In the first piece written regarding Baptist associations, it was discussed about the purpose and definition of these institutions. Historically, these assemblies were put in place for acts like church planting and fellowship. However, since their inception, their purpose has also been for the ultimate edification and encouragement of the local church. Truly, at the base of the proverbial mountain of associationalism, encouragement for local churches is priority.
While there is a necessity for associationalism for Baptists, there is simultaneously a neglect of this Baptist distinctive. For a few passing decades (possibly longer), Baptist associationalism has fallen on hard times. Whatever the reasons for this falling out, they truly are irrelevant to the conversations. What matters now is what we can do to pick ourselves back up from the fall. I want to submit to you that the more pressing issue is asking the question, “What Can We Do to Revive Our Local Association?”
Why the Need for Revitalization?
I write from a perspective that is a bit distinctive, even within the Baptist realm of ecclesiology. All of the Everyday Theology team is a part of the National Association of Free Will Baptists; therefore, we all affirm and hold to a Reformed Arminian spectrum of theology. Personally, I believe there is a strict associationalism within the realm of Free Will Baptist doctrine and practice that is lacking in other Baptist traditions. The reason I believe there is a neglect of associationalism (in the FWB denomination, specifically) is because of the progressive charismatic movement infiltrating our churches.
I know writing something as blunt and austere as this can either turn readers away or fire up a disagreement rather quickly. However, consider the fate of the Christian Church and the conversation might go altogether differently. Ultimately, these disagreements come down to differences of philosophies of ministry.
The identity of the Christian Church has become all things to all people (pun intended). The American Church has lost its identity to secularism and an Enlightenment philosophy that experience trumps reason. The focus of “why” we minister and exist has waned. We have lost our identity as a denomination. We have detoured far off the path of those who came before us. We have lost our focus and dedication to the ordinary means of grace ministry that avows Holy Scripture as not only the guide our worship and ministry but also the informant of it.
And here we are. Enter in the main reason for the decline of associationalism. Friends, we have lost our high view of Scripture. We have lost the authority in the local church. We have traded our birthright of Scripture as our authority for the bowl of soup that is our own self-sufficiency in the local church. We have allowed our mistress to give us a haircut and remove our source of strength.
But why mention all these things about the local church if this post is about local associations? Because I believe that local church health and associational health are two sides of the same coin. When churches become healthy, it is because there is healthy leadership. Healthy leadership is the result of personal discipline and devotion to the Lord Jesus. Healthy churches, however, result in healthy associations. The reverse is also true – healthy associations can also result in healthy churches. But for these things to take place, we need a renewal and retrieval of associationalism.
Six Rs Steps for Revitalization
- Retrieve Historic Practices. One of the more neglected areas of church revitalization altogether is church history. For whatever the reason might be, we tend to try to fix our problems in our own ways. However, because history often repeats itself, it would be wise to look back to the forefathers of our respective movements to learn how to keep this ship of associationalism afloat.
- Reassure Value in the Local Association. The value of local associationalism does not flow from the top down. The value of local associations typically will be well-received from local church pastors to local church congregations. Again, healthy churches will lead to healthy associations. It is time for Baptists of all ilk, and specifically Free Will Baptists, to value the local association for what it is – the lifeline of our denomination. Without local associations, church autonomy will vanish, and ecclesiology will be a philosophical free-for-all.
- Return to Ordinary Means of Grace Ministry. While associational revitalization is a good and worthy goal, the ultimate way in which we can revitalize them is by returning to a sufficiency of Scripture model of ministry in our local churches. Holy Scripture guides our practice, informs our doctrine, and also revitalizes our churches and associations.
- Resolve to Work Together for the Kingdom of Christ. Down to its core, a local association is a group of churches willingly associating together as they agree on doctrine and resolve to work together for the furtherance of the kingdom of Christ. Should more be said?
- Renew Local Church Accountability and Cooperation. Because of the previous point, it is vitally important for denominations of Baptist descent to renew local church accountability and cooperation. It is local associations which hold local churches and local church pastors accountable to its respective doctrine and practice. It is also the local association through which groups of sister churches can cooperatively advance the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
- Restore Denominational Doctrine and Practice. Without local associationalism, Free Will Baptists will be nonexistent in just a generation or two. If a recovery of local associations and their importance is not accomplished, we will see more and more of our churches lost to the progressive charismatic movement. There is also a possibility that more and more churches will tend to stay a part of the denomination but simply be nominally Free Will Baptist. Both of these possibilities are infections for our denomination.
While local associations are not the gospel, they are important to our denomination’s health and life. It is not as though local associations are on the same level as Scripture in its authority, but it is as though local associations “take a natural care of one another’s preservation.” If you eat too much sugar and never exercise, it can take a deathly toll on your body. Likewise, if churches within a denomination continually neglect it and pull away, there can be a consequence with deathly results.
 Thomas Grantham. Christianismus Primitivus Book II (London: Forgotten Books, 2019), 138.