There was a time when, if E. F. Hutton spoke, people listened. At least, that's what their advertisement would have us believe. When people wanted an instant picture, they would take out their Polaroid camera, snap a picture and wait a minute for the image to magically appear. When they needed to travel around the world, they would board the most experienced airlines in the world, Pan American, and fly away. But not today. The stock market crash of 1987 and some scandals inside the organization led to the demise of E. F. Hutton. Digital photography put Polaroid out of business. And a decade of financial losses grounded Pan Am.
Remember these companies? Trans World Airlines, PaineWebber (brokerage company), General Foods (Sanka, Kool-Aid), MCI Worldcom, Arthur Anderson (consultants), Woolworths, Standard Oil, Eastern Airlines, The Pullman Company (the railroad folks).
How about these Houston companies: Continental Airlines, Compaq Computer, Enron.
What do all these companies have in common? They no longer exist.
Last week I was in Atlanta at the North American Mission Board for a meeting to discuss the future of associations. Several directors of missions from across the country were invited to the white board discussion. We met to discuss whether or not associations have a future in Baptist life, and if they do, what is it?
As you might expect, I believe associations do have a future, but there are others who think associations are going the way of E. F. Hutton and Pan Am. Times are changing, they say, and associations are no longer needed like they once were. There is some truth to that. Once our national agencies and state conventions developed programs and tools for churches, and the local association was the main place to learn about these and to receive training. But now we have other ways folks can access training: internet (webcasts, online training), YouTube, DVDs. Once geography and doctrine determined affiliation. If you were Baptist, you were probably linked to other churches in your county or city through the local association. But today geography and doctrine are much less of a determining factor. New kinds of associations are emerging based on affinity that often even cross denominational lines: e.g., Willow Creek Association, Saddleback Association, Acts 29. The association, they say, is going to go away.
Time are changing. Churches no longer need the association for some things as they once did, but that doesn't mean associations are no longer needed. The association was formed because people wanted to get together and churches wanted to work together. That hasn't changed. People will always want to get together with like-minded folks. They will always choose to work with others because they know they can do more working together than they can working alone. Associationalism won't go away, but local Baptist associations will need to change in order to remain a vital part of Baptist life. **
When I graduated from college, a friend gave me a little book packed full of short, pithy sayings. One I've never forgotten: when you're through changing, you're through. What I want you to know is this: in UBA we are constantly changing in order to serve you better. We believe we are successful when our churches are successful because we exist to help and support the work of the local church (it's not the other way around).
Do associations have a future? Yes, for now … and for as long as they are catalysts for advancing God's kingdom through the local church.
** In other blogs I've written about the shifts taking place in UBA. There have been three primary iterations of the association in our history. Today we are on what I've called UBA 4.0. I'll not go through those again. If you are interested, go back to the blogs from March through May, 2010.