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The Rural Church

Challenges & Opportunities Laurence J. Barber

It is a privilege and delight to minister in small, rural churches and communities.

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Today, fresh, visionary and creative responses to local church ministry-challenges and opportunities are required. New initiatives may well be discovered in smaller, rural settings where churches are aware that something must happen soon if they are to survive, let alone thrive once more. In precisely such contexts, recovered truth, entered upon as Biblically-directed ‘new ways for new days’ may be discovered, even perhaps before the same, in essence, is discovered in thriving, well-programmed and richly-resourced urban churches.

In small, weak, struggling, almost-ready-to-give up congregations, God’s faithfulness and purposes may be revealed, for God’s glory is often shown in and through the cracks of fragile, broken vessels - through lives and churches where faith remains, so that God alone receives due praise.

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Urban strategies for urban centres may well result in significant rippling-out effects of contagious influence, but God’s People are called to faithful service in small centres, too, even when ministry is challenged by lack of resources. 3

God’s Old Testament People were taken captive to Babylon. Faithful ones could no longer worship each Sabbath in Jerusalem’s temple. How were they to preserve faith, culture and values in that land? Yet, in such a time and place, they created synagogues so that worship, nurture, fellowship and hospitality might continue. So today, God’s People need vision and practical responses of creative preservation and advance to enable faithful living in similar, hostile-to-faith times and places. 4

Ministry challenges abound in small, rural churches as they struggle to serve and ‘sing the Lord’s song.’ But in such times can come thoughtful actions that reflect ongoing trust in God who’s presence and blessing remains. In a broken world, God is still reclaiming people, places and things through His faithful People. Despite, through and sometimes because of our apparent lack, God continues to reveal Good News in our world. Though aware of their inabilities, small churches can find God’s presence in and through them sufficient for faithful living and ministry towards the potential transformation of their town.

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What is to be has not yet been revealed. Despite being in the early days of our own ‘exile,’ as we live in post-Christendom and post-modern times, we believe God’s Kingdom will surely come in fullness, because of a Cross and through crosses born daily by Jesus’ apprentice-disciples. Through faith-full living, in small rural settings too, God’s People set up signs of God’s reign, of a Kingdom already present, its fullness yet to be fully revealed. Enabled by God’s Spirit in our daily investments and involvements, the prayer is answered: ‘Your Kingdom come, Your will done on earth as in heaven.’

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Smaller churches can play a major role in such vision, not merely by surviving but by looking for turn-around Kingdom influence in their context and beyond. In each place, of whatever size, shape or resource-strength, through the precise, unique seeding ministry of any church may come new sprouts and fresh harvest. 7

Size is not the key factor in influence. Despite challenging circumstances, small churches should not be overlooked for the potential of renewal and change through them in whole regions. Here God may be known and the Gospel break forth in new and tangible ways. A manger and a cross portrays God’s hidden, weak and pain-filled plan through Jesus, and just so the victory of God will come. It will appear where and how some would least expect - through the faithful, sacrificial obedience of small churches, as they continue to serve - even in seemingly hidden and out-of-the-way places. 8

God’s People in rural contexts examine and embrace the small. They recall that even in ‘the little’ God’s kingdom comes and grows. The Godwhittled-down, thinned-out army of Gideon overcomes. The small gift of a boy’s lunch is all Jesus’ needs to feed many. For when God wants to use and multiply the little we contribute or make a noise and spread the light of Gospel influence, weakness, littleness and what is lacking need not hinder God’s work. As we trust God and say ‘yes’ to HIs missional purposes for and through us, He will give all that is required beyond the weakness we deplore. 9

SOME CHALLENGES

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Small churches have limited resources and may have old and declining facilities. Buildings are difficult to maintain, desired additions often beyond possibility.

Members making long, daily commutes to work in urban centres may be unwilling to support weekday-evening meetings. Their support of the church’s governance and programming will be missed.

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The surrounding community long remembers the influence of a local church. Here, good and bad news travels rapidly. Good ministry and great feuds are long remembered. Pastors and their families are scrutinized and wellknown. Congregational and community life can be so inter-woven that both embarrassment and high praise may result. This, however, is precisely how the contagious Gospel is revealed and received.

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Sports and recreational activities in rural communities sometimes overtake the time and commitment of families, especially in homes where there is only nominal faith or church allegiance. Young people leave the community to attend school or find employment. There may be a scarcity of youth and young families still present to contribute to the life and ministry of local congregations. 13

Churches may have entrenched ruling families with a deep sense of entitlement. New pastors and new attenders may experience a reserved welcome and find their ideas opposed. Some traditionalists may overly-protect the church’s history while others with wealth, power of personality or threat of withdrawal, may try to dictate how things should go, perhaps opposing all change until they give their permission. Some who have left for education, employment or a change of lifestyle may return, hoping to rediscover what was left and lost, or perhaps wanting to embrace again what may seem a simpler, quieter pace of living.

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Small churches are primarily relational entities and relationships are central to their health and harmony. Congregants may not be looking for new ways from the new pastor but for how they will fit in and whether that pastor has come to love and care for them. They may not be seeking change and growth for themselves or for the life and ministry of their church.

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It may take many months, even years, for ‘newcomers’ to feel at home in the church. It will take some time before they have equal footing, their voices heard and their contributions appreciated. Effective pastors patiently sow and wait for a full and future harvest. 16

Wise pastors work with key leaders in the small church. In former times, when the Squire and the Parson got along, so did the church’s ministry. If not, the pastor, not the squire, would ‘move on.’ Many pastors leave before they see the fruits of trust and collegial relationships. They may leave just before the fruitful time of harvest is to begin. 17

It may be necessary for a church to change, even dramatically, if it is to survive, let alone thrive again. Some members may not yield to innovation, sometimes seeming even preferring the church’s demise rather than allowing anything new. And yet, rural and small church ministry can be a very fruitful, rewarding sphere for the discovery and advance of God’s Kingdom. Here, the church can be a place of mutual learning and discovery - of God, God’s Salvation, God’s world and of God’s purposes in it, as with patience and endurance pastors and congregations learn the natural and supernatural rhythms of New Creation and of the Eternal. 18

Opportunities and Possibilities

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Beyond the challenges are the many advantages of ministry in small towns. A very different pace and scale of living may give more flexibility of time for engagement in outreach. Non-rapid change in such settings allows for an increase in stability, quality and depth of relational engagement and mission. 20

People who return to the community may bring new experiences and increased education and training. Though having wider perspectives and different experiences from life and travels elsewhere, they must be sensitive and careful in their re-entry, coming home and engaging once more with patience and humility. 21

In small town ministry, the good of the Gospel is very much noticed. An active, vibrant and missionally involved congregation has significant impact in the community and surrounding regions. The spreading news of ministries and fruitful realities of outreach may help bring transformation that will last for many years and touch generations yet unborn.

Again, larger churches in larger towns and cities may well have more people and resources as well as a rich variety of skills, training and experience. But even where resources may be significantly limited, there can be found great quality and rich ministry. 22

Early involvement and committed skill-development helps sustain the health and growth of the church. This helps to sustain thought it may not necessarily translate into numerical growth. Practicing and polishing such gifts not only strengthens the church’s ministry but also results in a rippling-out of blessing to wider regions.

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In small communities, local churches value working together. Such relational appreciation and partnerships increases Church and Kingdom influence exponentially.

Pastors and congregations, through many and various opportunities for personal, relational interaction, become very well known. Their lives and ministries are noticed and news about them is ‘noised abroad.’ Local issues of the town can greatly influence both individual decisions and communal actions. 24

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A rural church in a small town context and community may very well be the easiest place to have a vibrant ministry, as it is uniquely situated to find and enter into the kinds of ministry-newness and mission-effectiveness that is so needed today.

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In ministry and Kingdom advance, patience is key. Pastors may spend many years in relational contact in homes and in other places of recreation, gathering, talking and relating over mugs of coffee, watching curling or a hockey game, or riding a combine. It may be years before the fruit of such involvement is seen. Because of long years of honest and mutual interaction that reflects God’s love, through prayerful lives, the Gospel expressed in word and deed, others will come to embrace new life in Christ and share in the ministry of the Church. 27

Created by: Laurence Barber Production Assistant: Carol Gouveia A CBOQ Resource: www.baptist.ca For personal or small group use of this booklet see: www.baptist.ca/mission

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The Rural Church: Challenges & Opportunities