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Baptist association looks to faith-filled future

By Margaret Colson

January 28, 2014


JACKSONVILLE—Although Jacksonville Baptist Association held its 135th annual meeting just weeks ago, make no mistake, it’s not time to pull out the rocking chairs, share nostalgia or even … ask for a senior discount.


Jacksonville Baptist Association, with its 209 member congregations mirroring its multicultural city, has a “faith-filled vision of the future,” said Rick Wheeler, the association’s lead missional strategist (formerly known as director of missions) since 2011.


The association, through its member churches, is dreaming of “city transformation.” We dream of seeing the gospel transform lives, and all of the city changed for God’s glory.


“If you want to impact the city for Christ, the gospel has to be congregationalized,” he quickly added.


In other words, congregations—not the association as a denominational entity—are in the trenches of the city—fulfilling the Great Commission, said Wheeler whose ministry led him to the local church, state convention and, now, Baptist association.


The role of the association, he said, is to be a “facilitator” or “helper” for the churches, rather than trying to oversee or direct them.


Simply put, “Baptist associations are voluntary networks of local Baptist churches, cooperating for Kingdom work in a region, (such as) around a city or a designated rural area,” explained David Tarkington, pastor of First Baptist Church of Orange Park and former associational pastor.


“In fact, associations are older networks than state conventions.”


In many areas throughout the country, some associations are struggling to survive, some even dying a slow death, he noted.


Florida Baptist Convention leader Bob Bumgarner understands the dilemma that many associations find themselves in, and he also understands why Jacksonville Baptist Association is different.


“Some Baptist associations are ‘behaving’ as relics. They are answering questions that pastors and leaders of Baptist churches are no longer asking.


“On the other hand Rick is helping answer a question that pastors wake up thinking about every day, ‘How can I reach my city with the gospel?’ Or, in Rick's words, ‘How do I engage the mission field with the mission force?’”


When Wheeler came into his associational role in July 2011, he discovered a “readiness from the churches to collaborate in missional initiatives. The sacrificial willingness of the churches to partner toward a common goal exceeded my expectations.”


Building on the foundation of his predecessor Ron Rowe, the newly minted associational leader “helped his team see what it is, what it could be and what it must be in this globally strategic city,” recalled Bumgarner.


Since that time, much has changed, including the association’s bylaws and even Wheeler’s title.


Yet, the only change in Wheeler’s passion to “come alongside churches as their partner” is that it has intensified.


Wheeler, along with the other associational team members, “have been very strategic to move the association to be a conduit for increased Kingdom work,” said Tarkington.


Today Jacksonville Association’s work centers around three “E’s”: expand the network by starting healthy, multiplying churches, with a goal of 200 new churches; engage the city by being on mission through Jacksonville; and equip the saints, by training leaders.


Those three “E’s” help Wheeler and his team make sometimes tough decisions.


“Rick has the spiritual clarity and the emotional resilience to know what to say ‘no’ to and what to say ‘yes’ to. Every time he says no, I promise you, that no is rooted in a bigger yes! Yes to disciple making. Yes to mission engagement. Yes to supporting and championing the local church leader,” explained Bumgarner.


Some of the ways the associational priorities are lived out are through support of an orphanage in Port au Prince, Haiti; a city-to-city missions partnership with Toronto, Ontario, Canada; peer coaching; starting churches; and a process entitled RenewJax to help declining churches rediscover their purpose.


The 135th annual meeting of Jacksonville Baptist Association, where five continents were represented, was a “celebration,” according to Tarkington, “of all that God is doing, “ ... and we didn’t celebrate mediocrity.”


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