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Associations help churches advance the Gospel


Kelly Hopkins/Communication Services

During the Annual Meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention last November, 20,906 backpacks were collected, destined for children throughout Appalachia.


DULUTH — In November 2013 when Georgia Baptists gathered for their annual meeting, churches brought scores of stuffed backpacks. Responding to the challenge of convention President John Waters, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Statesboro, Baptists eventually collected 20,906 backpacks destined for children throughout Appalachia.

As state missionary Frank Nuckolls observed the collection of multi-colored backpacks filled with toys and clothing, he readily admits becoming emotional.

“I got so emotional to realize what God had done through Georgia Baptists,” Nuckolls said. “Another 20,000-plus children will have Christmas this year and will have a Bible and a copy of the Christmas story that will tell them the true meaning of Christmas. It was tears of joy.”

Laced with those tears of joy were tears of satisfaction. Once again, Georgia’s associations had proven to be the necessary infrastructure for yet another successful initiative that resulted in an estimated $1.5 million of in-kind donations to the children.

“Georgia’s associations were great partners in the promotion, collecting, and delivery of backpacks to the Convention and regional locations,” said Nuckolls, who coordinated the effort for the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) and serves as specialist in associational missions, disaster relief, and missions mobilization.

Appalachian Regional Ministries

An unidentified girl receives a gift backpack at one of the dropoff sites in Appalachia. Georgia Baptists worked with the North American Mission Board to distribute backpacks in the 12-state area.

Among the success stories were Bethel, Bowen, and North Georgia Baptist associations, with each collecting about 400 backpacks, while the Woman’s Missionary Union in Ogeechee River Baptist Association (Statesboro) led an effort that resulted in about 900 backpacks.

Did you know this about associations?

Associations are typically geographically based. However, with the advent of technology and growing denominational diversity, some associations are now “virtual” and based upon affinity.

Last year in Georgia, one-third of the church plants were African-American, most of which were associated with the Southwest Atlanta Baptist Association that formed in 2010.

Associations support local churches and provide the infrastructure for national ministries and initiatives such as Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and Backpacks for Appalachia.

Local Baptist associations date back to England in the seventeenth century and first formed more than 300 years ago in the United States. While associations have changed through the years, several fundamental elements have remained. Associations provide fellowship among local churches, a means of cooperation among those churches, and a method for Gospel advancement.

Church historian Mark Noll details the influence of evangelicalism on the formation of this nation in his book America’s God. Methodists and Baptists led the way for Gospel advancement on this soil, particularly as the nation migrated westward.

These two denominations successfully planted churches, Noll said, because they each had a strategic system. Methodists utilized circuit-riding preachers who served multiple churches. Meanwhile, Baptists continued to reproduce the associational model that connected new church plants while providing a forum for the planting of more churches. As associations grew, so did the number of new churches.

Associations have matured to the point that Georgia has grown from its first, Georgia Baptist Association (GBA) in Washington, which formed in 1784, to 92 associations today. GBA precedes both the GBC (1822) and the Southern Baptist Convention (1845).

The autonomous nature of Southern Baptists is evident among associations. As a primary GBC service provider to associations, Nuckolls must customize training for each association. The strength of the association drives that reality. Associations are local entities, and leaders there understand the context of ministry in their area or among their affinity group.

“The associational missionaries that are relevant today are the ones that are developing and maintaining relationships with churches and church leaders that are networking with churches to do missions and ministry together,” Nuckolls said. “That’s why developing missional strategies as an association is very important.”

Supported by the Cooperative Program, Nuckolls is able to consult with associations and guide them through a strategy planning process. Consequently, few Georgia associations look the same. For example, Augusta Baptist Association has developed a cross-cultural approach to missions while Mission Columbus has developed a ministry for parolees. In Bartow Baptist Association, the emphasis is on prayer and spiritual renewal while North Central Baptist Association has multiple ethnic church plants and missions partnerships, both international and in Appalachia.

Despite the variance of strategies within associations across the state, Nuckolls finds a growing emphasis on church planting. One of Georgia Baptists’ newest associations, Southwest Atlanta Baptist Association, which is predominantly African-American, accounted for about one-third of Georgia Baptists’ new churches during the last 12 months.

“In a lot of ways, associational missionaries help churches understand that the association is a mission field,” Nuckolls said. “Then they guide churches to work together strategically to penetrate the lost population in that mission field.”

That penetration often leads to new church plants.

“I see the role of the associational missionary in church planting to not necessarily plant the churches, but to be a catalyst for church planting,” Nuckolls said. “The associational missionary helps churches to understand where there is a need to reach unreached people groups, whether Anglo, African-American, or ethnic, and put together a strong team of churches to help plant that church.”

Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming.