of them have become my closest friends and conversation partners, and even in the midst of disagreement, I never feel like a “perpetual guest” at the table. While much more could be said and expanded on the notion of diversity, I hope this will spur on the conversation in a way that we, as Southern Baptists, can begin to see a bit clearer what the biblical picture of the saints around the throne in Revelation 7 might actually look like.

 


Vinh Nguyen is a New Testament PhD student at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario Canada. He also holds an M.A. in Biblical Languages from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry from Ouachita Baptist University. He is married to Michele and is the father of the two of the prettiest little girls you’ll ever meet, Ali and Autumn.