The Rural Church Dilemma

I love the rural church and hope you do. Some of you will serve all your life in them.

Be energized by the concept that your church could become the most loving church in the world. I find this compelling. There will be many things your church may not be. It may not be the most educated church or the most innovative church, or the most evangelistic church, etc., but it can be the most loving church. There is nothing to stop that from happening except your lack of determination and/or the will of the people. Love, after all, is the sign of maturity as a church.

 

A few years ago I drove to several small towns in rural Arkansas with my 89 year old father and my siblings, tracking the steps of the ministry of both my dad and his father. The experience was memorable. We visited small towns that even Arkansans might not recognize today: Cotter, Caledonia, Hagersville, Greenwood, LaVaca—twelve in all. These were the places where my father, and his father, labored for Christ seventy and eighty years ago.

Much has changed in the landscape of rural America in those seventy plus years. For one thing, most farms have been eaten up by large conglomerates, dramatically reducing population. The size of families has dropped and the area Walmarts have made ghost towns of the typical downtown areas. Families long ago moved out of these rural areas for the big cities in order to find work, and what young people you may find will almost certainly not stay where there is no action. With these demographic alterations, the country church has been reduced to only a shadow of what it once was.

But this does not mean the country church is not there. There are yellow brick buildings with mud stains around their base that still exist as the gathering place for those few faithful (and often reserved) older citizens and, in rare cases, a family or two containing younger people.

The “county seat” town churches are doing better, but even they feel the changes. Some have become regional churches for the surrounding areas. In fact, there are some notable exceptions to the general rule that rural churches are failing. In one Arkansas town that you have likely never heard of, there were 900 attending the largest church on Sunday mornings. The more remote rural churches have yielded their younger families over to these active centers which often carry on vibrant ministries. Regionalization is definitely a trend. We could call it the “Walmartization” of the rural church.

I’ve been there in my own ministry, pastoring in historic Washington, Arkansas as my first assignment. Thirty-five years ago, this town consisted of about 400 occupants, half black and half white. It has now lost much of that population and has turned into a state park (it was the old Civil War capitol of Arkansas).

I never knew what quiet was until I pastored in that town. I used a “privy” behind the café and I waited out the lonely nights in a “Jim Walter” home provided by the church. It grew up to about 60 in attendance while I was there, but stayed mostly around 40. The grade school moved to Hope just after I was there, and things went down further. There is not much going on now. I’m not even sure if the church still meets. We said, even at that time, that the church was “just past Hope.”

In addition to that, I’ve preached in so many rural churches that I could not even begin to recount them all. My ministry of 40 years of preaching has landed me in both city and rural churches, some huge, others in towns so sleepy that the grass grows unmolested on the two-lane highway—and deacons wear overalls. Though I’ve loved all of the experiences I’ve been privileged to have, I have to admit that it is often easier to visit than to stay in such a church. And I’ve scratched my head with the pastor wondering how the church could find vitality.

What happens when the young seminarian or college ministerial student takes his first churches in these areas? And what should the committed rural pastor think about his church’s future?

Here are some thoughts for rural pastors. You are the experts, not me. But these thoughts might stimulate something in a church that is not going to be known, outside of a miracle, for its numerical growth. In fact, you may wonder sometimes if God knows you are there.

Remember that you are entirely unaware of the impact of your ministry. For instance, you may teach older adults without much visible impact. But one of them, perhaps a grandparent of an unconverted child, may receive stimulus from your ministry that makes her a true witness to her grandchild.

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