Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Second Thoughts About Associations

I’ve served Union Baptist Association in an executive leadership capacity for twenty-five years, and now I’m beginning to have second thoughts about the value of the association.
There was a time when Baptist churches recognized the value of the association. When Baptist churches started forming in Texas in the early 1800’s one of the first things they did was form a Union Baptist Association. For almost a century and a half the value of the association for local churches was undisputed, but that was primarily because churches were smaller and was easier to see the value of cooperation and working together through the association.

The trend now is toward larger, better-resourced churches.  In Houston, 19% of the people who attend church every weekend attend a megachurch (see Barna).  (As late as the 1960s there were no UBA churches that qualified as a megachurch by today’s standards.)  Today, with larger, better-resourced churches who are capable of doing many things for themselves, many are wondering if associations are outdated. If not outdated, is their usefulness limited to smaller churches? Hard as these questions are to consider, they deserve an answer.
Here’s what I think.  Associations can have value, even to megachurches, but only if they adjust to their changing context and can respond to the specialized needs of churches.
  1. Associational leadership can stay focused on the task of reaching the whole city. Churches have limits. They reach certain kinds of folks better than others. That may be defined by ethnicity, socio-economic status, lifestyle or any of a number of other factors, but no church reaches all types of people. No church has a strategy for reaching all the kinds of people in Houston. The job is just too massive. This is where associational leadership can help. We can identify where churches are needed, what kinds of churches reach certain groups better than others, what strategies and tactics are necessary to reach certain people groups that would otherwise be neglected. Jesus commissioned believers to take the gospel to all people and associational leaders can help our churches better fulfill that task.
  2. Associational staff can provide specialized services that churches—even megachurches—need, but may not need all the time. For example, communities change. Sometimes churches need help understanding the real changes in their communities and what changes they’ll need to make to reach it. Churches may think about starting new campuses or planting a new church. These are not services churches need on a daily basis, but when they need them the help we can provide often proves invaluable.
  3. Associations can serve as learning organizations. I was a pastor for many years. I know the pressure to sustain and grow a church’s ministry. Many times there is no opportunity for out-of-the-box thinking and/or learning. This is where the association can help. We do the research. We do much of the learning and pass it along to our churches. We can experiment with new models, like organic churches, the cell-celebration church model or chronological Bible storying, and help churches find new and better ways of doing things.
  4. Associations will still serve the under-resourced churches. Four out of five (81%) believers in Houston will not be part of a megachurch. They will be part of smaller churches that lack the resources of a megachurch. These churches turn to the association for leadership development, training for staff and church members, conflict resolution, strategic planning, and a myriad of other needs. The resources provided by larger churches make it possible to help other churches who, many times, are reaching folks the megachurch would never reach.
It's not always easy to recognize a thing's value.  Swiss watch makers invented digital watches, but never saw the value of the new technology.  Seiko did and became a pioneer in making the digital watch.  If only the Swiss had given digital technology a second thought.

Kodak invented the digital camera, but they were too invested in making film and the chemicals needed to process the film to see the value of the digital camera.  The failure to make the shift to digital technology eventually forced Kodak to file for bankruptcy.  If only they'd given digital photography a second thought.

Times are changing.  The world is different.  Church needs are changing.  I still believe associations can have value for all our churches if only we will stop, give them a second thought and find their true value.

(To learn more about the impact of UBA and the contribution of the association, watch these videos which tell the UBA story.)

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