More than thirty years ago Bushey Baptist Church encouraged
me to become a lay preacher in Hertfordshire Baptist Association. By the time I
came before the Association Ministerial Recognition Committee five years later
I had preached in half of the churches of the Association, and at least half of
the Committee members had actually heard me preach. It may have helped that two
ministers on the MRC also knew me because I happened to have taught chemistry
to their sons. That kind of coincidence could happen in an Association made up of
around 40 churches.
When I became Associate Minister in Tunbridge Wells the Kent
Baptist Association was made up of around sixty churches. But there was still a
family feel. It helped that the annual assembly was rarely more than half an
hour away. The monthly district fraternal was always welcoming and worthwhile
and we always saw the Association Secretary there because he was a local
minister serving the Association part time. The post of Association President
gave a feeling of unity as he or she always tried to preach in as many of the
churches as possible in their year of office. And Association Sunday where
ministers and lay-preachers exchanged pulpits also gave an annual reminder of
the greater whole to which we belonged.
Studies in both church growth and in group dynamics identify
limits beyond which a collection of people are no longer able to relate to one
another as a single group and have to
function as a related set of groups. In the same way there appears to be a
limit on the number of churches which can meaningfully relate to each other.
That limit was higher than the numbers of churches belonging to any of the 29
Baptist Associations which existed before 2002. But that limit is exceeded in
all of the 13 Regional Associations since.
Many of us earnestly pray that one major outcome of the
Baptist Union Futures Process will be a rediscovery of the vitality and mutual
support of associating in fellowship and mission.