Voluntary Cooperation in the Local Baptist Association

In previous posts, we've seen that the local association is not like a church, and that the Director of Missions (DoM) is not like a pastor, nor should his primary role be thought of as being "a pastor to pastors." Since we've looked at the organization and its leadership so far, I thought it would be helpful to think about membership in the local association: What responsibilities and obligations do churches have who participate in local associations?

Local Church Autonomy
One of the distinctive beliefs of Baptists is a conviction about local church autonomy. That means that a local church is self-governing under the Lordship of Christ and influence of the Holy Spirit. No person or organization has the authority to tell a local church what decisions it must make or how to act. Not even the Southern Baptist Convention can direct member churches to act. The most they, or a state convention, or a local association can do is withdraw from the participating relationship. The most the SBC or a local association can say to a church is, "We disagree so strongly with your position, we no longer consider you a member and will no longer accept your financial support." No outside organization can force the autonomous local church to act contrary to its own wishes.

Nothing in this scenario, however, prevents other organizations from trying to influence churches to make certain decisions or take action on an issue. For example, the last several years, the International Mission Board has been asking churches to consider adopting an unreached people group. Such an effort is commendable and worthwhile. It doesn't violate local church autonomy because the IMB is seeking to influence churches to make that decision on their own.

So a local association may not assert any authority over a local church, but it may attempt to influence a local church in various ways. The question we'll ask below is how and which ways are appropriate and helpful in our cooperative efforts together.

Participation Is Voluntary
Along with local church autonomy, we also need to make clear that participation in a local association is voluntary for any local church. Just as participation in any parachurch organization is voluntary, we need to recognize the ability of any church to participate or decline participation in the local association.

There may be historic ties between a church and an association that strengthens the bond between the two. There may be ways the two have cooperated together in the past, ways that have been mutually beneficial, that ought to be considered when considering future participation. There may be many more factors that come into play, but the basic fact is that, at any point, a church may decide to participate (assuming accepted into membership) or stop participating for reasons that local church deems sufficient.

How We Will Participate Is Also Voluntary
Participation is not always as cut-and-dry as a yes or no question. Some member churches give financially but rarely attend meetings or other gatherings. Other member churches attend well but don't give as much money. Some do both: give generously and participate through attendance. Some do neither: They give little and attend little. This is the nature of cooperative life together in a voluntary, parachurch organization.

If we really believe that each church is autonomous under the Lordship of Christ, we must admit that God may lead churches to participate in different ways, amounts, percentages, attendance patterns, and every other way we can imagine. This is not a reason to criticize or demean other churches, churches who may decide to participate differently than you might prefer.

A Few Examples
Most of this series I've tried to keep generic—not about our association, but generally applicable to any local association. But here I want to take a couple examples from my own experience in an effort to point all associations toward a better cooperative effort.

One place I've seen cooperative efforts hindered is when people from one church have openly criticized another church over practical ministry decisions or programmatic choices. One church decides to try a new style of music in their services. Another decides to move away from RAs and GAs to an AWANAs ministry. One church decides not to take up one of the promoted special offerings (retirement homes, state missions, WMU, etc… ). Another decides to use this or that Sunday School material. We have to realize that other churches may make choices that we ourselves would not make. We have to decide not to criticize and ostracize churches over issues like these; that we can work together through these kinds of differences. Fault lines of division are created over these kinds of issues and are deeply damaging to the kind of shared vision needed to make association ministry viable and productive for participating churches.

Another place where I've seen cooperative relationships damaged is criticizing churches over lack of financial support. During a time of financial difficulty, our association started publishing a table in each monthly newsletter. That table showed the giving of each church for that time period and a year-to-date total. Often a paragraph was included that said churches were asked to give 5% of their yearly budget to the association, accompanied by a chart showing what percentage of its budget each church gave for the previous year. This kind of action goes beyond an appropriate attempt to influence (like we mentioned earlier) to having the appearance of trying to shame churches who give less than the recommended gold standard.

The last example I'll give is a tendency by some to openly criticize perceived low attendance at meetings. This criticism bothers me for many reasons, even though I am one who regularly attends and participates in our association meetings. First, many people may wish to come to the meeting who are prevented by hospital visits, bi-vocational status, other scheduling conflicts, distance, etc… Second, other people may just not feel like the association ministry is a priority for them and make a conscious decision not to participate. Any of us have a limited number of hours in a week and have to make our own decisions as to how to use those hours. If someone believes their time will be better spent another way, that's when this principle of voluntary participation really ought to govern our thinking. Member churches have no obligation to attend meetings, much as we might wish they would, and therefore ought not to be criticized when they make that decision. Positive encouragement is proper influence, criticism is inappropriate.

In reality, we're often putting the blame in the wrong place when it comes to poorly attended association meetings. People will come when they feel like a meeting is valuable, productive, and their presence makes a difference. I've sat through some association meetings in the past and wondered if there was any purpose in being there other than filling a chair. It is the responsibility of association leadership to conduct meetings that people will want to attend, where they don't feel like their time has been wasted, where they come away with more (but not less than) than the latest financial figures.

The principle of voluntary participation allows us to work together as a group of churches positively an in a encouraging manner. It allows us to leave behind jealousy and criticism of other churches' ministry choices so that the cooperative effort can be strengthened and renewed. When we properly understand what a church is, what an association is, and how the two relate to one another, I believe more fruitful cooperative ministry will be able to take place.

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