This year marks the 300th anniversary of the first association of Baptist churches formed in what is now the United States of America.
Inspired by a book by Paul Stripling, who outlines 10 Turning Points in the History of Baptist Associations in America, I offer my own list from study of the 172-year-old association I serve in rural Alabama. My list of turning points is a little different and longer. The differences relate primarily to setting and size. They are:
1. The two Great Awakenings of religion in America. Circa 1750 and 1800, these movements multiplied Baptists and thrust us, along with the Methodists, into a rush to evangelize the western frontier. The first churches in our area appeared about 1823. In 1835 an association of Baptist churches was formed by 19 of these churches.
2. Great diversity among Baptists in the 1800s resulted in splintering the Baptist movement. Primitives, anti-mission, Free Will, Reformers/Restorers and Freedmen all formed separate denominations. Like most, our association was affected by some of these controversies.
3. State and national conventions were birthed. Our association joined both the Alabama Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Convention in the 1840s. While it is sometimes forgotten, many churches and associations predate the conventions.
4. Annual meetings of rural associations throughout much of the 19th century were like camp meetings, three- or four-day affairs. Typically they met in the fall at a host church. While the messengers dealt with business issues and heard reports, a revival-like meeting with lots of preaching was held for the non-messengers in a nearby grove, arbor or meetinghouse of another denomination. Associations were concerned with planting new churches, revitalizing those that had fallen on hard times, doctrinal purity and harmony.
As Baptists increased in number, new programs such as Sunday school and Woman’s Missionary Union were added to the work of the conventions. As the conventions and their institutions grew, their representatives began to visit associational meetings to seek support for programs, boards and agencies.
Perhaps threatened by the shift in emphasis, associations formed executive committees to transact the work of the association between the annual meetings–ensuring they weren’t just a once-a-year factor. This was a major shift.
5. Around 1900 associations began to allow women to serve as messengers. This predated both the federal government and SBC in recognizing women’s rights to speak out and vote. In recent years, women have been the majority of messengers at the annual meetings of my association.
6. About 1920 the state and national conventions asked associations to redraw their boundaries to coincide with county lines. Many did. Our association lost several churches and changed its name from Union to Pickens in 1924. What had been a “centered affinity” group was recast as a ” bounded geographic” group. Recently, some associations have reversed the trend.
7. The Cooperative Program was adopted for unified funding of state and national conventions in 1925. It excluded associations in shared funding. Over time, conventions came to dominate associations as a result.
8. The number of rural Baptist churches declined from about 1890 to the end of World War II. Conventions launched a program to strengthen rural churches, moving thousands of them from being quarter- or half-time, to worshiping every Sunday and having a full complement of programs and activities. To make this happen conventions and the Home Mission Board assisted associations financially in hiring and training missionaries. This allowed Baptists to grow in rural areas, while many other denominations were closing rural and village churches.
9. Urbanization brought far greater diversity among associations. In cities like Atlanta, Memphis and Louisville there was a great challenge to plant new congregations and provide social ministries. Suburbanization since the 1970s left some of these city associations diminished. Formerly rural associations ringing those cities have grown dramatically.
10. Growing diversity in size and economic strength of associations required customized relationships with state and national conventions. Tasks and challenges of small associations are not the same as large ones.
11. The post-World War II push to transform the Southern Baptist Convention from a regional to national body was facilitated by the deployment of associational missionaries to start and develop new congregations in the North and the West. Unlike indigenous associations in the South, these often took on the character more of a top-down organizational structure than of a natural development from the grassroots.
12. Because of the relative homogeneity of the rural associations, denominational conflict of the nearly past three decades has less impact there than the turning point it created in metropolitan associations like Atlanta or Waco. But it has changed the character of conventions to which we relate, and the services they provide.
13. There does seem to be a consensus that entities of the Southern Baptist Convention do not understand or well-serve needs and concerns of rural churches and associations. Our state convention does better.
14. Rural associations are challenged by the need to refocus from being a franchise for convention programs to mission work. This means finding people groups and places to form congregations and ministries. It means supporting mission efforts in places beyond geographic boundaries where needs are great and resources are limited.
For an organization to survive, it needs to continue to make adjustments to its changing environment.
Our rural association is doing many good things. There is much more that needs to be done. It has changed and will continue to change. It is 172 years old. It will continue as far into the future as anyone can see.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.