For the 167th time, people from the Baptist churches around this area came together for worship, celebration, fellowship and wonderful meals. While the annual meetings of associations have evolved across the years, these elements have remained constant.
This is the heartland of the Baptist movement in America. For many of us, this is the real center of the movement beyond our local congregation. We can get our minds and hearts around the needs for evangelism and ministry in the area that surrounds where we live and work; the area where we have kinfolk; the area where we know and are known by our names.
Ours is a two-day meeting: afternoons and evenings. A representative of each church has opportunity to tell about what God has been doing in its life. We hear about little victories, small miracles and serious needs. We hear about how churches have worked together to address opportunities for kingdom work.
This year, like a proud grandparent, with the magic of digital photography, computer presentations and digital projection, we presented pictures of mission endeavors, events and new construction. We sensed a spirit of cooperation and teamwork among the churches.
The digest of annual church letters had a sobering impact on us. The churches had not baptized as many people as in years past. Membership figures were down, as were the number of people in worship on a typical Sunday morning. This was a wake-up call. A vision for the coming year was cast.
Four of our newer pastors spoke to us exploring a common text, Revelation 3:20. Hearing these pastors at the annual meeting is a long-standing tradition in our association. The members of their churches turn out to support them. And when those from the other churches comment positively on what their pastor had to say, they feel affirmed and blessed.
In a good sense, this is also a kind of showcase of our pastors. Usually, one or more invitations to hold a revival is forthcoming. We also heard sermons from three more of our pastors, including the dean of our pastors, who is widely loved for his 35-plus years of ministry among us.
Music provides another key ingredient in our annual meeting. Viewed as a totality, the music is an interesting blend of classic hymns, contemporary sounds and Southern gospel. We hear soloists, instrumentalists, groups and choirs. The messengers express great appreciation for getting to hear the musical talent from their sister churches.
One session focused on testimonies from four people who have been involved in mission trips this past year. The association has intentionally focused on being a full partner in the mission enterprise. This feature of the annual meeting is raising volunteer mission work to the position of “normative behavior.” As much as possible, we ask youth and laypeople to present these testimonies.
To support this goal of increasing volunteer mission involvement, the association partnered recently with an African American Baptist church in our area. About 200 people came together from the community and 14 of the association’s churches. A crew built a porch on the home of an elderly member. A health fair screened about 60 people. A clown troop conducted a day camp. A picnic and a worship service rounded out the day. Pictures from this event were among those projected during the annual meeting.
A downside of annual meetings, in the minds of many, has been having reports from distant agencies, boards and institutions read to the messengers by some representative. Gradually, many associations have been able to address this by simply referring to the printed book of reports and asking speakers to be celebratory and inspirational.
Another source of unhappiness and boredom in annual meetings has been the business sessions. Here, too, many associations have moved to doing most of their business in the executive board meetings prior to the annual one, limiting greatly the amount of business conducted in the annual meeting. Where there is a common vision, trust and fellowship, this works very well.
To host a day of the associational annual meeting is both a lot of work and a cherished honor for the churches. It often is an occasion to make some needed improvements. Normally, it is worth it. The host experiences affirmation from those who attend. Everyone seemed to agree when a speaker at the last session declared that this annual meeting had been “like a family reunion.”
Many associations have moved to a one-day meeting, or a spring and a fall one-day meeting. This is more common among urban associations and reflects an orientation to “task.” But many rural associations, which are more “relational” in their connection, have retained the two-day meeting.
Some, who have become disenchanted with the leadership and direction of the national or even the state components of the Baptist movement, have found opportunities for fellowship and meaningful service in the area associations. Across the country, associations have indeed stepped up and become again full partners in the mission enterprise. Here one can have more control and involvement. Interestingly, this fits with the mood of the generation that is coming to power in our nation.
As folks come to realize this, one other concern about associational annual meetings may be addressed: Most of those who attend have gray, blue or no hair.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.