Article by Jonathan Davis.
Rural churches and ministries face numerous challenges in the 21st century. At some point in a minister’s career, the likelihood of serving in a small-town church seems high, especially if the person transitions from the role of an associate minister to that of a senior pastor. I and many of my friends from seminary have made this kind of transition, and nearly all of us are serving in small-town churches. In many ways, there’s a ministry myth about where all the “action” is. I have heard many people (both lay and clergy) over the years refer to inner-city ministries or foreign missions as “the front line.” Besides this militaristic language of conquest, the reason I grate against such a notion is that rural ministers are on the cutting edge of several significant ministry trends. There are three emerging social issues and trends where rural churches may actually sit at the forefront.
- Rural churches are at the forefront of creation care and environmental stewardship. One of the largest cultural trends of the last hundred years is urbanization, with little end in sight. Rural counties in the United States only account for roughly 20 percent of the national population; however, they represent nearly 75 percent of all land, water, and mineral resources. This means that a natural area for theological reflection concerning rural ministry is creation care. Adopting a theology of creation care need not digress into political issues. Start recycling at church. Organize a highway cleanup day. Host a scouting program at your church (most programs teach conservationism). Highlight agriculturalists, park rangers, forestry employees, and fish and game wardens when you have a stewardship emphasis instead of solely focusing on church finances. How can your rural church embody a biblical theology of creation care?
- Rural churches are at the forefront of the Baby Boomer retirement wave. Anecdotally, nearly half the people joining the last two churches I’ve pastored (both in small towns) were moving to the community for retirement. As many rural areas become retirement destinations, small-town churches may see an uptick in the number of older visitors and new members. This trend could potentially serve as a boon to rural churches, providing an influx of leadership capital, knowledge, and passion. Boomers are looking to live active lifestyles in retirement, which might make a great fit for vibrant small churches open to welcoming new people into the community. Rural churches should think long and hard about whether a “been-here vs. come-here” mentality is a good strategy for absorbing and utilizing the gifts of new retiree residents in the community.
- Rural churches are at the forefront of race relations. Many rural communities, like many cities, remain deeply segregated, especially in church life. What would racial reconciliation look like in your county? Until we can address some of the deep-seated issues in our culture, we will never more fully realize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. If churches cannot cut through the noise and frame important social issues theologically and in terms of the Kingdom, we cede moral and spiritual authority to external—often politically driven—forces. In many counties in the Commonwealth, there are two Baptist associations: one historically white and the other historically black. To what shared future does the Gospel call us?
Rural ministry has the potential to be as exciting and relevant as any urban or suburban church. Issues impacting the broader culture impact rural communities, and church leaders should take note. Do you serve in a rural church? You may be on the cutting edge of ministry. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.