I enjoy interacting with other pastors and do so as often as I can, considering the church where I serve is in a comparatively rural community. Sometimes that interaction is face-to-face, and sometimes it takes place electronically. One topic that is frequently raised in casual conversations is whether or not church associations still have value today. Sometimes concerns are practical: “I can’t spare the time,” or “The distance is too imposing.” Some objections are more principled: “My priority is the local church,” or “You don’t see associations in the Bible.” Others are generally indifferent: “Our church is doing fine on its own,” or “Who needs more potential headaches?” If you’re one of those kinds of people, or you know a pastor who is, I would like to offer three reasons why you should rethink your approach and make a church association a higher priority than it might currently be for you.
1. Friendships are important. I will concede that you will have a hard time finding a formal church association structure described or prescribed in the New Testament. You don’t see things like church membership rolls and church clerks either—but we see such things warranted by the need to identify and define a local assembly. A pastor is going to one day give an account for those he shepherds (Hebrews 13:17), so these things aid in identifying those he is responsible for.
In a similar way, while we may not see organized associations prescribed in the New Testament, we do see a general expectation to maintain a spirit of fraternity and brotherhood in passages such as Hebrews 13:1, 1 Peter 2:17, and 1 Thessalonians 4:9. Hebrews 10:24 says believers are to provoke one another to love and good works. The Pauline epistles offer evidence that congregations regularly interacted with one another. The epistle to the Colossians was to be shared with the church in Laodicea. Galatians was written to a group of churches. The Corinthians are commended for their generosity in giving to help another congregation. Personal greetings from specific parties in one church to those in another are frequent throughout. The model provided by the early church in Scripture certainly seems to indicate at the very least a fraternal bond between congregations.
We know that personal friendships are seen as valuable throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The best ones are those that stay with you through adversity. When established in a church association, we must not forget that the formal structures are but mechanisms to encourage relationships that can be drawn on in difficult times. Waiting until your church actually encounters difficulty to find others to stand with and lean on is at best negligent, and at worst selfish and conceited. If your church is strong and prospering, investing it in the life of an association should be seen as an opportunity to aid those struggling, for the strong to bear the infirmities of the weak.
2. The benefit of perspective. Proverbs establishes multiple times the value of wise counsel and counselors (11:14; 12:15; 15:22; 19:20; et al.). Churches should be mindful of the benefit of experience and expertise when they can minister to and serve each other in this way. Whether it is a young pastor gaining encouragement from a man with more experience, a congregation receiving guidance as it looks for new leadership, or even businesspeople in one congregation sharing the benefit of their perspective with a sister congregation that is traveling new ground, maintaining an active presence in an association is to a large degree about maintaining a pool of counselors.
3. Shared resources = greater success in responsibilities. In a time when many churches are experiencing decline, pooling resources to better accomplish together what we could not do alone becomes an even greater priority in establishing and perpetuating local churches. The collaboration of like-minded congregations has enabled missionary efforts from this country for well over a century. Ministries like camps, publishing, and education become more efficient and achievable when congregations work together. Many churches may never have the capability to develop and finance a pastor or missionary in another location, but they can find ways to contribute in that process with other congregations. The process of making disciples is a defining responsibility of any true church of Jesus Christ, but the capabilities and relative strengths of each church will vary greatly from one congregation to the next. The efforts of a collaborative association should never take the place of an individual congregation’s sense of obligation to obey. However, a church that identifies and utilizes compatible partners will generally increase its efficiency and productivity.
How Can I Encourage Greater Fellowship Between Churches?
- Start a pastors’ reading group. I am currently participating in a group that meets about once a quarter. We rotate the book selection responsibilities among the participants and meet for breakfast, discussion, and prayer.
- Familiarize your congregation with area pastors. Consider using other pastors to speak at events like youth events, men’s fellowships, banquets, or similar occasions. Occasionally invite other pastors to fill your pulpit during a regular service, and be available to do the same in other churches too.
- Pray publicly for sister congregations. This can be for specific needs as they arise or more regularly in a rotation—for churches in your state or regional association, for example.
- Keep communication open. With electronic communication, this is very easy to do. Solicit input from others when you need advice, even on everyday things like which commentary to purchase or a good place to buy a car. When scheduling missionaries on deputation or furlough, consider working with neighboring congregations for ease in travel.
- Travel together. I have found that some of the best conversations and friendships forged with other pastors have taken place while carpooling to a conference or board meeting. Take the opportunity to reach out; stretch across age differences too.
- Look beyond your traditional boundaries. There are like-minded churches with whom we may not be formally affiliated. Whether or not they ever take the step of organized fellowship, reaching out and building bridges can create opportunities for possible collaboration and networking that would not be realized otherwise. Take the initiative and start something!
Comment on this article: In what ways do you (or would you) facilitate interaction between congregations?
Greg Linscott is pastor of First Baptist Church, Marshall, Minn.