This week marks the beginning of the Dixie Jackson Offering for state missions here in Arkansas. Last week, I put up posters on the bulletin board, put the prayer guide in the bulletin, and showed a video in worship service about what this offering funds in our part of the state. It’s also the time of year where I begin making plans to attend the state convention annual meeting in October.
There was a time in my ministry life that such things would have been, at best, done as an obligation. Like many Christians of my generation and younger, I didn’t identify strongly with the denomination to which my church belonged, and I certainly didn’t have much enthusiasm for denominational programs. I was baptized in a Bible church, and only became a member of a Baptist church as a teenager. When I first entered ministry, I still didn’t consider myself “Baptist” as much as simply “Christian.”
There are some legitimate reasons that denominational loyalty has faded in recent years, and, for the most part, it is a good thing for the unity of the body of Christ as a whole for these lines not to be so sharply drawn. Over the course of my service in ministry, however, I have become an increasingly loyal Southern Baptist, and the primary reason for that is the cooperative structures that are in place to support and mutually encourage the local church and to grow the kingdom of God.
My time as a small-town pastor has only increased this appreciation. In fact, I think a small-town pastor who does not involve himself and his church in cooperative work is selling himself and his church short. Here are six reasons why denominational connection is a must for small-town churches and pastors:
It helps shift your church’s focus outward. One of the biggest dangers for a small church is to retreat into “survival mode,” where the focus is all about their own needs and crises. A church that lives this way begins to believe that the best they can expect is to keep the doors open. It’s an important part of a pastor’s job in this situation to find ways to turn the congregation’s eyes outward. Regular cooperative giving even in difficult financial times can help the church to trust God collectively in the same way a family learns to trust God when they give a tithe in faith, even when money is tight. Giving the people opportunity to serve in and to support ministry that does not directly affect their own church helps to cast a kingdom vision.
Your church realizes they are part of something bigger than this local body. A small church, especially in a country setting, can feel very isolated and insignificant. But even in times when the church is just limping along, a church who participates in cooperative and missions giving can be a part of God’s kingdom success all over the region, state, and world. These different missions offerings over the course of the year can encourage people that God is at work everywhere, and that they are a part of it. This truth becomes even more tangible when your church moves from only giving money to actively participating in mission work at whatever level is the best fit.
You have access to the resources of God’s kingdom. In a small church, there is always a question of resources: we need more money and we need more people. When you connect to the denomination, the pool of resources gets a lot larger in every way. In Arkansas, our state leaders will come to do ministry at our church with no cost required (we usually reimburse expenses, but they don’t ask for it). You can organize a mission team to come work in your town for their mission trip. There are many ways that the resources of the kingdom are made available for those who aren’t afraid to ask, seek, and knock.
There is help available when you need it. Part of those resources is the help and support when needs and questions arise. The temptation as a pastor is to believe that you are alone. There have been several occasions over my time here in Stephens where I needed anything from an answer to a specific question, to advice, to support and encouragement, and people have been available to me because of these denominational connections. Doing this job is hard; it is foolish pride not to reach out and receive the help that is willingly offered to you.
There are opportunities for mentorship. It’s crucial for pastors to have a support network, especially pastors with no other staff. Finding a network of friends among other pastors deserves a blog post all on its own, but I will say here that the value of having regular access to a ministry veteran who knows you well and believes in you is beyond measure. These relationships are found most easily during times of cooperation and fellowship at the state and association level.
There are opportunities for mutual encouragement. Another relationship a pastor needs is another ministry friend who can provide support and encouragement as your equal, meaning that you both feel free to be completely open with your frustrations, joys, thoughts, and dreams–someone to pray for you and with you. It’s also good, as you grow in ministry, to find someone in whom you can invest. Denominational work puts you in contact with others in your situation.
The Bible reminds us that we are one body with many parts. It’s a temptation in small-town work to either be the part that says, “Because we’re small, we’re not a part of the body,” or to be the one that says to the rest of the body, “I don’t need you.” But godly wisdom repudiates both statements. The small-town church is an indispensable part of God’s work in the world, and everyone, no matter how small or large the congregation, needs the life-giving connection to the larger body of Christ.