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Rethinking Rural Ministry

By Glenn Daman

Ask a Bible College or seminary student about the option of going to a rural ministry and they look at you as has asked about starting a ministry on Mars. It is not that they have anything against the rural church; it is just completely off their ministerial radar. As more and more pastors retire, the rural church is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and keep pastors. Those who do come only stay for a short time until a better opportunity arises. The end result is that the church becomes suspicious of anyone who comes to serve, believing that they are only there to pad their resume before moving on to greener pastures. In one survey of students in a Bible College revealed that only 33% did not take into consideration of the size of the community when evaluating where they might pastor (Ralph Adcock, What Am I Doing Here?, Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, p. 141). When the same question was asked of the Pastoral Ministries Students, only 17% agreed that the size of the community was not a factor and only 28% agreed that the size of the church was not a factor (Ibid, p. 160-161). This raises the question in terms of why so few are willing to go into rural areas and serve small churches. While there are a number of different reasons, there are 5, which have a significant effect upon people’s perception of rural ministry.

1. The mistaken strategy of following the strategy of Acts.

When developing a missional strategy for the church people often look to the strategy of Paul in the book of Acts. They argue that the strategy of Paul in his missionary journeys was to go the urban and economic centers of a region and seek to plant a church. Roger N. McNamara and Ken Davis in their Book “The Y.B.H (Yes, But How) Handbook of Church Planting” follow this line of argument when they write the criteria for determining new church sites begin with an assessment of the population size of the community, “First century church planters wisely concentrated on large population centers such as Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Antioch, Philippi, and Rome. They instinctively recognized a thriving church in a growing city could have a great impact on outlying areas. Church growth experts recommend there be a population of at least two to three thousand persons per church in the community” (p. 173). Granted, this was the strategy of Paul, but it is mistaken when it jumps to the conclusion that this should be the strategy for all church plants. It is fault for several reasons. First it assumes that all the other apostles followed the same strategy. But the book of Acts simply does not say. The other apostles could easily have gone to rural areas rather than urban areas. The information is not nearly enough to make this a universal strategy. When gave the great commission to the apostles, he did not say, “go into all the urban areas and preach the gospel.” Rather he challenged them to go into the entire world, which would have been to rural areas as well. Second, this is faulty for even Christ himself did not follow this pattern. Rather a close examination of the ministry of Christ reveals that he spent very little time in the urban and economic centers of Israel. He spent the bulk of his ministry in rural Galilee. In Mark 6:56 we find that Christ entered “villages” (small unimportant population centers), “cities” (large population centers,” and the “countryside” (small villages or clusters of farms). In other words Christ went to where the people were at regardless of the numbers. To only go to large urban areas to start, or build churches, is to do a disservice to God redemptive program where every person is equally important.

2. The mistaken idea that numerical growth indicates God’s blessing.

While not specifically stated, it is continually implied at pastor’s conferences, in books, and in articles that if God is blessing a church it will be evident by the increase of numbers in the pews. A successful church is a growing church. Recently a pastor of a large evangelical mega-church wrote in his blog, “We’re all about the numbers because we believe that every number has a name, every name has a story, and every story matters to God. We aren’t just about being a church of thousands of people … we want all churches to be thousands strong because of the potential the church has.” The implication is that God desire all church to become large and if they are not, then they are not fulfilling God’s desired potential. A church that is not experiencing numerical growth is likes the servant who is hiding his talents. To provide biblical support for this, people often appeal to Acts 2 as the standard for all churches. Just as God blessed the early church with exponential growth so he desires to bless our churches today.

If this is true, then what about Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel? Their ministries were not successful or effective by these standards. Even the ministry of Christ becomes a failure, for at the end of his ministry, he only had a few followers. In reality, this definition of success is ultimately grounded in the same philosophy that undergirds the prosperity gospel, only with a spiritual twist. Instead of God’s blessing being revealed in material prosperity it is revealed in ecclesiastical prosperity. The growth of the church reveals God’s blessing and approval of our ministry. As a result, pastors of small churches become discouraged and abandon the ministry because of self-doubt and guilt. Since God did not bless their ministry, it must be because of some hidden failure and sin on their part. Worse, people in the church began to question the leadership of the pastor and blame him for the lack of growth. But this contradicts the very foundation of grace where God salvation and his blessing are not bestowed based upon our merit, but his mercy. Furthermore, nowhere in scripture do we find the command given to ‘grow the church.’ Instead we are commanded to preach the word and provide a Godly example for others. This becomes the standard of success and the measure by which we shall be judged.

This also impacts the ability of rural churches to attract new pastors. For those coming out of seminary why would they want to go to a rural or small church that would hinder their success in ministry? People who are freshly graduated from seminary want to go out and make a difference in the world. As a result they are reluctant to go to rural church that offers little opportunity for growth. Instead they pursue urban areas where the potential for numerical success is greater.

3. The rural and small church is overlooked in the training of future pastors.

With a few exceptions, most Bible colleges and seminaries are located in large urban centers. The result is that the students who are attending the colleges and seminaries are given extensive exposure to the urban church. Furthermore, as they start to serve within the church it is often as first volunteers and then staff members of the larger urban congregations. As a result, when they complete their education it is natural for them to be drawn to the larger church. Conversely the student is given very little exposure to the small church and especially the rural church. It is not that they are opposed to the rural church; it is that the small and rural church is completely off their radar of places they would go. Because of their exposure to the multi-staff church they are comfortable to seek a position in the urban church but find the prospect of serving as a lone pastor in a rural or small church to be frightfully intimidating.

The lack of visibility of the small church in the educational process is compounded by the reality that those who are recruited to serve as instructors most often come from or are pastors of large urban churches. This again goes back to the previous misconception that successes measured by the size of the church. Therefore those who have served large churches are seen as more successful and consequently are recruited to teach. However, this is not necessarily a deliberate bias against the small and rural church, but result of the lack of representation of the small church. One of the problems is that those who pastor rural churches often lack the educational requirements necessary to be a professor. Nevertheless, it is true that often those who do have the academic credentials are overlooked simply because they have served in a small church and somehow they are seen as not as successful.

4. Misconception that the rural areas are evangelized.

One of the reasons people overlook the rural ministry is because there is a misconception that the rural areas are already evangelized and there is no need. Much is made of inter-city poverty and the social, economic and family problems that exist. Young people going into ministry are draw to the inner city because of a desire to help those in desperate need. However, when we look at the rural areas and demographics we find that the rural community faces many of the same economic and social problems that confront the inner city, it is just that it is not as well known or publicized. Furthermore there is a desperate need for more evangelism in rural communities. Perhaps the greatest overlooked mission field is our own back yard. Native Americas remain completely unreached with the gospel. The influx of Hispanic migrant works in the farm communities is creating new opportunities for cross-cultural ministries. The rural church does not need more individuals who come into the rural church in order to “get experience, before moving on the larger and more influential ministries.” The rural church does not need more pastors who are worn out and putting in their time until they can finally retire. The rural church does not need those who “cannot make it anywhere else in ministry.” The rural church needs gifted individuals who have a passion for Christ, a hunger for evangelism and a willingness to sacrifice their own “success” in order to reach people in desperate need of the gospel.

5. The desire for financial security.

Small churches have a difficulty recruiting pastors simply because of the meager salary they offer. While people in the small church often give in greater proportion than the larger church counterpart, the reality is the lack of number mean that the small church will often struggle to pay a pastor a sufficient wage. Even if the church offers a parsonage for the pastor to live in, this is seen as a further negative in recruitment. It is difficult for the small church to compete economically when individuals can serve on the staff as an associate pastor and earn a greater salary. But the problem is not just one of salary, for the issue is compounded by the large debt that a Bible College or seminary graduate had incurred going to school. The harsh reality is they cannot afford to go to a small church with the amount of debts they have. Even for those willing to go to a small church, if they have a family they are reluctant to take a position that will not guarantee an income necessary to provide for the financial needs of the family. The end result is that the small church simply cannot afford to hire a pastor.

Rethinking the Church and the Importance of the Small Church.

It is easy to identify the problems; it is far more difficult to come up with the solutions. The challenge before us is to rethink the church, to understand that every church is critical to the body of Christ. Just as the “eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21), the large church cannot say to the small church “we have no need of you” (and visa-versa). Every church, regardless of the size, is a critical member to the whole body of Christ and necessary for a genuinely healthy church. If the church of America is going to be healthy, it needs healthy rural and small churches just as much as it needs healthy large urban churches. We cannot abandon the small church, but need a renewed focus on strengthening the small church.

First, we need pastors who value people not numbers. We need to recognize that the kingdom of God is not made up of masses, but of a number of individuals. Throughout the ministry of Christ we find over and over again the emphasis is placed upon the value and worth God places on each individual. Whether the individual resides in the inner city, the suburbs or the isolate rural community, God desires that everyone hear the gospel message. When we start to focus on numbers rather than individuals then we are ultimately devaluing a persons worth.

Second, we need pastors who are willing to sacrifice prestige and personal “success” in the pursuit of ministry. Tragically we have professionalized ministry so that it is a career to pursue rather than a calling to achieve. The result is that we measure ministry by the secular standard of success where sizes and influence indicate success. To be successful a person must have one or several of these factors: 1/ financial prosperity, 2/ recognition by peers, 3/ influence, 4/ growth and achievement. But if we are to effectively serve in the small church we need to be willing to give up the pursuit of all these. To serve in the small church we need to be willing to drive an old car (or pickup), and trust God for our financial future. To serve in the small church we will never receive recognition by our peers. Rather we will spend our life and ministry in the forgotten places. We will not be recognized at the annual conference meetings as the fastest growing church. We will not be asked to speak at conferences. We will not be asked to serve on denominational boards. But that is OK for if that is what is necessary for us to minister to the people we serve then it is worth the sacrifice.

Third, we need to raise the visibility of the small church in the educational institutions. This can be done in several ways. It begins by having on staff those who not only spent time in the small church, but also have a passion and commitment to the small church. This means we need to actively look for and recruit individuals in the small church, not just those who serve for a short time in the small church before advancing to a large church. Another way to increase the visibility of the small church is to bring in guest speakers in both the classroom and chapel to share the struggles, joys, and challenges of the small church. When developing internships, contact small churches as well. We need to keep the small church visible and promote it to the students as a viable choice in ministry.

Fourth we need to celebrate and recognizes the value of the small and rural church. Too often we celebrate and recognize the accomplishments and growth of churches rather than the faithfulness of pastors. This involves not only recognizing them at the annual meetings of the association or denomination, but also making sure that the small church is represented in the various boards and committees. It involves inviting the small church pastors to speak at conferences and lead in seminars. However, in do so we must also recognizes the financial struggles of the small church pastor and financial difficult it is for them to attend national conferences. To counter this, the denomination or association needs to develop scholarship programs to help cover the expenses for the small church.

Fifth, we need to start to rethink our educational process which results is such a heavy debt upon the study and further makes any pursuit of an advance degree for small church pastors financially unattainable. Developing scholarship programs for small church pastors and developing a sliding scale of costs may encourage small church pastors to pursue further education. A viable alternative is to provide cheaper online courses for those in the small church.

Last, we need to value the small and rural church as a viable and important ministry rather than as a stepping-stone for one’s professional career advancement. Those who do should be either discouraged from going to the small church or challenged to rethink their view of the small church. We need to encourage individual to be willing to spend their career in the small church by communicating to them that not only is the small church a viable ministry option, but it is a high calling worthy of our greatest effort.

Article originally posted at Glenn Daman is the author of five books on rural ministry, Shepherding the Small Church, Leading the Small Church, Developing Leaders in the Small Church, When Shepherds Weep and The Forgotten Church.