Part 1: Soteriology and the Rural Church
In his classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes, “If you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones.” The same is true of our theology of the church. To contextualize C.S. Lewis, “If you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about the church. It will mean that you have a long of wrong ones.” We have become confused about the church, what defines the church, and what determines the success of the church. We have equally become confused about the pastoral role within the church. The pastor is no longer seen as a shepherd but as a manager and visionary. Instead of a shepherd, we look for a CEO. For many, the most crucial role of the pastor is casting a formulated vision for the church rather than the proclamation of truth from the pulpit. This does not mean that vision and programs are unimportant and unbiblical. Many are derived from our theology and are driven by a God-given passion for evangelism and the church’s growth. However, the danger is when they become primary rather than secondary. In today’s ecclesiology a pastor may be theologically muddled in the pulpit but woe to the pastor who lacks clarity of vision for the organizational growth of the church.
In a business model of church where size, growth, location, and recognition become the hallmarks of success, where does the small rural church gain significance and value? It often doesn’t. Even in the rural church, success is now measured the multiple sites a church has established. Once again, we fall prey to the growth equals success mantra. We never stop to ask if our current view of success and the church is genuinely biblical. It makes sense in a corporate world, but does it make sense in the theological world? This is where we need to stop and reflect. Theology may be defined as understanding who God is, what he does, and our response to him. Or, in the words of Wayne Grudem, theology is “any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.”
In developing our ecclesiology, we must clearly distinguish between a trend and a theological mandate. A trend is driven by our culture and popularity. Decisions and direction are influenced and determined by our cultural expressions. For example, the style of music within the church is primarily governed by our culture. As a result, music styles and forms change over time. The Gregorian chants were familiar in the medieval church yet are absent in the modern church, where worship teams lead the congregation in robust songs of praise. It is not that the Gregorian chants were more spiritual or less spiritual than the worship today involving drums, guitars, and dynamic songs of praise. It is just different because the culture is different. Styles have changed because music, like art, has changed over time. This is also true of the programs we embrace as a church. Because culture is fluid, how we communicate the Gospel and how we engage our world changes.
In contrast to trends stands a theological mandate. A mandate is governed by the teaching of scripture and is the foundation for ministry in all ages, serving as the ship’s rudder as it navigates through the cultural currents. Our theological foundation determines the direction and purpose of the church, so we do not become driven by every cultural wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). A theological mandate remains timeless and valid for every age and every culture. For example, while the style of music changes depending upon the culture, the focus of worship (the praise and adoration of the God of the Bible) must be the governing force of all worship regardless of the culture. A church can sing Gregorian chants or modern worship choruses and still be biblical. Our theology of worship confronts us with our self-serving worship that becomes more about what I experience and like rather than how it redirects our focus upon God. It reminds us that our worship must be focused upon the God revealed in the Bible and that any distortion of God becomes a false god, and our worship becomes an anathema.
The question we must examine in the church today is: Is rural ministry a trend or a mandate? Recently rural ministry has become trendier and more the focus of much discussion and attention. The struggles and problems confronting rural communities have brought rural ministry to the attention of academia, research, and denominational leaders. In recent years there have been a number of books written and ministries developed addressing small-town ministry. This has renewed interest in the rural church’s distinctive issues. However, if rural ministry is merely another ecclesiastical trend, it will soon fade away, just as many of the other trends, programs, and church models that have swept across the church landscape. Stephen Witmer rightly warns, “In the past generation or two, the Christian subculture has followed the broader culture’s lead in minimizing or ignoring small places. If we’re only interested in small places because our broader culture is, we’ll lose interest as soon as it does.” He points out, “Because the evangelical church has all too often despised and ignored small places, there isn’t much of an evangelical theological vision for what it means to minister in them.” Therefore we must ask again, “Is rural ministry driven by a deeply rooted theology of the great commission and the understanding of God’s love for sinners in all corners of the world or is it merely being driven by our culture that is reawakened to the problems of rural communities?” As we shall see in this series, rural ministry must spring forth from the rich soil of our theology rather than the shallowness of our culture if it is to be both lasting and transformational.
To develop a rural church theology, we must start by asking, “What does the Bible teach about the church related to our perspective of the rural church and the rural church pastor?” If we fail to wrestle with this question, our view of the rural church will be misguided and destructive. This six-part series will explore this question by asking six critical questions 1/. How does the theological understanding of the Gospel give significance to the rural church? 2/. How does our knowledge of God provide insight into the nature of ministry in the rural church? 3/ How does a Biblical theology of the Church give clarity to the focus of the Rural Church? 4/. What is the theological teaching of scripture concerning the nature and role of the rural church pastor? 5/. How does our theology provide the measure of success in rural church ministry? 6/ How does historical theology provide insight into the significance of the rural church in the broader development of church history? In seeking to answer these questions, it is not my desire to provide all the answers. Instead, my desire is to incite the broader church community to begin the dialogue on these questions. The reader may disagree with my conclusions, but agreement is not the goal. Instead, the goal is to start the conversation on what the Bible teaches as it relates to the rural church. Thus, we begin in this first article by examining the nature of the Gospel related to the focus and value of the rural church.
The Theology of the Gospel and the Rural Church
While the church formally began in Acts 2, informally, it started in Genesis 3 with the Proto-Evangelium. In Genesis 3, we find the seeds of the church planted when God provides the hope of the Gospel in the coming of the seed of the woman to bring restoration to a fallen world. In Genesis 3:15, we find the theological center of God’s redemptive plan. This Gospel serves as the driving force of all God’s activities through his redemptive history. But what is this Gospel? Paul defines the Gospel as the message of the death and resurrection of Christ. But this only serves to give us the content of the message. The Gospel itself has a much broader focus and implications. The Gospel is the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God, which Christ made central in his prophetic ministry (Mark 1:14-15). Millard Erickson describes, “the essential points of the gospel are Jesus Christ’s status as the Son of God, his genuine humanity, His death for our sins, his burial, resurrection, subsequent appearances, and future coming in judgment.” However, he points out that it is not merely theological truths or historical events but the application of these truths to every individual believer.
This gospel is interwoven with the establishment and advancement of the kingdom of God. The goal of the gospel call and the purpose of the church is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom so that people individually and corporately begin to experience the blessings of God’s rule in their lives. This kingdom theology provides the foundation for God’s redemptive work throughout history as it sets forth the goal of the establishment of God’s sovereign reign over all creation and humanity. Tony Evans defines this Kingdom Theology as “the visible manifestation of the comprehensive rule of God over every area of life. Basically, it involves our alignment underneath the overarching rulership of God.” To understand the importance of this work of God and its relationship to the rural church, we need to understand four critical aspects of the kingdom’s good news (Gospel).
The Scope of the Gospel
Matthew 28: 19-20, we find what is commonly referred to as the Great Commission. But this commission is not just a plan to establish churches and evangelize the lost. The task is to call people to surrender and submit to the sovereign rule of Christ by becoming disciples of Christ. In this commission, we find the task given to the church to further advance and proclaim the kingdom of God, which Christ came to announce. The proclamation of the kingdom is grounded in the universal authority and rule that has been given to Christ by the Father and is to be the prayer of all believers (Matthew 6:10). The task of the church and all followers of Christ is to call all people to become participants of his kingdom by becoming disciples of Christ. This discipleship is not manifested in doctrinal affirmations but in daily obedience (vs. 20). However, we are not fulfilling this task alone or pursing its advancement in our own strength. As we go about the task of calling people to be in alignment with Christ’s Kingdom agenda, he gives us the promise that he will always be with us. This continual divine presence, which would have been significant to the disciples, assures us that in every church, no matter the size or location, Christ will be present, working in and through the gathering of believers (Matthew 18:20, 28:20).
However, even as Christ foretells his physical departure, he clarifies that he will continue to be spiritually present with them and all his followers to the very end of time. Wherever his followers go, advancing the massage of the Gospel, Christ remains by our sides, empowering us and leading us to advance his kingdom. In Acts 1:8, in his final words before his ascension, he commands his followers to carry the message of the Gospel to the remotest part of the earth. The term “remotest part” (eschatos) refers not only to the furthest reaches, but also to the least important and lowest in status. While Acts concludes with Paul reaching Rome, the implication of verse 8 is that Rome is not the goal of this mission. The final command of Christ to the church is to proclaim the Gospel to every place where humanity dwells. This task is not accomplished when the urban areas are reached with the Gospel. It is complete when the Gospel is manifested and communicated in all places, rural and urban.
This has profound implications for our understanding of rural ministry. First, it points to the importance of rural ministry. The church’s presence in rural communities is not just a sociological necessity contributing to the social capital to strengthen the community’s health. The rural church is a theological necessity. The Great Commission demands that we take the Gospel to the forgotten places. To become indifferent to any location or people group, whether in the city, the remotest part of the Amazon jungles, or the rural communities of the flyover states, is to disregard the intent of Christ to establish his rule in every corner of the world.
In the parable of the leaven, Christ reminds us of the penetrative nature and necessity of the Gospel. Leaven is only effective when it has permeated the whole dough. If the leaven fails to permeate all the dough, it becomes stiff and dry. This provides the analogy to the nature and purpose of the Gospel. The Gospel is pervasive, penetrating every nook and cranny of a person’s identity as well as penetrating every hidden community in the world. This pervasive nature of the Gospel is realized in the presence of the church as it becomes the leaven taking the Gospel to each community. The church was never designed to remain in Jerusalem with all people migrating to it. Instead, it was to permeate and infiltrate every nation, community, and place where people live. How we do evangelism and communicate the Gospel is culturally driven (1 Corinthians 9:20-23), but the content of the Gospel is theologically determined. The same is true of the location the Gospel is to be advanced. Rural ministry is ultimately theologically driven by the necessity to penetrate the world with the Gospel of Christ.
Second, Christ assures us that he will go with us as we go to the rural communities. When Christ states, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” Christ affirms that he will be present in our fulfillment of the great commission in all places and ages. The phrase is emphatic with the forceful presence of the personal pronoun “I.” Christ is not just affirming his omnipresence. He declares that he is no absentee Lord who leaves the disciples to fulfill their responsibility unaided and alone. Instead, he promises them his perpetual, spiritual presence in their ministry. This divine presence is not just to give us protection and encouragement; it is the promise of his empowerment. Wherever we take the Gospel, Christ will be empowering us to accomplish His eternal purpose. The same power working in and through a pastor of a mega-church in a city is the same power working through a pastor of a church of 45 in a remote part of rural America. One is not more “talented” or “gifted” than the other, for the work is accomplished, and only accomplished, through Christ’s divine enablement. His presence assures us of his divine help, but it also gives us insight into the importance and value of our work. So valuable is the task of taking the Gospel to all recesses of the world; Christ remains personally engaged with us. If the rural areas are important enough to Christfor him to be present in those who work there, then it should be important enough to to us to remain there. A small rural church is as important to God as a large, urban church. The value of ministry is not determined by the size, recognition, or influence but by the value that God places upon the people we serve, a value that was revealed with Christ died for every single individual, both urban and rural. This value is expressed in the gospel message that Christ died for the whole world—not just the world in mass, but the world populated by countless individuals that God knows by name and numbers the hairs on their heads.
Rural ministry is not just a sideshow in God’s redemptive plan. It is at the heart of his plan established before the foundations of the. “The necessary goal of small-place ministry is the glory of God made distinctly manifest through his church in small places. Through the Gospel, God creates and shapes his church in small places; through the church in small places, God adorns and displays his Gospel.” The importance of rural ministry is grounded in the great commission. When it becomes overlooked or deemed unnecessary or unimportant, we undermine the Gospel and distort the nature and character of God.
The Focus of the Gospel
The Gospel is central to our faith yet simple enough that a young child can grasp its meaning and embrace its message. The simple truth that forms the bedrock of redemption is this: Christ came to pay the penalty of my sin, and I receive the benefit of salvation by my personal acceptance of Christ. Salvation is not obtained through our identification with a group or community; it is obtained on an individual level. It is a personal choice. Christ did not just come to save the world from sin; he came to save you and me from our sin so that each of us may have a personal relationship with him. God is not an impersonal cosmic force who merely connects impersonally with his creation. He is a person who cultivates a personal relationship with each of his followers. As A. W. Tozer points out, “Religion, so far as it is genuine, is, in essence, the response of a created personalities to the creating personality.” The essential truth of the Gospel is that Christ did not just die for the world; he died for You and ME. If only one person on the planet was entangled in sin, Christ still would have come to die on the cross. David captured the essence of this beautiful truth when he states, “There Lord is MY Shepherd.” He was not just the shepherd of the nation of Israel or even the tribe of Benjamin; the Lord was his personal shepherd, providing individual care and guidance. Christ reveals this individual invitation of the Gospel when he invites us to come to him individually, and he will give us rest (Matt. 11:28).
While the calling and focus is upon the individual response, it also has a broader and communal implication. While salvation beings with our our personal response, it results in the inclusion into the community of the church, which seeks to advance God’s Kingdom by bringing all people under the sovereign reign of Christ. The church, both universal and local, is the outgrowth and foundation of our personal development. While we cannot be saved by our involvement in the church, neither can we grow in Christ apart from the church.
This truth is foundational to our understanding of the Gospel, but it also greatly influences our understanding of rural ministry. Christ’s death was not just for the masses in the city, nor just for the most significant number of people. The focus of the Gospel is on the value and worth that God places upon every person. The individuals living in the world’s remotest areas are just as important to God as the masses living in the urban centers. In 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul writes that God “desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” He desires that no individual is to perish but all to come to repentance (1 Peter 3:9). This is not universal salvation but the universal appeal of the Gospel. God delays his judgment so that the Gospel might reach every corner of the earth. However, in the redemptive work in the lives of each person, their salvation also engages them within both the local and universal church. Not only does salvation place is the universal body of Christ, we are to also become engaged in a local fellowship of believers. Consequently, the gospel not only requires the message to go to rural communities, it also requires the church to also become present in these communities.
In Acts 8, Philip was engaged in the dynamic ministry in Jerusalem and Samaria in which people were coming to Christ, and the church was experiencing unparallel growth. There is a saying of fishermen, “Don’t leave fish to find fish.” In other words, if a person is experiencing results in his present location, then it makes little sense to leave it in search of other opportunities. If we were overseeing the early church’s ministry, we would channel all our efforts and activities into the place where results were being achieved. Yet, God instructs Philip to leave the productive ministry in Jerusalem and Galilee and travel south into the wilderness. For our productive, result-oriented world, this would make little sense. The opportunities for effective ministry in the desert were as sparse as the vegetation. Philip probably wondered why would God send him into a barren wilderness where no one lived? Neverthless, Philip obeyed and, in the process, encountered an Ethiopian Eunuch who was searching for answers for his sin-marred soul. But the story does not stop there. Not only was he one of the first Black individuals to embrace the gospel, when he returned to Ethiopia, according to tradition, he was instrumental in establishing the Coptic church in African. Where Christians go, they take both the Gospel and the church with them. While the story is familiar to us, the implications are clear. God values the individual as much as the masses. It is not the number of people that determines the need, but the heart condition of the person. The salvation of one person in the wilderness is as important to God as the salvation of 5000 responding in Jerusalem. This is the value God places on everyone. His extravagant love is not based on the qualities and value that society places upon them or even the value they might have to the church. His sacrificial love is bestowed on those who were the world regard as “uneducated and untrained men and women” (Acts 4:13). The message of the Gospel is a message of God’s extraordinary love for everyone that walks upon this sin-plagued world.
The basis for rural ministry is grounded in the heart of God and his longing for all people, urban and rural, to experience his redemptive love and enter a personal relationship with God. To prioritize the masses in the city over the individual in the countryside violates the focus of the Gospel and undermines the Gospel message. In our missiology, we often focus on Acts 2 and the dynamic results, but we overlook the message of Acts 8. If God places such a high value on everyone that he came to die for each person, how much more should we integrate into our missiology the necessity of taking the Gospel to every single person no matter where they might dwell. To prioritize one over the other undermines our ecclesiology and missiology and violates our soteriology. The Gospel message, that Christ came to save sinners, is at the cornerstone of soteriology but it is the also the cornerstone of our ecclisiology. In the sight of God, if we only reach one person with the Gospel of Christ, our ministry is just as valuable as those who have reached thousands. The question of the focus of the Gospel is never on “how many” but on “which one.”
The Priority of the Gospel
As pastors of small churches, it is easy to fall prey to the plague of envy. As we look at the large church with its multiple staff and dynamic worship teams and a seemingly bottomless well of financial resources, we feel ill-equipped and envious. We can only imagine what we could achieve if we had the bodies, bucks, and buildings to sustain our dreams in ministry. We attend conferences held in large churches with the latest technology to enhance their worship with dynamic lighting and powerful music. We listen to communicators who capture audiences with their eloquence and charisma. We visit the services on Sunday and stand in awe of the large numbers of diverse (in age and ethnicity) people present. We observe the dynamic youth programs, the endless parade of young families coming through the door, and their outstanding programs that provide answers to deal with their struggles. In response, we often feel like a car buff visiting a Maserati showroom filled with all the bells and whistles of the latest advancements in automobile technology. The problem arises when we go back home in our beat-up, dented, and faded Rambler (for those who can still remember that there was a car that even had that name). Having seen all the latest ministry techniques guaranteeing church growth and success, we trudge back home to a church sparsely populated by people who once drove a Rambler, where the paint is peeling, and more grass growing in the parking lot than the lawn. We look with frustration at the people who attend who are grey-haired and bent by years of hard work. The worship service is led by an older pianist who hammers out the long-cherished hymns on an upright piano with several keys no longer working and keys that have reinvented their own sound after years of use. After all the glitz and glamor of the mega-church, our little church on a dead-end road seems destined to die a slow and painful death. As we look upon our church, we sigh with discouragement and frustration, wondering how dynamic our church could be if we had the resources and pizzazz we saw in the urban church. If only…………
Nevertheless, the problem is not the lack of resources, facilities, or volunteers. The problem is our failure to understand the nature of genuine church health. When Paul is writing to the church in Rome to lay the foundation for their development and growth, he sets the cornerstone of church health when he states, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and so to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16). He affirms this same truth when he instructs his protégé, Timothy, regarding the essence of pastoral success, “Until I come give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). The foundation for ministry is not in the programs or showiness but in the simple proclamation of the truth of the Bible. It has the power to transform the soul. The early church was not built with dynamic worship teams and fancy lighting. When Peter led one of the most incredible evangelistic services in history, it was not with a polished messages filled with whimsical illustrates to capture the people’s attention. It was a simple proclamation that called people to “be saved from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:40). Quality worship teams leading in uplifting choruses and preaching with appropriate illustrates are not bad things. They can aid in proclaiming of the message and preparing the individual’s heart to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet we must recognize that these things are secondary to the foundation of the Gospel message and the unity within the community of believers. The early church’s power was found in the fact that they built their society around “the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Without the proclamation of the Gospel, there is no salvation for people (Romans 10:14) and there is no church.
The problem with churches today (both rural and urban) is that we have replaced substantive with the superficial. We have made church about the excitement and experience rather than the transformational response of humble repentance and obedience to Christ. As a result, the preaching of the Gospel has become secondary. People determine where they will go to church, not based upon the soundness of the preaching but the experience of the service. This is not to say that music is unimportant; the Psalms remind us that music becomes an expression of the soul. But we must never forget that it is secondary. The church can exist and thrive without music, but it cannot survive without the message of the Gospel. It is not the quality of the musicians behind the instrument that determines the church’s health but the quality of the preaching behind the pulpit.
Yet some argue power of the Holy Spirit is linked to the ability of the preacher to communicate effectively. Nevertheless, Paul points us in a different direction. Paul was criticized for his lack of eloquence (2 Corinthians 10:10). Rather than be apologetic about his preaching skills, Paul reminds them that the power to transform does not come from the messenger; it comes from the message itself. Instead of trying to win them with his speaking ability, Paul focused on the Gospel. Thus, he writes, “When I came to you brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” This Paul did so that “their faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” Paul saw the eloquence of the communicator not as an essential contribution to the message but as a potential hindrance to the gospel message, for it can lead to people following the communicator rather than following Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). This is not to say that we should not strive to be good communicators and improve our communication skills. God is always worthy of our best in our service. Developing our talents is a way we honor God by recognizing the solemn responsibility he has given us. However, this is not to make us more “effective” but rather is an expression of worship to God by recognizing that God deserves our best.
The focus is always on what we communicate rather than how we communicate. Paul instructs Timothy to “kindle afresh the gift of God.” The present tense suggest that Timothy is to continually be seeking the enablement of the Spirit to empower his ministry. It is not his skills that achieve his success in ministry but his continual reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s enablement, symbolized when Paul laid his hands upon Timothy to anoint him for ministry. The most crucial aspect of ministry is not our skills but the example we give in our life and the message we proclaim from the pulpit (1 timothy 4:12-13). When we live godly and proclaim God’s word, we will “ensure salvation both for ourselves and those who hear us” (1 Timothy 4:16). In other words, we will be affirmed by God as faithful servants, and we will accomplish the purpose that God has set before us.
The power and health of the church are not measured by its appearance, music, or programs. The power is determined by the message it proclaims and the love and unity it manifests as a community of God’s people. The goal of the church is not to entertain people with its music and light shows, nor is it to make people feel good about their circumstances. Worship is not about the excitement it might generate. The goal of the truth is to transform people to be disciples of Christ and bring the Kingdom of God to them. Worship is not about entertainment but the response of submission and surrender to the God of the universe who calls us to live in fellowship with him.
The simplicity of the rural church is not a hindrance to its ministry but the springboard for effectiveness. We lose sight of the Gospel when we become obsessed with all the things we do not possess. God has called us to proclaim the Gospel regardless of who attends. We are to try and improve our services and do the best we can in all aspects of ministry. God deserves nothing less. However, we should not become discouraged and frustrated when we do not have all the talent and glamour of the large church. We already possess the essential ingredient to a healthy congregation: We have the Gospel message.
The Growth of the Gospel
The church growth movement brought some essential correctives to the church. It reminded us that the church is not to live in isolation from the world around us. Instead, we are to engage our world with the Gospel and be centered on the Great Commission to be Christ’s visible presence to the world. As the world embraces secularization and postmodernism, we are to move beyond the walls of the church to bring the Gospel to our generation in a relevant way.
Nevertheless, the church growth movement also had an unintended negative impact. With the new emphasis on growth and outreach, people equated church health with church growth. The unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption was that a church that was not growing numerically was dying and that a congregation that was not adding to its numbers was not evangelistic. Consequently, those paraded across the platform at denominational conventions had the most significant growth within the church. If a church experienced exponential growth, they were recognized and celebrated. Consequently, the small church, with its stagnant rolls, was seen as the poor stepchild. Because of its size, it found itself left out of the Prince’s Ball, regarded as unhealthy, unchangeable, and unredeemable. Writers began to question the future and legitimacy of the small church. Even though research indicates that the small church reaches more people with the Gospel per capita than the large church, the lack of impressive numbers resulted in people questioning the church’s vitality. Success was determined by numerical digits, with the church called to be market-driven and culturally relevant. Even when the gospel message was compromised to gain more followers, denominational leaders promoted the latest methods that achieved the greatest results. In this success by numbers mindset, no one stopped to question the theological foundation of the assumptions.
A close examination of the Scriptures reveals a different perspective. In the Bible, we do not find any explicit statement that numbers are the measure of success, and the church’s growth is the responsibility of the pastor and even the church. The church growth model was built upon a faulty foundation, for in the Scripture, we find that the church’s growth is not our responsibility at all. Instead, we discover that God, and only God, accepts the responsibility for the church’s growth. In affirming Peter’s confession of faith, Christ does not state, “Upon this rock you will build my church.” Instead, he states, “Upon this rock, I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Christ makes it clear that he is the one who brings growth to the church. This growth is not achieved by what we bring to the table in our talents, abilities, and programs. The growth is accomplished through the sovereign working of Christ as we share the gospel message.
Like many in the church today, the church at Corinth became segmented by sectarian division. People were becoming enamored by the personalities of the preacher rather than the message they spoke. Some were following Apollos while there were following Paul. This is no different than today, where we follow celebrity preachers. For some, the key to growth is to recruit a well-known name who can gather a following based on his eloquence and charismatic presence. Paul rejects this celebrity worship in the church and portrays it as a mark of immaturity and carnality (1 Cor. 3:3). To correct infatuation with the personality cult, Paul reminds them that no human preacher, no matter how dynamic, brings about the growth of the church. The communicator of the Gospel is merely the farmer of the spiritual soil who cultivates, plants, and waters the ground. But the germination and growth of the seed come from the hand of God. Just as the farmer cannot cause the development of the seed in the soil, the preacher cannot bring about the growth (either numerically or spiritually) of the congregation. This growth can only come through the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the people.
In the quest to promote the importance of numerical growth, proponents of the church growth movement often appealed to Acts 2 as the standard for church growth. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, the early church experienced exponential growth. Consequently, it is argued that if we are walking in the Holy Spirit, then we too should be experiencing the same growth. However, the text again makes it clear that the church’s growth was not due to the church’s programs; instead, it was a result of God’s sovereign working through them. It was the Lord who “was adding to their number day by day” (Acts 2:47). This was due to God’s sovereign work rather than the church’s efforts (Acts 2:39). God was the cause of the growth of the church by using the testimony and life of the church to serve as his witnesses. It is vital to recognize the principle that while God uses our witness and testimony (5:42, 6:4), he is responsible for the results. As Jonathan Edward rightly points out, “It is of God what we have ordinances, and their efficacy depends on the immediate influence of his Spirit. The ministers of the Gospel are sent of God, and all their sufficiency is of Him. Their success depends entirely and absolutely on the immediate blessing and influence of God.”
This is what brings us back to the significance of rural ministry. If numbers are the measure of success, then the rural church will always be looked down upon as a wayward child. However, God does not call us to greatness; he calls us to faithfully communicate the Gospel, both in our message and in the embodiment of the Gospel within the church’s life. The rural church has value and significance, not because it achieves great results, but because it remains a faithful witness in the community. No matter our talents, abilities, or resources, we can be effective in ministry simply by being devoted to proclaiming the Gospel and recognizing that the growth of the Gospel is not our responsibility but God’s responsibility. As Eric Moore points out, “We are to do the best we can to nurture our people in the fear and admonition of the Lord, but at the end of the day what happens is beyond our control.” Our ultimate purpose is to be a spokesman for God who proclaims the gospel message, so they will know that a prophet has been among them whether they listen or not.
The Presence of the Gospel
From the very beginning, God sought to establish a relationship with his people. The garden of Eden was not just a place to provide humanity with all the things necessary for life. It was a place where God could commune with his people personally. He created the garden to be a place where he would be present with us. This personal presence stems from his very nature. God is a relational person who lives in eternal community within his triune existence. The marvel of creation is that he invited us to participate in that relational community through his divine image engraved upon us. But humanity chose isolation rather than intimacy. Rather than seek to live in the presence of God, we sought to establish our independence. In the ultimate example of betrayal and rejection, we sought to be independent of Him. But God is both gracious and patient, not desiring any to be eternally separated from him. As a result, he provided the means of our redemption from the punishment of sin and the cure for our isolation from him. This redemption from sin and restoration to a relationship with him undergirds the Gospel. This relationship is more than just regaining a proper understanding of God; it is about his divine presence in our lives. Christ came to be with us. He came as Emmanuel, “God with us.” Christ did not just come to do the will of the Father by achieving our salvation. He came to be present with us so that we might know what it is like to have God present with us in our daily life.
However, Christ’s time on this earth was only for a short period, then he ascended again to the presence of the Father to take his rightful position on the throne. But the ascension was not final but temporary. His final words to the disciples before his death and resurrection anticipated his departure and return when he would eternally dwell among his people. In the final return of Christ, he takes us back to the garden, where he will be permanently present with us. This divine presence formed the foundation for both the Abrahamic and New Covenant. The purpose of both these eternal covenants is that God would be with us as our God, and we would be his people. The goal of the covenants was that he would become our God, and we would become his people.
The renewal of the presence of Christ among his people stands at the heart of the Gospel message. The Gospel is not just about obtaining salvation from sin but being invited into his presence so that we might enjoy him (Hebrews 4). Consequently, the Gospel is inherently relational rather than informational. This takes us to the heart of what it means to proclaim the good news to people.
However, even as Christ left this earth, he still promised his presence in and through the church. Christ remains present in the church, and he becomes present to the world through the Church. We are his body; we are the visible representation of Christ to the world in which we live. This purpose was established by Christ when he stated that he did not desire to remove the church from the world but rather that the church would remain present in the world, calling people back to a personal relationship with the Father (John 17:15). Just as Christ reveals the Father to the people, the church now reveals Christ to the world. At the heart of our mission is the mission of presence. The first task of the great commission is not to “communicate the gospel to the world” but to go to all corners of the world. The command (present imperatival participle) is that we are to be present in all corners of the earth.
If the Great Commission is merely sharing information, God could have sent angels to communicate with people or empowered one of the disciples to invent the printing press in Acts so that the written message of the Gospel could be quickly disseminated. It is far easier, quicker, and cheaper to send a copy of the New Testament in written form to all people than it is to travel to them and spend time to connect with them. Yet God chose to use the personal communication of the Gospel through relational interaction. When Christ, in his high priestly prayer, asked the Father not to take us out of the world but to keep us from the evil one, he was pointing to the ongoing presence the church. For the Gospel to be communicated, it requires the church’s presence, living, and embodying the message of the Gospel. We present Christ to the world by interacting and connecting relationally with them.
Peter writes that the redemptive sharing of the Gospel begins not with our words but with our presence (1 Peter 3:15). They will become hearers of the Gospel only after the church has first revealed it in life. The implication is that people will be able to see the believer’s life and hope and seek an explanation from us. However, this can only happen when we are daily rubbing shoulders with our neighbors so they see our responses to our circumstances. We are not to build enclaves for the church in which we separate ourselves from the people and call people to us. Instead, we advance the Gospel by going to people and connecting with them. The church is not the church when assembled; the church becomes the church when it is disseminated into the world
Yet it this presence is more than merely living in close proximity. It is to integrate into the culture. Effective evangelism must be contextualized to the listener. Christ did not come devoid of ethnicity and culture. Instead, he came as a Jew, fully embracing the Jewish culture in order to reach Jewish people. The presence of Christ was seen not merely walking in their midst; He embraced them for who they were in their ethnicity and cultural context. Likewise, Paul understood the importance of cultural contextualization when he stated that to the Jew, he becomes a Jew, and to a Gentile, he becomes a Gentile. In other words, to be influential, the church must be contextualized to the people we desire to reach. This does not mean we adapt and change the message. The gospel message is unchangeable. But to be the visible presence of Christ, we must follow Christ’s lead by being present within the culture and community.
If the church is to reveal Christ, it must do so within the community. It is not enough merely to proclaim the Gospel on the radio hoping that a farmer might listen on the tractor while working his field. To reach a farmer, a person must get in the cab and ride with him. We must connect with his world to understand his struggles and challenges so that we might be able to show him the relevance of the Gospel to him. Recently, I visited a small church in a small community where the nearest church would be at least a half-hour drive away. The attendance that day was 15 people (including the Pastor and my wife and I, who were visiting). But the value of the church is not measured by the number of people in attendance but by the presence they have within the community. This small church is more than just a small group meeting on Sunday. They are the presence of Christ within the community that God has placed them. The church is essential because the people in that community are important to God. They can contextualize the Gospel because they know the people and their needs. They speak the language of the community and share the message of Christ in a way that connects with the people.
Even as we contextualize the Gospel, there is always the risk of over contextualizing the message. The Gospel does not change, nor should we ever change the message to make it more palatable to a world-driven culture. We should never minimize or undermine the Gospel. Still, we should always seek to be present with the Gospel in the context of the culture, language, and challenges of the local community. We are to adapt our methodologies to manifest the Gospel in life-relevant ways. To reach rural people, we need to allow the church to be genuinely rural. To often, especially in our educational systems in Seminary, we assume that the way the urban church functions is how the rural church should function. We want to urbanize the rural church by making it adapt to the urban culture that celebrates bigness and excitement. However, we fail to value rural culture with its slowness and rhythm of life. We try to conform the rural church to its urban counterpart. But the two are not the same because the culture is radically different.
Therefore, the rural ministry must remain part of the Gospel presence. We cannot reach rural communities in absentia or remotely. We need to bring the presence of Christ to the community by bringing the presence of the church to the community. God calls us to become his presence in the rural community by learning to speak “ruralese” and value them for who they are. The Gospel becomes powerful when it is demonstrated in love for the people—ministering to their needs and seeking to understand their struggles. While the regional church can and does reach people with the Gospel, it will fail to connect with many others. There will be some who are drawn to the energy and dynamics of a large church. But many others are repelled by it, especially in rural communities where rural people value locality, individuality, and community.
If the Gospel does not translate into a passion and importance for rural ministry and the rural church, we have an incomplete gospel. The same is true for the urban and suburban churches as well. When our passion for the gospel values masses over people, programs over relationships, and glamor over presence, we have lost the heart of the Gospel. To understand the Gospel and the Kingdom of God is to bring his redemptive truth to people where they are at, whether that be in the inner city or the flyover states. God calls the universal church to become the manifestation of Christ through the local church, including small towns and rural communities. The Gospel confronts us with the truth that all people are important to God. When I visited the church with only 15 people in attendance, I prayed with the pastor and his wife and thanked God for their faithfulness (he had been there 13 years) because these 15 people are as important to God as 1500 who gather in the suburban church. This importance is revealed in the Gospel truth that God desires no one to perish. If we affirm the importance of these people in our soteriology, we must also affirm the importance of this church in our ecclesiology.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1994), p. 21.
 Stephen Witmer, A Big Gospel in Small Places, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019) p. 21.
 Witmer, p 65.
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3 Volumes, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 3:1065.
 Erickson, p. 1063
 Grudem p. 864
 Tony Evans, The power of Jesus’ Names, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2019), p. 45.
 James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
 David G Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009) p. 112.
 Witmer, p. 74
 A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God: A 31 Day Experience, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2021), p.22
 For a further discussion of the Black presence in the bible and church history see, Tony Evans, Oneness Embraced, Chicago, Moody Press, 2011.
 Witmer, p. 79
 Grudem, p. 695
 Knute Larson, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, vol. 9, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 266.
 Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards, Legacy of Faith Library, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2017), p.7.
 Eric W. Moore, Pastoring the Small Church, (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2013), p. 34.
 Tony Evans, The Power of God’s Names, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2014), p. 199
 Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2003), p. 175
 Witmer, p. 118