By Milton A. Hollifield, Jr., Executive Director-Treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina
In today’s church culture, it is not unusual to hear someone ask about the value of state conventions. For many, they may seem like an unnecessary bureaucracy. But I am convinced that state conventions have great importance—if they are embracing the opportunities for advancing God’s Kingdom by assisting, equipping, and challenging their member churches to fulfill the Great Commission.
Our culture is changing rapidly. For some of us, that’s a burden to endure; for others, it’s an opportunity we enjoy. However, we must all acknowledge that change is inevitable. And if our society is changing, the relationship between our state conventions and our churches has got to change, too. If we want to make a dent in the lostness of our nation, our conventions must learn and adapt, so that the help we’re offering our churches is contextually fruitful.
In North Carolina, for instance, churches cooperating with our state convention were once predominantly rural because our state was predominantly rural. In recent decades, however, our state has become increasingly urban and suburban. I have watched some congregations respond positively by employing new strategies to engage lostness in their communities. I’ve also watched, with some disappointment, as other congregations dug in their heels, refusing to acknowledge these societal changes and drawing in only the people who look like themselves. These churches still want to engage lostness and make disciples, but they are missing huge opportunities to do so.
As a state convention, we must help our congregations:
- recognize the lostness around them and
- develop strategies for engaging lostness through disciple-making.
In North Carolina, our research has provided some astonishing data regarding changes taking place in our state:
- Our population is nearly 10 Million.
- The 100 most concentrated pockets of lostness are located in 8 population centers.
- Over 300 languages are spoken by people living in North Carolina.
- 154 different people groups now reside in North Carolina.
- Members of more than 80 of the world’s Unreached Unengaged People Groups (UUPGs) can be found here, and this number continues to grow.
- The Hispanic population in our state is just under 1 million, and will increase by another 1/2 million by 2025 (source).
While several of these statistics appear to impact only those churches living in the growing population centers (urban and suburban areas), these population changes should impact the Acts 1:8 strategies of rural churches as well. For example, while we encourage churches to seek out UUPGs around the world for whom to pray and engage, many of our rural churches don’t have to travel to Asia to engage a specific UUPG, because members of many Asian UUPGs now reside in North Carolina. By reaching those living in our state, we may reach the individuals best capable of taking the gospel to other members of their people group.
These local opportunities do not negate our commission to go to the ends of the earth, but they make it apparent that our strategies must change as the ends of the earth are now within the borders of our own state. God wants us to reach the nations, and the nations are coming to us. Why would we neglect that?
So how should churches respond to the change taking place around them? And what role do state conventions play in these responses? Here are three ways state conventions can be strategic partners with our local congregations:
First, state conventions are strategic partners in church strengthening. Healthy individuals can always do something to be a little healthier. And healthy churches can always become stronger. State conventions can aid in this by equipping churches to engage in disciple-making activities like evangelism, discipleship, as well as mission projects and partnerships. We work to strengthen churches in North Carolina so that those congregations will see the need to engage in church planting, strengthening other congregations, and missionary activities among the lost in North Carolina and around the world.
Second, state conventions are strategic partners in church planting. The key word here is “partners.” Conventions don’t plant churches. Churches plant churches. This means that state conventions are not necessarily central, though they are incredibly vital. State conventions provide training and other resources to assist churches in their church planting efforts, many of which would not be possible apart from the convention’s help. The need for church planting in North Carolina is immense, and we in the state convention want to do everything we can to mobilize our congregations to get involved. With over 300 languages spoken in this state and churches in only half those languages, we have our work cut out for us.
Third, state conventions are strategic partners in church revitalization. Every church has a life cycle. Specific situations may be more complex, but in general, it looks something like this: growing churches are on the incline; plateaued churches are on the recline; and churches on the decline are those moving towards the end of their life cycle.
Some churches can be revitalized. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s a remarkable act of God. When an existing congregation embraces a new vision and establishes new ministries to engage their communities, suddenly they start making disciples again. Other churches, sadly, are simply too far down the church life cycle. Thus, while the existing congregation with its existing ministries will not continue, there are still God-honoring options for this type of declining church. A new congregation with new ministries might arise through a church re-start, a merger, or even a new church plant.
State conventions provide a framework in which churches, regardless of their location or their size, can be a part of the larger efforts to strengthen, plan, and revitalize congregations throughout that state. When churches that are strengthened, revitalized and planted then join in the larger North American and world-wide efforts to impact lostness through disciple-making, we see the value of our cooperation on the larger scale, and we more effectively fulfill the Great Commission.
No longer should individual congregations be allowed to feel they have “done their part” simply because they have contributed financially. The need is too great, the hour is too near, and the beauty of the gospel is too precious for us to give anything less than our all. It’s time for us to give to the cause, to pray for the lost, and to demonstrate the love of Christ—to families in our communities and around the world.