Re-Imaging the Association
Jimmy Draper, President, Lifeway SBC
Delivered at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the SBCADOM in Indianapolis, June 14, 2004 — 1 Cor. 1:4-9
Do we need another image in order to re-image the Baptist association in the 21st century? The world around us and the Baptist world among us have quaked since the days when the “associational missionary” was a benevolent fellow who collected the church letter as his main contact with small churches and the monthly associational meeting was a real event with actual attendance. The M-Night has gone the way of the hoola-hoop, and about the same time. The world we once knew is no more.
Dee Hock wrote a book entitled Birth of the Chaordic Age. In that book he reminds us that orders, boundaries and limits are placed all around us as never before. A commute, a cubicle, a mortgage and a recessive economy – all of which create boundaries, trap the office worker, working longer than ever. On the other hand, forces unleashed in today’s world create a chaos that seems never to end. We prefer resonance, the orderly, rhythmic living of our lives. Yet we live in a world of dissonance, constant changes in the personal, social, economic and religious worlds.
Hence, the creation of the term chaordic, from chaos and order. Even as spreadsheet programs and databases help us to order our world as never before, the same forces have unleashed chaos within that order. This chaordic culture has presented us with many new challenges. How can we reach our time and place with the Gospel in the midst of a chaordic world? We are not living in a godless world, but a world that now contains many concepts of God. Elements abound that offer new age gods, eastern mysticism, psychics, sentimental angels, etc. This reveals an intense hunger for spiritual things.
Erwin McManus wrote in a book some time ago, “The biting truth is that this country is not rejecting spirituality but Christianity! The indictment we must receive is that the Christian faith as we express it is no longer seen as a viable spiritual option. People are rejecting Christ because of the church! Once we were called Christians by an unbelieving world, and now we call ourselves Christians and the world calls us hypocrites.”
We are living in a day of both cultural apathy and hostility. Entrepreneurial pastors and churches increasingly function as their own association which have little need of another local body and little desire to relate to smaller fellowships. State Conventions have a role of their own. The Southern Baptist Convention has its far-reaching ministries. What is the role of the Baptist Association, the local unit of corporate Baptist life?
There are several ways to consider the association. One may consider the association historically. Certainly, we can learn of what the association was in times past from such reflections. The first Baptist associations can be historically documented in England in the 1650’s. The need for widely scattered congregations to accomplish the mighty work they envisioned as a worldwide responsibility given in the New Testament was the need out of which Associations grew.
The oldest Baptist Association was organized in 1707 in Philadelphia. The Scriptural foundation for this concept was found in Acts 15 and Gal. 2. This became the unique organization of churches who maintained their autonomy and kept their convictions without compromise.
The first association formed in Texas had a very rocky beginning because half of the preachers were anti-missionary and half were pro-missionary. The missionary group finally formed their own association.
But, there is no way to bring the former associational vigor out of history and into the urban and rural churches of today.
We might consider the association from the standpoint of our polity. Yet we have no connectionism in Southern Baptist life, so we cannot force the association to change in response to other entities of our convention.
We may consider associations pragmatically. That is, what should associations be doing, and how should they be organized to do it. It is likely that most Baptist emphasis on the association has been pragmatic.
Yet we claim to be a biblically based people. To what degree have we actually and pointedly reflected on the association biblically? We claim to be a people of the Book whose only faith and practice is from the New Testament. Where is the practice of the association underpinned in the New Testament?
I recognize that I am hopelessly idealistic. I can’t help it. I have been called naïve by many, among other things. What I want to do today is to cause us to rethink the place of the association in our Southern Baptist life. My dad used to warn me about “stirring up more snakes than I can kill!” I hope to do exactly that. I do, however, hope to give you a hoe or shovel to go to work on those snakes!
It is my intention to stimulate your thoughts and challenge your energies. And please know that I love you and love the work of the local association.
I would like to take as a point of departure for our consideration at this gathering an indisputable biblical basis for the association. For some of us, the association of yesteryear holds some of our warmest and closest memories of fraternal gathering and work. I know that is true in my life. Yet we cannot be sustained on memories of what the association used to be. We must find the renewal of the association in biblical terms?
Any approach to the Baptist association that does not rest squarely on the revealed word of God will not abide. There is no place for an entity in Baptist life that does not find it’s foundation in the word of God.
To that extent I want to suggest that we re-image the association around the great New Testament Greek word koinonia. I fully recognize that this is the most overused, over transliterated word in the English-speaking world other than the New Testament Greek word agape. Yet it is the word that conveys the spiritual realities that must undergird the local unit of Baptist life in 2004 and beyond if it is to survive and thrive. We can no longer simply “cook-up” a program and rally the troops around it, any more than you actually cook a pie by buying a pre-baked pie shell, some lemon custard and Ready Whip. We have to go deeper and re-image the local unit of Baptist life as koinonia.
- The Basis of All Baptist Associational Koinonia is the Koinonia of Believers with the Lord Jesus Christ.
“God is faithful, by whom you were called into the koinonia of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).
The nature of churches in a local association is not that of an organization, but must be that of an organism. A cemetery has organization. The row upon row of tombstones stand year after year; but there is not life. There is no movement for it is the organization of death, not of life. Ice cubes in a tray have organization; they are aligned up and down the tray, but there is no life, only the coldness of the inanimate. As in all Christian endeavors worthy of the name, the association must reflect a group of churches and people in those churches whose vitality comes from an intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have to ask the question, to what degree do we consider the local Baptist association a spiritual entity? To what extent does the life of the association come out of such relationship with our Lord?
There are many human obstacles for the association being a spiritual agency. To the degree that the association consists of the churches in the association, how can it be spiritual? Water cannot rise above its own level. Carnality, fighting, competition, and chronically divided churches militate against spiritual associations. The ever-present and not-to-be-denied denominational divisions of our day work against a spiritual association. I also know that you have to deal with the wreckage of lives, ministries and ministerial careers that occur almost every week and wash up on the desk of the DOM. Many of you could be as cynical as the local policeman or DA because of what you have seen in churches.
All of this leads me to declare that our only hope for the association is that of a group of churches and believers called into the koinonia of the Lord Jesus Christ. He, only He, always He and He alone is the only, solitary, sole lasting glue that can hold together churches in an association. This is what Paul declared at the outset of 1 Corinthians as his resounding principle: God calls us into fellowship, koinonia, with His Son. Before Paul addressed the divisions in Corinth (chs.1-4), the immorality (ch. 5), the church lawsuits (ch. 6), the marriage problems (ch. 7), the whole range of doubtful issues (chs. 8-11), he addressed the call of God to fellowship.
That means that your first responsibility as an agent of spiritual change is to call churches and ministers into fellowship with Him. Anything else that precedes that is synthetic, artificial and will not lead to abiding change. What should be happening in your association? Only that which results from churches and ministers being called into fellowship with Him. Our associations will become vital when they throb with the vitality of His Life. My hand is a practical appendage of my body. It works and grasps. But my hand lives because it is vitally connected with the life in my heart and head. The association will live only as it is vitally connected with the life in the heart of Christ Who is our Head.
The Great Barrier Reef is the only natural structure on earth that can be seen from outer space. Yet there are 3,400 individual reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef. The reef stretches for 2,300 km. Inside that reef there are 2,800 species of fish, 500 kinds of seaweed and 400 kinds of coral. The reef is an environment that supports an amazing variety of life. It is a framework for thousands of living organisms. Perhaps this is an image for the association. Individual churches are like individuals reefs of coral. Each individual reef is made up of numerous little animals of coral. All of them together make up an individual reef. All of the reefs together make up the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef only exists because of other reefs made up of living creatures. The association only exists because of individual churches made up of living Christians. Just as the Great Barrier Reef provides an environment of physical life, the association must first of all provide an environment of spiritual life for other entities so those entities may flourish altogether and produce other life.
- When the Association is Grounded in the Life of Christ, Then Christians Join in koinonia With One Another.
Paul told the Corinthians “I become all things to all men….now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be a partaker of it with you” (1 Cor. 9:22-23). When we partake of the life of Christ in the association on the vertical level, then we are prepared to partake in the life of Christ through the work of the association on the horizontal level.
Corinth was destroyed in 146 B.C. by the Romans and rebuilt 100 years later by Julius Caesar. It was a Roman city initially settled by retiring Roman soldiers, who were all given land to move to that city.
It was a great commercial center – wealth and luxury. It was one of the most important cities in the world. It connected the mainland, northern Greece, with the Peloponnesus in the south. It was located at the foot of AcroCorinth, an Acropolis or citadel nearly 2,000 feet high. It was easily defended and was never defeated until the invention of gunpowder. It was a massive fortification, surrounded by precipitous cliffs and 150 towers around the perimeter.
All the north and south traffic had to pass through Corinth. There was no other way to go. The greatest part of the east and west traffic came through there by choice. The extreme southern tip of Greece is one of the most dangerous capes in the world. Most merchants preferred to drag their ships from the water and set them on rollers and roll them over the isthmus. Or, unload cargo and take it to another ship on the other side.
Corinth lay at the crossroads of the world. It was a cosmopolitan city of great contrasts. At its height there were 200,000 freemen and 500,000 slaves, thus extreme poverty and extreme affluence existed side by side. Many nations were represented in its inhabitants. It was a mongrel and heterogeneous population of all kinds of people. It was a predominantly Gentile city at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder.
The cosmopolitan population brought many strange religions and religious practices – 27 different sacred places in Corinth. The city was politically Roman, socially Greek and religiously a mixture of Roman, Greek and Oriental.
Corinth was a by-word for evil and immoral living. The word “Corinthian” came to mean drunken and immoral living. The Temple of Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love stood on AcroCorinth – 1,000 priestesses, sacred prostitutes descended on the city every night to seek the men of the city. The luxury, splendor and lavish wealth of the city only increased its evil and perpetuated its reputation as a city of vice. Paul lists some of the city’s characteristic sins in 6:9-10.
It was into this luxury-loving, sensual and self-seeking city that the Apostle came. Although there was a Christian church in Corinth, there was a tragic amount of Corinth in the church! The Corinthians recognized no law but their own lusts and desired no god but themselves. They were the measure of all things, of all truth.
Paul was writing to a troubled church in a chaordic world when he wrote to Corinth. It was a situation that would have challenged the best DOM at the point of mission strategy. How do you reach a city with a thousand sacred prostitutes that walk the street in the name of religion? How do you reach a city that is intoxicated with athletics, as was Corinth with the famous Isthmian Games? How do you reach a city that loves eloquent speech more than spiritual reality? How do you reach a city that had such confidence in its ability to defend itself from outside enemies?
Paul’s answer rings loud, “For although I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law – though I myself am not under the law – to win those under the law. To those who are outside the law, like one outside the law-not being outside God’s law, but under the law of Christ – to win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, that I may become a partner (partaker, koinonia) in its benefits”(9:19-23).
The association is that unit in Baptist life which best enables us to fulfill the great mandate of Paul that we become all things to all men. In that regard we are then together in the koinonia of the gospel (9:23).
The local church has been described by sociologists as able to span only 2/9, two-ninths, of the typical socio-economic spectrum: lower low, middle low, upper low, lower middle, middle middle, upper middle, lower high, middle high and upper high classes. Descriptive studies of local churches by Fuller Seminary and Lyle Schaller have indicated that one congregation usually only spans 2 divisions of this nine-fold scale. That is, a congregation may span middle-middle and upper-middle classes as a matter of fact. But it would not span all nine spectrums of our culture.
We may wish that normatively this were not so, but descriptively this is as a matter of fact the case, and very few churches in America contradict this study. People simply hang out with the same kind of people, and the local church seems caught in this trap. You will not ultimately seat an accountant next to a carpenter, a doctor next to a janitor or a hard driving real estate woman next to a maid in the same Sunday School class very often. Even though we may wish this to be so, it in fact will not likely be the case. Do not misinterpret me. This is not classism or elitism. I wish I could change it. But we know that this will not likely be the case in most local churches. They cover two-ninths of the spectrum. Period. That is the bad news.
Now, here is the good news. Here is the genius and opportunity of the association. How do churches across the socio-economic scale join together to be all things to all men? It is in the koinonia of the association. In that relationship those believers in churches with diverse socio-economic strata join together to become all things to all men. The affluent suburban church with its professional constituency does not even come into contact with the awful, bleeding crying needs of the inner city. A church full of those considered “successful” is miles away from the street people wandering aimlessly in the shadows of the crack houses and flophouses of the urban blight in our nation. The only vehicle in Baptist life that actually allows the members of a local church to become all things to all men is the local association.
Through the association the affluent business owner in the pristine suburban home who attends the immaculately groomed church of similar professional people is able to go into the county jail and touch the hapless inmate. Through the association the sophisticated woman in the church downtown is able to reach out to the inebriated transient on the sidewalk near the church. In a thousand years she would not even know what to do with the drunk on the steps of a bar. Yet through the association she can reach out and touch that man.
How does the young mother touch the abandoned old woman in the inner city? How does the single graduate student touch the young child who needs a summer camp? How does the CEO who has his clothes tailored in his own office put a coat around the shoulders of the homeless man? Only through the association. It is in the association that we become all things to all men in the koinonia of the gospel.
How can the open country church engage its members through great mission projects? How can the inner city church reach beyond its own confinement to be a blessing to others? It is through the local associations that these things are realized.
We have much to learn from each other. The association allows us that opportunity, bringing together unlikely partners to spread the Gospel. Every church has something significant to offer, and only in the association does that become a reality.
Yet there is still another aspect of the koinonia in the Baptist association. While being imprisoned in Rome and not having seen the Christians at Philippi for ten years, the Apostle Paul wrote to them, “I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now” Phil. 1:3-5). The apostle saw in his decade-long relationship with the church at Philippi a continuity in the work of the gospel. He said, “And you, Philippians, know that in the early days of the Gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving except you alone” (4:15).
When writing these words, Paul had not seen the Philippians Christians for ten years. He was in prison in Rome for the Gospel. Epaphroditus had carried the letter and gift of the Philippian church to Paul. Paul’s most beloved letter thanks them for the koinonia of that gift. As part of that thanksgiving, the apostle reminds them of the fellowship they had shared from the very first day of their relationship across the miles and across the years. More than any other church, they had supported him and joined with him in the koinonia of the Gospel. Even though he was no longer directly related to their church, they had demonstrated the continuity of an ongoing intimate joint participation in the work of the Gospel. That continuity of ministry is one of the strengths of our cooperation together as Southern Baptists.
Today’s typical Baptist church has experienced three pastoral turnovers in the last decade. Today’s typical Baptist church has experienced the tumultuous changes in post-modern churchmanship, worship styles; demographic changes from the Loyal Builders of the 50s to the No Brand Loyalty entrepreneurs of the 90s. What gives continuity to witness in the changing culture in a given geographical area? With the rampant turnover, the tensions that rack many congregations, the sweeping changes in society and the short tenure of most staff members, where is the continuity of witness?
That continuity must rest to some degree in the larger koinonia of the Baptist association. When the local church changes with the velocity of change we now witness, a regional witness depends on the larger joint-participation of all the churches in an overarching local missions program that transcends and survives the brevity of the local church. You know the story all too well. A new pastor comes to a neighborhood or village church. There is a honeymoon. Then he proposes the unthinkable change in program, a power-group in the church opposes him, and before any genuine pastoral relationships are forged and any creative programs can take place, he is gone. What happens to the larger, ongoing witness of the church in that place? The only element of continuity is the Baptist association.
When I was in Euless, in Tarrant Baptist Association there were 300 churches and missions. They experienced an annual turnover rate in their staff of 40%. Some churches never had a chance to make an impact because they never had the continuity to make an impact. Yet in TBA there were ongoing works under an associational mission team that survived the lack of continuity in churches for decades. The Tarrant County Jail and chaplaincy ministry, the Good Will Center, the Tarrant Baptist Camp, the campus ministries, partnership mission trips, and all of the rest were built on a solid foundation that transcended generations of changes in pastoral ministry. When the historic ministries of Henard East, Jimmy Morgan, Fred Swank, James Coggin and others came and went, their churches changed radically, but the larger work in the region through the TBA continued. It was the association that enabled Baptist witness in Tarrant County to have a continuity that otherwise it would not have had.
Today’s heralded heroes in the ministerial hall of fame are often the entrepreneurial pastors who build super churches that in many ways are their own associations. Yet in my experience at the First Baptist Church of Euless I still found the need to be part of the local association. It is the association that the visible and perceived successful pastor sits down beside the less visible and anonymous pastor who toils away in a difficult situation and together they give continuity to the work of God in a local geographical region. The association is the instrument that Baptists have to give that kind of continuity to work in the local area. In today’s world, it will not happen merely through the local churches. One of the tragedies today is that many pastors feel no need to participate in the association. I say tragic because each of us has something to give in our association. Perhaps it is our influence, our encouragement, our vision, our counsel, etc. If sometimes I didn’t feel that I got something out of the association, I knew I was responsible for what I could give or add to the association.
Some of you know that the year after I was president of the Southern Baptist Convention I was the vice-chairman of the Tarrant Baptist Association’s executive board. It was important to me to be part of that association, just like my dad had taught me when I was a young pastor. We were the largest contributor to TBA of all the churches in the association. The association has always been a big part of my life.
We must call for an end to the isolation of the local church that feels it no longer “needs” the association. The affluent suburban church in its spiraling growth needs the grounding of the inner city church that lives on the raw edge of human need. The minority pastor toiling away at his station needs the hand of the Caucasian pastor in the church with a tall steeple. And that Caucasian pastor needs to feel the heart of that minority pastor and be challenged by his passion. The venue that God has given us for that relationship is the Baptist association.
Baptists have no bishops to order their work in a region. We are not a monarchical church. Baptists have no synods or presbyteries with overarching power over an area. We are congregational people. We participate in what my predecessor Dr. James Sullivan called a “rope of sand with strength of steel.” It belongs to every one of us to give the clarion call to build the association. There is no top-down authority to demand it. There is no ecclesiastical hierarchy to impose it. If it is to be, it is up to each of us to re-image the Baptist association as a larger koinonia.
That brings me back to my first point. We must rebuild the association biblically first and always as a koinonia in Christ. I challenge all of us here to re-image our association on the basis of a spiritual koinonia. We cannot bring back the association of the past. It is gone forever, and no amount of longing and nostalgia will bring it back, any more than we could hold back the receding of the tides at low tide or the setting of the sun in the west. But we can revive the association as a koinonia of the spirit; and in that we will do our best work for our Lord through the local unit of our corporate Baptist life.