News Articles

Associations lend hand to local, international outreach

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When the copper mines near Ducktown, Tenn., closed, the sewing plants soon followed and unemployment spiked to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

For those who have remained in the area, times have been hard, but a small Baptist association, consisting of only 12 churches, is standing in the gap. “The government has met some of the people’s needs, but they’ve cut a lot of programs,” Al Patterson, director of missions with the Copper Basin Association, told Baptist Press. “We try to fill in where we can.”

Filling in has taken on new meaning for Patterson and the churches of the association. They have united to establish and fund a crisis ministry center that provides clothing, used furniture and food to 650 families each month. And every Christmas the association distributes gifts to any child who writes the associational office a letter about their needs and wants.

“Last year we received 925 letters,” Patterson said “Our churches and even some associations outside of the area, from other parts of Tennessee, helped us out. Every child received a gift or gifts. That made Christmas a little brighter for them.”

Each of the churches that make up the Copper Basin Association is small. No one church has more than 100 members in Sunday School, with some of them drawing 10 to 20 for worship. On any given Sunday, roughly 550 of the 6,000-7,000 people who live in the area gather at these Baptist churches, Patterson said.

In a very real sense, the Copper Basin Association is like Baptists’ first association in America, established in Philadelphia in 1707. Mostly rural and mostly poor people made up the Philadelphia Baptist Association as well. That did not, however, stop them from pooling their resources to spread the message of the Gospel throughout the American colonies. The association’s efforts eventually reached as far south as Charleston, S.C.

And like their Baptist forefathers 300 years ago, poverty hasn’t stood in the way of Christian service for the Copper Basin Association’s churches. They have gathered their resources to extend their reach as far as Jamaica to the south and to Eastern Europe. In Jamaica, the association is completing the construction of its second church building.

“It takes us about five to six years to complete a church, but the people are faithful,” Patterson said. “We believe missions is what it is all about. I try to equip and instill in people a love for missions.”

That same attitude is shared by the director of missions for the largest Baptist association in the country, Union Baptist Association in Houston. Tom Billings leads more than 630 churches in the Texas association in what he calls its “Great Commission Initiative,” a North American and international missions emphasis focused on church planting. The initiative employs the resources of both the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and relies on the cooperation of other major metropolitan Baptist associations in Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin.

“As America continues to change, we are going to have to think more and more like missionaries,” Billings said. “Houston is an all-minority community, meaning there is no one dominate ethnic group. There are more than 250 ethno-linguistic groups in the city and more than 144 languages spoken in the Harris County Public Schools.”

To meet this challenge, Billings said staff members with the association are training pastors and church leaders in some of the missions strategies they have learned overseas. More than half of the staff members participated last year in a major International Mission Board project. And Billings himself has done the same.

“I went to London and while I was there I became overwhelmed by the fact that there were church planting movements occurring around the world, but nothing like that was happening in America,” Billings said, adding that he hopes to change that in the metro Houston area.

Last year, the Union Baptist Association planted 50 churches in Houston, not including those churches planted in surrounding cities. The association also plans soon to deploy 3,000 “missionaries” in the city “just like at Pentecost,” Billings said.

Deploying such large numbers of volunteers is not an option for Eddie Miller, director of missions for the Sierra Baptist Association in western Nevada. Miller said he and the pastors in his area live in an “unsown field” with few workers.

“Where no seeds have been sown, no harvest can be had,” said Miller, the immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Directors of Missions. “We are really in a pre-Christian, post-modern culture where most people have never been affected by the Gospel.”

Ninety percent of the people in Miller’s association live in urban areas like Las Vegas, Reno, Carson City and Sparks. They are mostly Anglo and mostly English-speaking people with an independent Western spirit. Many have serious problems with gambling, alcohol and worse. A conservative estimate of the churched versus the unchurched population would reveal that 95 percent of the people in those urban areas have no relationship with God, Miller reported.

As a result, most of the churches that make up the Sierra Association are not large, and many of them have no permanent home. Of the 55 church works underway in the association, only 21 own buildings. The association also has no office.

“I work out of my home. As long as our churches are homeless, we’re going to be homeless,” Miller said. “I have one church that is still moving its supplies in and out of a trailer after 13 years.”

But the homelessness of the churches in the Sierra Association is not necessarily the main challenge of the work in the area. Instead, it is the low numbers of people who want to serve in a nontraditional setting, outside of the Bible Belt, that presents the greatest challenge.

“In the 15 years I’ve been in this role, I’ve had 15 people who left to go to seminary. None of them have returned,” Miller said. “And it’s hard to find new people.”

So the association is now working to train, coach and mentor new leaders from the area for local congregations, Miller said, adding that they likely will stay and build on what few others have done. And to solve the problem of educating ministers, the association has partnered with Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary to offer diploma studies in the area to newly called ministers.

“Those God calls, God equips,” Miller said. “We’re going to equip them.”

These ministers, equipped within the association, may find themselves working in some very non-traditional settings. That is perfectly acceptable to Miller, who said he believes many pastors are being trained to serve a style of church that no longer exists. Few churches in his area focus on programs or traditional ways of doing things. Churches in the Sierra Association try to do what works in that culture, Miller said.

“We’re trying to bless the broadest possible work we can,” Miller said. “We’re not trying to put anyone in a cubby hole. And there have been some surprising successes in places I didn’t expect it.”

Miller said the association has established a student ministry at the University of Nevada in Reno, and is emphasizing church planting. This is the kind of work associations are uniquely prepared to do, he said.

To the north in Kennewick, Wash., Garry Benfield, director of missions for the Columbia Basin Baptist Association, faces many of same challenges as Miller. His association of 27 churches until recently had nine pastorless churches. Benfield has been working to fill those pulpits with permanent pastors and interim ministers.

As in other parts of the West, the area’s population is shifting with the influx of Hispanic migrant workers who farm in the irrigated desert land. Benfield said the association, though it is “fairly traditional,” wants to evangelize the people. But, he noted, “Our greatest challenge is helping smaller churches find relevance within their communities. Things have really changed.”

Kennewick and nearby Richland and Pasco, a tri-cities area of roughly 140,000, make up most of the population in the Columbia Basin Association where the Snake and Columbia rivers meet. But there is a great deal of rural land to be covered as well. Catholics -– with the growing number of Hispanics –- and Mormons have a significant presence in the area. Sharing the Gospel with these groups across a broad area will take a strong effort from the association’s churches, most of which are also small.

“We care about the small church,” Benfield said. “We care about the rural church. We try to encourage the pastors and churches not to lose focus on what God really wants them to do.”

As a result, these small churches have united to host evangelistic events, while the association regularly relies on summer missionaries -– teams of three or four college students –- to make inroads among the younger citizens of southeast Washington state. Each year, an “impact team” from partner associations in Texas also comes to the area to work with skateboarders. Those efforts result in 10-15 salvations each summer and in more families attending the association’s churches, Benfield said.

The works of associations like those in Ducktown, Tenn., Houston, Nevada and Washington are being reproduced in more than 1,200 associations across the Southern Baptist Convention. The associations represent more than 43,000 churches, train ministers, assist churches in locating pastors and serve as an outlet for fellowship and mutual doctrinal accountability. But most importantly, their directors of missions say, they are primarily missional.

“We have to model a real passion for the unchurched. We have to maintain the missionary voice of one crying in the wilderness,” Miller said. “We are working hard to reach our Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.”

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin