Recently, I had dinner with a group of rural pastors to understand their ministry. The priests stood one after another, giving their names, their church and their many years of service. Then, the face of each pastor is gone.
“Our church only worships about 20 years old,” the first pastor said. When each pastor shared their worship, the frustration and anxiety in the entire room were embarrassing. The next church reported on the 60-year-old congregation. Another pastor serving in multiple church accusations reported that one of their churches had only about 12 people on Sunday morning.
The pastors are very depressed. They tried the latest church growth strategy. They read a lot of blogs about leadership and participated in the best continuing education activities, none of which really talked about their background. In any case, the enviable “growth” indicator seems impossible.
Although these pastors serve rural areas, their environment is quite different. Some people serve the community, and these communities have entered a period of seeming stagnation that is driven by economic change and a popular narrative about what the countryside means. For decades, agriculture has been the dominant industry in its community, and its alternatives and manufacturing are now declining.
But for others, the rural ministry needs to manage rapid change. Retirees from the city to these rural communities are made possible by the attractiveness of affordable properties, the willingness to commute, and the proximity of natural attractions. This new population brings a changing culture, and in some places, the name from rural to suburban is about to change.
Dialogues about church vitality often present key indicators that emphasize the increase in the number of worship attendees and the large number of young people and young people. [i] However, there are clear questions about how rural churches use these vitality metrics in a changing community. When told that they need more children to participate, how do retirees flock to the thriving congregation? Or, when a 20-year-old congregation has a strong missionary presence in a fading community, how do they answer their church’s stagnation or even death criticism?
In my office, I use a phrase to keep a phrase. I often hear from colleagues in rural economic development: “If you have seen a rural county, you will see a rural county.” Because the rural community is complex There is no universal method. Therefore, there is reason to believe that rural churches need an equally flexible mark to express their vitality. The rural church occupies the center of the busy town square, dotted along the uninhabited national road. Just bundled together by the “Country” tab, the vibrancy must look different in these different spaces.
In collaboration with churches and other rural leaders, I found that the thriving rural church shared three key vital pillars. [ii] These are not the indicators themselves, but rather the areas in which rural churches should strive to develop measurements of specific contexts to determine clear objectives.
First, the flourishing rural church demonstrates a clear theological identity. These congregations pray and promote dialogue, linking their believers’ beliefs to their weekly lives.
This theological identity also has profound theological significance. They know their own history and tell in their own words what God is doing in the community. They remember pain and happiness and combine tensions between sadness, repentance and hope.
This place of theology is not just an idle memory. Instead, it laid the groundwork for a second key feature: The thriving rural church understood the local community as a place to train, announce and invite others to participate in the Kingdom of God. They know they are responsible for the communities around them.
This may seem different in every congregation. In some places, this may be organic because members will hear and respond to what they see in the community. Or, the church may develop continuous programming. The result is that the congregation strives to look outward and is eager to see how they become part of God’s new creation.
Finally, a thriving rural church is sustainable. At the most basic level, the congregation can pay the bills and keep it on. This brings unique challenges and opportunities to many churches because the patterns are constantly changing. According to reports, the younger generation has less disposable income and is skeptical about the institution, resulting in one in ten. At the same time, the 2018 tax reform may stimulate an overall reduction in charitable donations. [III]
In many rural areas, dual professional pastors are becoming standards, creating opportunities to deepen the congregation’s commitment to its location. The programming budget is also decreasing, which means that pastors need to be better at fostering partnerships with other organizations and funders. These are challenges, but they are also opportunities for new ministry models.
At the end of our dinner, I asked our rural pastors to share the story of where God works through them. They excitedly shared the story of their small congregation raising funds for the community literacy program. They shared their commitment to preserve and share the history of their 150-year-old church, which used to be twice as many as African-American school buildings. They shared the stories of a few high school students who became active leaders. These are places of important and life-giving ministry.
The vitality of the church is not just about the development of the church, although it may be a natural result. These important churches are not limited to the growing suburbs around our main cities. The thriving rural church is firmly committed to seeing and becoming part of what God has done in the world around them. They remind us that the narratives we often tell about rural ministry are wrong. Being a rural church does not mean becoming a life-supporting church. Instead, they are places where meaningful and influential changes occur.
[i] For example, UMC Action Call: An important congregation research project. De Wetter, David, et al.. Towers Watson, 2010.
[ii] These cores represent the commonalities of several reports, including the development of a robust rural community summary assessment report and the work of GBHEM.
[iii] Fox, Richard and Joshua Headly. Tax Deduction and Employment Act – What non-profit organizations need to know,” Charity Magazine News, January 29, 2018.