Associations see celebration-style annual meetings drawing bigger crowds, inspiring involvement

Associations see celebration-style annual meetings drawing bigger crowds, inspiring involvement

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

Neal Hughes said he can remember the days when associational meetings were three-day events.

“We would meet at this church one day, at another church the next day, have covered-dish dinners, walk through extended business meetings and have preachers at night,” he said.

Those were great in that day — everybody came, said Hughes, director of missions for Montgomery Baptist Association.

But over the years it was shortened to two days, then one. Then it “evolved into the reality that our people didn’t gather together like they used to,” he said.

And Hughes said his association began to try to figure out a way to adapt.

“We knew that the truth was we had one night a year to get the entire body of believers together to thank the Lord Jesus for all He’s doing in the River Region,” he said. “We wanted to maximize that.”
So they began to rethink their format, and as they did, they decided to go for the feel of a celebration rather than a business meeting.

At 6 p.m., they have a big meal that feels like a reception. People grab a plate of food, then walk around a missions fair to talk to local ministries and state Baptist entities. It gives people personal interaction with a number of ministries rather than hearing a few reports given from the pulpit.
“We want to be about inspiring because we realize we’re mobilizing our greatest missions force to the River Region,” Hughes said.

Then at 7 p.m., they start the celebration and “we punch it for an hour and a half,” he said. It’s a packed time of music, testimonies and video stories of what God is doing through area churches and ministries. This year that will include a mass choir.

The only business they do during the celebration is to welcome the watch-care churches into the association so that everyone can welcome them with applause, he said.

But to meet the associational bylaws’ requirements for other necessary business, they have a brief, 45-minute business meeting at 5 p.m. before all the fun begins.

“It’s a sweet time,” Hughes said. “We want people to come and not want to leave.”

This celebration style of associational meeting “seems to really put a fire in folks for what’s happening in the association,” said Rick Barnhart, director of the office of associational missions and church planting for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.

And the missions fair aspect lets networking take place so that people can get inspired by the opportunities around them, he said.

“It gives them the chance to fellowship and get to know each other,” Barnhart said. “They hear more stories of what’s happening, and it can cause more movement in their congregations.”

John Thomas, director of missions for Southeast Alabama Baptist Association (SABA), said his association moved to the celebration format in 2017. It was a format he had tried while serving as associate director of Calhoun Baptist Association (see story, page 5), and it worked so well that he knew he wanted to start it in Southeast Alabama Association too.

“In Calhoun we had found that the people just weren’t coming to the business meetings, especially the young adults,” he said.

That was the issue at Southeast Alabama Association too, so he encouraged the switch. And in 2017 they had more than 750 people attend.

‘Celebrate what God is doing’

“We changed the name from ‘annual meeting’ to the ‘SABA Celebration,’” he said. “That’s the focus of what we want to do is celebrate what God is doing through our churches.”

Like Montgomery Association, they take a Sunday evening and invite area Baptists to wander through a missions fair.

“Last year they heard stories and they went away saying, ‘We can do that too,’” he said. “That’s what we were hoping for.”

They have missions activities for kids and they have a car show and other things to demonstrate outreach ministries that churches could use.

And during the celebration service, they incorporate the music styles of all kinds of churches in the association.

“We orchestrated a worship set that was representative of all of our churches,” Thomas said.

A praise team from a multicultural church led, as did the Hispanic church. They also included contemporary music and hymns.

“It’s to celebrate the fact that we may worship differently but we worship the same God,” Thomas said. “On any given Sunday you can go and experience this in some of our churches. We’re very diverse. It’s a picture of that.”

All of this is geared to build relationships and let ministry flow out of that, he said. “Younger people aren’t into institutions, they are into relationships. So we are trying to establish those relationships,” he said.

Thomas Wright, executive director of missions for Mobile Baptist Association, said his association has been working hard to find what works best for their people.

“The Mobile moderators and planning committee have tried various approaches to increase involvement at our annual missions celebration,” he said.

The challenge is often finding the most effective way to include parachurch organizations but also tell the story of the association’s ministry well, he said.

“Churches support ministries they see make a difference. An association often works behind the scenes challenging and coordinating the work of the churches,” Wright said.

Telling their story

He and other Mobile leaders want to make sure they keep the focus on ministries with good financial and theological accountability, he said. They want to tell the right stories and tell them well.

They’ve done much research. They’ve tried different nights of the week. They’ve tried different kinds of services. And while they are still working through the challenges, they’ve found that a streamlined celebration is the most effective way for them to tell their association’s story.

This year will be their second year for a Sunday evening celebration and a children’s missions festival, he said.

Charlie Howell, executive director of missions for Madison Baptist Association, said his association started streamlining their business too and focusing more on a celebration several years ago.

“It brings us all together,” he said. “There are not just reports but fellowship, preaching, music and a big meal. People turn out for this.”


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Calhoun Association praises God for what He’s doing