I hope you won’t mind if I indulge for a moment in some shameless self-promotion. Recently, the denomination I belong to and the one most affiliated with Gentle Reformation, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, held its quadrennial international conference in Marion, IN. As a father of five children, a pastor with some teaching responsibilities, and one who is a fairly energetic socialite, the week was exhausting but filling. One of my personal highlights was being able to speak at a workshop on the topic of rural and small town ministry. See! I told you it would be a moment of shameless self-promotion.
For the last three years I have been pastor of Winchester RPCNA in Winchester, KS. Our small community boasts of a whopping estimated population of 535 people. Even before becoming a pastor there was a soft spot in my heart for rural and small towns. Having grown up in southern Minnesota both my wife and I have been aware that in these areas it can be difficult to find Christ-centered and gospel believing churches. Where they do exist their continuance is often threatened for lack of people and resources. We should do what we can to maintain them so as not to silence their witness by closing their doors. After all, Jesus always has been and always will be worthy to receive the reward of his suffering. A reward, I firmly believe, that is partly to be found in often overlooked communities.
For that reason it was a great privilege to speak on the topic of rural ministry. I didn’t do it because I think of myself as an expert. While I have read almost everything I can find on the topic that’s not actually saying much since about six books have been written, and that list significantly decreases when you begin to talk about quality. Given the virtual silence–especially compared to what’s being written, said, and promoted on urban church ministry–it’s necessary for someone to say something and begin challenging the church to think through this crucial and necessary field of ministry. Personally, I would happily yield to more godly, wise, and experienced people who would wish to deal with the subject.
The original recording was sub-par (actually it was a video and captured me at an extremely odd angle) and so I took the opportunity to rerecord the workshop. The content has remained virtually the same though it ended up being slightly longer than the original (sorry!). That can be found (here). Below is a brief outline of the talk and a list of available resources.
The Small Town in Jesus’ Life and Ministry
Jesus was born and raised in the small town contexts of Bethlehem and Nazareth neither of which were booming urban centers or epicenters of cultural, political, and economic potential. In his earthly ministry he preached in towns and villages not as a peripheral concern but intentionally as part of his mission. When he sent out the twelve he took for granted that a part of their ministry would be to remote areas and small towns. The heart of Jesus was, at least in part, for ministering in small towns and the church has not outgrown the need to do likewise.
Defining Small Town and Rural Areas
It is immensely difficult to actually give a working definition to what a small town or rural area is. Nevertheless, federal offices in the United States measure the population of rural America to be between 46-60 million, or 15-20% of the population. To put that number into perspective the population of rural America is greater than 174 of the world’s 196 countries. That is not an insignificant population and the church needs to see it as a true and worthwhile mission field.
The Need for Small Town and Rural Ministry
Rural America has suffered for over a century. In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt established the Country Life Commission that sought to “rebuild rural life.” One of the strategic points of revitalization was the church. However, the great misstep of the commission was to use the church not as a means of evangelism but socializing rural America for advancement in society and culture. These areas have suffered economically and spiritually. Far from being the postcard picture of Mayberry, rural America reflects deep spiritual problems with epidemic substance abuse, soaring suicide rates, poverty, and being largely overlooked by an urban-centered focus church ministry–these facts manifest the idolatry, hopelessness, and impoverishment of small town America.
Factors in Growing the Small Town and Rural Church
Extensive studies have examined growth patterns in rural churches and–at least from a worldly perspective–have given some optimism for these churches. According to the in-depth analysis of W. Scott Moore, the top factors which have led to growing churches in shrinking communities are: 1) a sense of God’s presence, 2) friendliness, 3) doctrinal commitment, and 4) the pastor and preaching. My personal interpretation of this study is that it shows the correlation between faithfulness and blessing. We don’t need to be edgy, novel, or overdo contextualization–we need to be faithful to what Jesus has called us to.
An Appeal for Small Town and Rural Engagement
Rural churches need to avoid the temptation of self-pity and self-depreciation. There is a real work and real ministry to be accomplished in small towns, and the rural church needs to see its place in the gathering and perfecting of the saints. Further, while urban-centered ministry seems to be the default position of young people, all Christians need to be boldly challenged to stop placing convenience and comfort over the needs of the kingdom. If we are convinced (and we should be!) that Christ has a work to do in rural and small towns than we need people in the pews and pastors in the pulpit. Is it too bold to suggest that young and old should consider moving and strengthening what is growing weak? Finally, the corporate church needs to be reminded that the work of revitalization is no less an Apostolic ministry than the work of church planting. Small town churches in my own denomination need prayer, people, resources, and guidance. We need to carefully think through the mutual obligations we owe to each other–the urban church to the rural, and the rural to the urban.
There isn’t much on rural towns either from a ministry or sociological standpoint. Nevertheless, the books and articles cited below have been helpful to me in thinking through this topic. Let me note, this is not an endorsement of these writings. I leave them to your discernment:
- Donnie Griggs, Small Town Jesus (Every Day Truth, 2016).
- O’Dell Shannon, Transforming Church in Rural America (Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Publishing, 2010).
- W. Scott Moore, Rural Revival: Growing Churches in Shrinking Communities (Eleos Press, 2012).
- W. Scott Moore, Rural Pastor’s Handbook (Eleos Press, 2014).
- Shannon Jung (ed), Rural Ministry: The Shape of Renewal to Come (Abingdon, MD: Abingdon Press, 1998).
- Kenneth Mark Sherin, “Preparing for Rural Ministry” (PhD diss., University of Missouri, 2012).
- Douglas Brooks, “An Organic Model of Leadership Development for the Rural, Traditional Church” (DMin diss., Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, 2015).
- Anthony Bradley, “A Deadly Crisis in Rural America.” WORLD Magazine, May 2016.
- David Van Biema, “Rural Churches Grapple With a Pastor Exodus.” Time Magazine, January, 2009.
- George William Garner, “The Associational Director of Missions/Church Starter Strategist as a Model of Leadership for Rural Church Planting” (D.Miss diss, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006).
- Wendell Berry, “God and Country” in What Are People For? (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, republished 2010).
- Granville Hicks, Small Town (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, republished 2014).
- Richard O. Davies (ed), A Placed Called Home: Writings on the Midwestern Small Town (Nepean, ON: Borealis Books, 2003).
- Cornelia Butler Flora, Jan L. Flora, and Stephen P. Gasteyer, Rural Communities: Legacy + Change (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 5th ed, 2015).
- Nick Reding, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (Bloomsbury, USA, reprint 2010).
- Scott Thomas Anderson, Shadow People: How Meth-Driven Crime is Eating at the Heart of Rural America (Coalition for Investigative Journalism, April 2012).
- Gene Wunderlich, “Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission” (essay).