Association will stretch past borders
___By Marv Knox
___BIRMINGHAM, Ala.--Texans affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have voted to form an association of churches that would extend beyond the borders of the Lone Star State.
___The Baptist Association of the Southwest would relate to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. But it could include churches in at least three border states--Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, according to a report presented by a special committee created to study the endeavor.
___If it develops as planned, the Baptist Association of the Southwest would become the 115th association affiliated with the BGCT. The concept was approved without dissent by Texans attending the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's general assembly in Birmingham, Ala., June 24.
___Traditionally, associations are comprised of churches of similar faith and practice within a defined, and usually small, geographic territory inside the borders of one state.
___Associations tend to cooperate to provide ministries, do mission work and share fellowship.
___The same would be true for the new association, except its borders would encompass several states, said George Mason, chairman of the study committee and pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.
___The new association has been prompted by ostracism several out-of-state moderate churches have felt from their local associations and state conventions, as well as some Texas churches' frustrations with their own associations, Mason said.
___"Our state convention is in a positive relationship with our churches. We want to continue our relationship," he said.
___"But for (moderate) churches in Oklahoma and Louisiana--their state conventions aren't as open as ours is in looking for options for relationships," he added
___Both Mason and Susan McMillian of First Heritage Baptist Church in Houston described tensions related to starting churches in relationship with their associations.
___Wilshire is a sponsoring congregation of CityChurch in Dallas, and Dallas Baptist Association's support is being discontinued because the church called a woman as pastor, Mason said.
___First Heritage has felt restricted by Union Baptist Association's screening prerequisites for providing financial support for new churches, McMillian added.
___"It is unwritten but traditional BGCT policy for money for church starts to follow associational approval," Mason said. "This is delegating the autonomy of the state convention to the association.
___"A regional association could create a better situation for our new work in relationship to the BGCT. This new association could back the new work.
___"Our strategy is to maximize our potential for starting churches and position us well for cooperative ministry ventures," he elaborated.
___The new association would not force churches to choose between affiliation with it and the associations to which they currently relate, he noted.
___Participating churches could be dually aligned with their local association and with the Baptist Association of the Southwest.
___Planners intend for the new association to be strongly affiliated with and supportive of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Mason stressed.
___This contrasts with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, a conservative group that set up a competing state convention last fall, he said.
___"We want to maintain our strong, constructive relationships with the BGCT," he added.
___The proposal tries to strike a fine balance for participating churches, Mason said.
___"What would be the best configuration to strengthen our ties with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship national and also be constructive in relationship to the BGCT?" he asked by way of explanation.
___"We don't want just another organization floating out there, competing with our state convention. But we want to be connected in a cooperative way."
___The proposal for a new association also is not connected to Baylor University Chancellor Herbert Reynolds' call for a Baptist Convention of the Americas, Mason said.
___Last fall, Reynolds challenged Texas Baptists to form the nucleus of a continentwide convention as an alternative to continued participation in the conservative-dominated Southern Baptist Convention.
___"This new association does not have any direct relation to what he talked about," Mason said.
___ "There may be some confluence of agreement, but our proposal reflects the day and time in which we live," he noted. "This is an age of communication and travel, in which the spread of relationships is not bound by state lines.
___"So, it's coincidental but not surprising that what we propose lines up with Dr. Reynolds' idea. But this is not a step toward that kind of convention."
___This new association would be appreciated by moderate Baptists in Texas' border states, said Bob Stephenson, a lay member of First Baptist Church in Norman, Okla.
___"We're a very strong church, but we have no place to go," Stephenson said of his congregation, which is strongly moderate and therefore out of step with the conservative-controlled Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
___The Norman church has started eight mission congregations and gives $500,000 a year to missions, Stephenson said, noting, "We'd be an asset to you."
___Six or seven "good, strong moderate churches" in Oklahoma would be immediate candidates for membership in the new association, Stephenson predicted.
___The BGCT's constitution does not prevent non-geographic associations or affiliation with out-of-state churches, reported Ed Schmeltekopf, the convention's associate executive director.
___From the 1890s until after World War II, the BGCT affiliated with the German Baptist Association, comprised of German-speaking churches located across the state, he said. Individual German Baptist churches also related to their local English-speaking district associations.
___For about 30 years up to 1985, Baptists in Minnesota-Wisconsin were members of associations affiliated with the BGCT, Schmeltekopf added. Every year, they faithfully sent messengers to the BGCT annual session.
___Also, some Baptists from just beyond the state line have been seated as messengers to the annual session, he said.
___The BGCT's constitution does not address state residency in its policies regarding seating messengers from affiliated churches, he pointed out.
___However, the constitution does require that members of BGCT institutional boards "shall be active members of cooperating Baptist churches in the state of Texas."
___A committee with members from Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas will work on preparing the foundation of the new association, Mason announced.
___Its "constituting convocation" will be held March 31-April 1, 2000, in Dallas.
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