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Shelby Baptist Association in Memphis, Tennessee, is seeking to expand into a regional Mid-South Baptist Association of Churches, reaching deep into neighboring states in an effort to bolster church-starting and mission efforts.

“The model of an association configured along county and/or state lines is no longer sufficient to meet the challenges of a rapidly growing and expanding metro region,” states a presentation document outlining plans of a blue-ribbon task force scheduled for vote this fall.

While traditional associations in the Southern Baptist Convention are set up according to geographical boundaries used to define political jurisdictions, economic patterns of production, consumption and social activity have shifted to metropolitan regions, according to the task-force findings.

Shelby Baptist Association is the currently fifth-largest association in the Southern Baptist Convention, numbering 143 congregations with a total membership of 100,000. Most of the member churches are located in Shelby County, Tennessee, but a few are across the county line.

The immediate greater-Memphis area as commonly defined, meanwhile, includes more than 1 million people in 16 cities, extending into eight counties in three states.

Beyond that, a broader pattern of 17 cities and more than 3 million people make up a mid-South region extending into 94 counties and six states, extending from south of Jackson, Miss., to Little Rock, Ark., in the west; into southeastern Missouri and touching parts of Kentucky and Illinois.

By pooling resources from a wider area, the proposal says, churches will be able to accomplish more. Specific goals call for planting 500 new churches by 2010, creating an internal communication network and developing the Cordova Retreat and Conference Center, an 85-acre camp owned by Shelby Association.

Expansion of the conference center would allow more opportunities for leadership development and missionary training. Plans also include creating a “city of refuge” for ministers in transition after being terminated by their churches. Other proposed ministries include disaster relief, assisting international missionaries on furlough and establishment of ministry centers to meet human need.

Implementation of the plan includes a challenge for churches to increase their associational giving from a current average of less than 1 percent of undesignated church gifts to 3 percent. That would provide funds for an annual budget of $1.9 million.

“The Mid-South Baptist Association will become a prototype for the future of Baptist associational work,” the presentation document says. “The model will significantly impact and influence this region through strengthening and starting churches. Beyond this the model will heavily influence the future of the SBC from the local to the national level well into the 21st century.”

“I believe in world missions as well as home missions, but I also believe missions starts here at our own door step,” Shelby Association Executive Director Ronnie Wilburn wrote in an article that appears on the Shelby Baptist Association Web site.

The initiative comes at a time when some conservative Baptists in Tennessee are ambivalent about the leadership and direction of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Feeling that religion faculties at Belmont and Carson-Newman universities are too liberal and the process of appointing leaders in the state convention is unduly influenced by members of the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, some are questioning whether efforts by conservatives would be better spent in continuing to try to influence the state convention or in splitting off into a separate group.

After a failed effort to infuse more conservative leaders at the convention’s annual meeting last fall, one pastor predicted “It’s going to cause many of us to rethink the way we support state mission giving,” according to a report in The Tennessean.

“Confidence and trust in our Tennessee Baptist Convention is lower than many have ever seen it,” Concerned Tennessee Baptists president Maston Jackson, a pastor from Knoxville, wrote in the group’s April newsletter.

At three regional meetings held by the conservative group in January, “There was much discussion about the possibility of starting a new conservative convention,” wrote Larry Reagan, pastor of Adams Chapel Baptist Church in Dresden, Tenn., in the same issue of the newsletter. “Some felt we should do this as soon as possible. Many felt that we should devote at least two more years in trying to implement the necessary changes to make the TBC the kind of convention that all Bible-believing Baptists could proudly participate [in].”

T.C. Pinckney, conservative editor of the Baptist Banner newspaper in Virginia, labeled Tennessee as a “problem for conservatives” in a wrap-up of state convention results in January.

The wide swath of the proposed association also takes in much of Mississippi, which Pinckney identified as another problem for conservatives, and traditionally conservative sections of western Kentucky and Tennessee, Arkansas, southeast Missouri and southern Illinois. It also encroaches into northwest Alabama.

Neither Wilburn, immediate past president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, nor an associate staff member at Shelby Association responded to e-mails questioning whether the move is related to conservative complaints about the state convention.

State convention executive directors in Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri also did not respond to e-mails asking for comment on the proposal.

Moderates in the area contacted by EthicsDaily.com said they had little first-hand knowledge of the plan.

The Shelby Association executive board approved the committee’s recommendations March 15. The plan now awaits final approval at the association’s annual meeting.

The first recommendation calls for changing the association’s name to the Mid-South Baptist Association. “This will better reflect our true identity as a regional association and remove geographical (county and state) boundaries that limit participation,” Wilburn reported in a column on the association’s Web site.

The second is to change the mission statement to define the association as “a fellowship of Southern Baptist churches organized to fulfill the Great Commission.”

An implementation plan calls for introducing, explaining and implementing the new model by fall of 2004, including a constitutional convention, and over two years developing a conference center for leadership development and to serve as a hub for a new church-starting network. The church-planting network, the proposal says, will work in partnership with churches, associations, state conventions, the North American Mission Board and Memphis-based Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.

Members of the blue-ribbon committee proposing the expansion include Adrian Rogers, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the 27,000-member Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn.

Other members include Dale Ellenburg, academic vice president at Mid-American Baptist Theological Seminary; Sam Shaw and Mark Morris, respectively senior pastor and pastor for missions and ministries at Germantown Baptist Church; Danny Sinquefield, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Bartlett, Tenn.; Dale Gravatt of Wells Station Baptist Church in Memphis; Davy Henderson of Covenant Baptist Church in Collierville, Tenn.; Bob Pitman of Kirby Woods Baptist Church; and Billy Skinner, Greg Spears and Wilburn from the Shelby Baptist Association staff.

While the task group is comprised of conservative Southern Baptists, their thinking parallels that of moderates in North Carolina, who, weary of yearly battles for control of the state convention, are discussing forming new regional structures based on affinity rather than geography.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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