By Rick Wheeler, Lead Missional Strategist for the Jacksonville Baptist Association in Jacksonville, FL

Five years ago this month, I became the Lead Missional Strategist for the Jacksonville Baptist Association (JBA). When I started, I brought no five-year plan in my pocket. Instead, I stepped into a journey with our association’s pastors and church leaders, praying together and seeking God’s direction on what a local SBC network should look like in the 21st century. And during this time, I’ve been blessed to see something unprecedented in my [cough, cough] years of ministry: God is consistently bringing churches together within our association to form new lanes of missional collaboration.

I’ve endured challenges and worked through my fair share of frustrations. Collaboration is hard work. But the joy of seeing the mission force more fully engage the mission field is worth the effort! Nothing can replace the joy of seeing like-minded churches come together to bring the hope of the gospel to every group of people in every area of our city. Christians have always worked better together than alone. If we want to see the gospel advance in our national and international efforts, we must learn to cooperate effectively again. How we cooperate most effectively is up for discussion. That we cooperate is not.

As I reflect on the past five years, I want to share a few things I have learned which may be helpful to others seeking fresh ways to position their local network to be relevant and effective. Here are four ways local church networks can be vibrant avenues for engagement in the mission:

1. Church revitalization and replanting requires a strategic relationship between local churches.

There are many churches that are in need of outside assistance. There are also many other churches that are ready to partner with them. Healthy local networks provide a critical hub to launch these partnerships. In our JBA network, for instance, we have seen ten successful church restart partnerships in the past several years. In every single case, someone outside both churches needed to make the initial connections to begin the conversation. Just this week, I conducted a debrief conversation two years after a successful church replant. Both the re-launched church and the partnering church affirmed the critical role the local network leadership played. This kind of mutual support is critical for any successful kingdom venture.

2. Church planting is healthier and more viable with strong support from sponsoring churches.

New churches need a lot of support, and while this can be done from a distance, it is more effective when the new church has help from the same region. To provide the best possible soil for a new work to begin, local associations can offer staff support, volunteer leadership, pastoral coaching, and sometimes even office space. The leaders of healthy churches are giving their attention—rightly so—to their growing congregation. They often lack what local associations specialize in—the bandwidth to discover, coach, and assess potential church planters. Sending churches (even larger ones) can benefit, too, from these networks. And why not bring other churches along with you in your planting efforts? Isn’t that what good leadership is—helping others do what God has taught you to do? Our own association has seen the impact of this: The churches in our network have collaborated to launch 49 new diverse churches in the past five years, many within the urban core of our city. The survival rate among these new churches is over 80%.

3. Local missions collaboration moves us towards the nations.

Effectiveness in cross-cultural missions overseas begins with learning how to bridge social, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic barriers in your own city.  Local associations can help develop the skills in people that will lead to a life-long passion for missions.

We have also seen our associations facilitate cooperation in overseas work.  One of our churches sponsored a pastor of another church to go on his first international mission trip. As a result, several churches joined together to target a previously unreached people group. Other churches have partnered together to reach foreign nationals within their own community through cooperative ministry to refugees and other immigrants. This is a beautiful expression of the body of Christ proclaiming a united gospel witness on both a local and a global scale.

4. As we seek to plant churches and make disciples of all nations, we can only reproduce who we are.

Church plants which are healthy, engaged, and connected well within their contexts can only be birthed by churches that are… healthy, engaged, and connected within their local context. As our culture in North America becomes increasingly antagonistic towards believers, we must seek partnership and unity with our Kingdom neighbors in a counter-cultural movement to bring hope and peace. We must continuously ask, “What does it look like to be the people of God in our city or region?” A great place to start is by building better relationships between pastors and church leaders in your area. Strive to make more connections around key priorities. God tends to birth new missional partnerships from relationships formed in these groups.

If you are already part of a strong local association or state convention, be involved and invest deeply. If you are dissatisfied by your local SBC expression, then join hands with others to make it better! Look for Kingdom-minded leaders who will help you create something so beneficial to the mission that it cannot be ignored. Your local association (and the entire SBC) belongs to the churches, not the other way around. So even if partnering with other churches takes time, demands sacrifice, and is filled with frustration, don’t give up. The Kingdom benefits are worth the effort!

Rick Wheeler serves as the lead missional strategist for the Jacksonville Baptist Association, a network of Southern Baptist churches that exists to engage the mission force with the mission field both in Jacksonville and beyond.