This week marks four years since I began serving as the Director of Missions for my local Baptist association.  When I accepted the call to serve, it is safe to say that I did not fully grasp the strengths of the association nor its challenges.  Over the past four years, I have had the opportunity to observe the good, the bad, and the ugly components of my own association as well as many others.  And yet, there is no doubt that I have grown in my appreciation of the local Baptist association during that time.

And while that is the case, I recognize that these are challenging days for local Baptist associations.  In an effort to be the best possible stewards of their time and resources, Southern Baptist church leaders are evaluating the networks and organizations with which they choose to partner in order to fulfill the Great Commission, and associations are not exempt from that evaluation.  In fact, in personal conversations that I have had, there are some who question if the day in which associations are a relevant and vital partner to local churches has passed.  In other words, there are some who question if the local Baptist association has a future.

I personally believe that Baptist associations can still be a relevant ministry partner to the local church.  However, I recognize that not everyone shares that opinion.  In order to gain a better understanding of how Southern Baptist church leaders truly view the effectiveness and relevancy of associations, an anonymous survey was conducted in April 2017.  The survey consisted of two sets of questions: one for church leaders and one for associational leaders.  Both groups responded to similar questions in four categories:

  1. General demographics (age, geographic setting, etc.)
  2. Involvement of churches and pastors in the local Baptist association
  3. Perceived value of the local Baptist association
  4. Financial support of the local Baptist association

During a two-week period, 448 Southern Baptist leaders responded to the survey. Out of the 448 respondents:

  • 159 were Senior Pastors (36%)
  • 116 were Directors of Missions (26%)
  • 42 were Church Staff Members (9%)
  • 37 were Laymembers (8%)
  • 37 were “Other” Respondents (8%)
  • 33 were Denominational/Agency Staff (7%)
  • 8 were Seminary Students (2%)
  • 7 were Church Planters (2%)
  • Another 2% did not indicate their ministry role

Over the past few months, the responses have been analyzed, and the preliminary results have been shared and discussed with various groups.  The report itself is massive, and you are free to download and review it here.

However, if you don’t have the time to read through all 208 pages, I’m going to highlight the most significant findings from the report over the course of the next few weeks and offer recommendations and solutions based upon the research that associations can use to remain a relevant and vital partner in the local church’s fulfillment of the Great Commission for many years to come.

Key Findings

Again, the report is massive, and it has been challenging to determine the most significant findings from the survey.  However, after many hours of poring over the results, the following are the most significant findings.

Finding #1: Lack of Perceived Value

According to the research, there is a significant number of church leaders who do not perceive their local association as valuable to their church.  This finding was confirmed in several different ways on the survey:

  • When asked to describe the most exciting aspect of their local Baptist association, the most popular answer among church leaders was “Nothing”.
  • When asked to describe the most frustrating aspect of their local Baptist association, two of the three most popular answers among church leaders were “The association is irrelevant” and “Lack of association strategy, vision, or purpose.”
  • Only 65.6% of church leaders think that their local Baptist association is a strategic partner in helping their church to fulfill the Great Commission, meaning that nearly 1 out of every 3 church leaders do not think so.
  • Only 58.5% of church leaders think that their church would be negatively affected if their local Baptist association ceased to exist.
  • 73.8% of church leaders think that their local Baptist association is a good kingdom investment of their church’s financial resources.

Finding #2: Perceived Value Determines Involvement

While correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, I believe that it is safe to conclude from the research that the primary factor in determining the church and/or pastor’s involvement in the association is the perceived value of the association.  For example, when asked to identify the most exciting aspect of their association, you will recall from Finding #1 that the most popular response was “Nothing”.  However, when the responses to this question are separated based upon the church involvement level, the responses reveal some differences:

  • None of the church leaders from churches that identified themselves as “Extremely/Very involved” in the association responded that “Nothing” excited them.
  • “Nothing” was the most popular response among those church leaders from churches that identified themselves as “Moderately involved”, although it wasn’t much higher than the second most popular response.
  • “Nothing” was the most popular response among those church leaders from churches that identified themselves as “Slightly/Not at all involved”, and there wasn’t a close second.

This same observation was found in many other questions as well.  When asked if the association was a strategic partner with the local church in fulfilling the Great Commission:

  • 90.3% of church leaders from Extremely/Very involved churches said yes.
  • 66.3% of church leaders from Moderately involved churches said yes.
  • 39.1% of church leaders from Slightly/Not at all involved churches said yes.

When asked if their church would be negatively affected if their local Baptist association were to cease to exist:

  • 84.8% of church leaders from Extremely/Very involved churches said yes.
  • 66.3% of church leaders from Moderately involved churches said yes.
  • 31.0% of church leaders from Slightly/Not at all involved churches said yes.

When asked if financially contributing to their local Baptist association was a good kingdom investment:

  • 92.8% of church leaders from Extremely/Very involved churches said yes.
  • 74.1% of church leaders from Moderately involved churches said yes.
  • 54.2% of church leaders from Slightly/Not at all involved churches said yes.

From this research, it is clear that while it is not the sole factor, the perceived value of the association is the primary factor in determining the level of involvement of the church in the association.

It is worth noting that other contributing factors for a church’s level of involvement do include geographic setting and average worship attendance.  In regards to geographic setting, churches are slightly more involved in rural/small town associations than urban/suburban associations.  In regards to worship attendance, churches with less than 50 and churches with more than 500 in attendance are least likely to be involved in the local Baptist association.  But again, the primary determining factor is the perceived value of the association.

Finding #3: Involved Pastors = Involved Churches

The Senior Pastor’s personal involvement in the local Baptist association corresponds to the church’s level of involvement in the association.  If the Senior Pastor sees value and participates in the association personally, his church is more likely to be active as well.  If the Senior Pastor does not see value in the association and does not participate, his church is less likely to participate as well.

On a scale of 1-100 (1=lowest, 100=highest), the average personal involvement level of Senior Pastors is:

  • 87.25 in churches that are Extremely/Very involved.
  • 58.50 in churches that are Moderately involved.
  • 33.50 in churches that are Slightly/Not at all involved.

Finding #4: Significant Age Difference

Generally speaking, associational leaders are older than church leaders.  According to the research, nearly 6 out of 10 Senior Pastors (57.7%) surveyed were under the age of 50 while only 1 out of 10 Associational Directors of Missions (10.4%) were under the age of 50. Furthermore, the majority of DOMs are between the ages of 60 to 69 while most Senior Pastors are between the ages of 30 to 59.

 Finding #5: Perception vs. Reality

There are significant differences in regards to the perceived value and effectiveness of the association between church leaders and associational leaders.  Both groups were asked to identify if the association had effectively served the churches in the past 3 years in any of the following ways: (1) Church planting, (2) Counseling services, (3) Disaster relief, (4) Fellowship/networking, (5) Leadership development, (6) Local evangelism/community engagement, (7) Men’s ministries, (8) Mission trip planning, (9) Other, (10) Pastor Search Committee training, (11) Stewardship resources/training, (12) Women’s ministries, and (13) None of the above.

In each of these possible responses, the percentage of associational leaders who said yes was higher for twelve of the thirteen possibilities.  The only possible response in which a higher percentage of church leaders said yes was “None of the above”.  On average, 33.7% more associational leaders said yes to each possibility than the church leaders.  The following chart breaks this down:

 

Category

% of Church Leaders

% of Associational Leaders

Difference

Pastor Search Committee Training 19.4% 87.1% -67.7%
Church Planting 13.6% 63.8% -50.2%
Disaster Relief 15.1% 63.8% -48.7%
Mission Trip Planning 24.4% 71.6% -47.2%
Counseling Services 15.1% 57.8% -42.7%
Local Evangelism/Community Engagement 29.7% 71.6% -41.9%
Women’s Ministries 19.4% 56.9% -37.5%
Leadership Development & Training 46.2% 79.3% -33.1%
Fellowship/Networking 58.4% 87.1% -28.7%
Men’s Ministries 11.1% 33.6% -22.5%
Stewardship Resources/Training 12.5% 33.6% -21.1%
Other 12.5% 27.6% -15.1%
None of the Above 19.7% 1.7% 18.0%

Finding #6: Hope For Change

The research showed that most church leaders do believe that associations can have a future.  That is, if significant changes are made.  When church leaders were asked what would motivate them or their church to increase their church’s financial contributions to the association, the top two answers were: (1) “Clear Vision/Strategy” and (2) “Demonstrated Relevance”.  When asked to describe the most exciting aspect of their local Baptist association, several church leaders expressed excitement about a new Director of Missions or a new vision for the association.

Summary

While there are many other findings in the report, these are the most significant.  Next week, I will share another post that will attempt to draw some conclusions from these key findings.  Again, you are welcome to download the full report here:

2017 Baptist Associations Survey Summary Tables

 

6 thoughts

  1. Thank you so much for the study and for making it available online.This is an area that is very important to me. I teach a course on Southern Baptist Life and Work (think of it a an introduction to how Southern Baptists are organized and function), as well as History of Southern Baptists, a 400 level course where we go into much more detail. I have also taught a graduate course on Contemporary Issues of Southern Baptists, where we look at emerging trends. One topic we discussed at lenght the last time I taught it was the role of associations in Baptist life. I would love to reference this in my courses.

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