Cities are important. They are where culture is truly shaped. They are where the majority of people live. That’s why mission boards and church planting gurus are putting so much emphasis on reaching these urban areas. It makes sense, right?
I wholeheartedly agree that we should be seeking to reach the lost in our cities and cities around the globe. But we must not neglect the rural congregations. These areas, too, are in need of faithful ministers of the Word. I know that most pastors and aspiring pastors are not dreaming of the day that they can shepherd the 90-member congregation of Dirt Road Baptist Church, but it is necessary for some.
In this post, I want to explain some of the potential ups and downs that a minister will face if he decides to shepherd a flock in a rural setting. I have no major experience in church planting research or even in ministry, having only served in full-time ministry for a year and a half, but I do have experience with rurality, specifically the rural South. I grew up in a church in rural Mississippi and now serve in a church in the same area. Therefore, I am much acquainted with rural life, though I don’t share the prevailing affinity for shooting animals, watching NASCAR, or mud-riding. My childhood was filled with, among other things, riding along with my grandfather as he took care of his farm, playing on hay bales, and spending days exploring the woods around my home. The countryside is my home, and I desire for the gospel to flourish in this very setting.
Let me begin with the obstacles a person will face if he decides to pastor a congregation in the country. (I’m specifically focusing on the rural United States because that is where my familiarity lies.)
First, the largest challenge that faces the rural South (or actually, the South in general) is the huge amount of false converts. Belonging to a church is the norm, and this, in the minds of many, is their ticket to heaven. The fact that Little Billy Bob came forward to pray a prayer at age 7 and was baptized is proof that he is a Christian, even though Billy Bob’s only evidence of grace in his adulthood is that he attends church on Sunday mornings. He has no fruit, but to encourage him to truly examine his spiritual condition would cause us to take a trip down the lane called Memory to that fateful morning when he prayed the sinner’s prayer. This is a plague that ravishes many rural settings. They are in need of a faithful minister who will diligently labor to preach the gospel in a way that crushes the work of easy-believism.
Second, it can take a while to be accepted within the fold of the church. In rural contexts, large portions of the church may be related. This is a blessing and a curse. A church that is comprised of several extended families can carry a great sense of fellowship. The relationships within the church run deep, and that carries over to how the members interact with one another.
But this can also be a negative thing. Sometimes, “outsiders” have a tough time finding their place within the fold, particularly those who are not from the area. This means that ministers must be patient if the congregation is slow to truly open up to him and his family. Also, the staff must be attentive to help newcomers form those deep-seated relationships that are vital for a healthy church and Christian.
Third, and somewhat related to the previous point, rural congregations can be reluctant to change. Within cities, life is typically fast-paced, and change is always around the corner. This is not usually the case in rural locales. Tradition plays a huge role in rural communities, which is not a bad thing at all, but that custom can inhibit some important changes within the confines of a church. Effecting a change with rural congregations can be similar to waiting on an Ent to make a decision; it requires much patience.
This means that a pastor must be full of patience while ministering to his people. Nowadays, it’s typical for pastors to remain at a single church for a few years and then move on. This is not an option for the pastor who really wants to see serious change within a rural congregation. It will take years, decades even. Ministering within a rural context will require a shepherd to patiently and graciously lead his flock as they grow in the gospel. It is not the place for quick fixes.
Rural settings, like all other settings, pose particular challenges for the faithful minister, but every setting also has certain advantages. For instance, country churches have more consistency in the makeup of their congregation. It’s not uncommon for a child to grow up in a rural church and buy a house in the same area to raise his or her family. Therefore, many of these churches have a large percentage of “lifelong” members. This is not typically the case with urban churches, though it is certainly possible. Cities are much more transient in nature, so churches must deal with a larger amount of turnover within their ranks. This is great for rural pastors because you have more time to invest into parishioners rather than trying to force everything into a two-year window. It would be such a blessing to see how the Lord graciously allows His children to grow over the course of ten, twenty, or fifty years.
As I’ve already said, ministering in any setting will bring certain obstacles and advantages, the countryside being no different. But we are in need of pastors who are willing to forgo the goals of huge numbers, pastoral celebrity, or big salaries, all for the goal of leading a small flock to graze in the fields of God’s immeasurable love. It is a necessity, just as it is a necessity for the missionary to deal with poor health and persecution in the Third World country so that some may come to know Christ.
So who will come? Who will labor for Christ here in the cattle pastures and farmlands with the goal that God might use you to save some? There will be no glitz or glamor awaiting, but you can be sure that the power of Christ awaits. His grace is sufficient to carry you through the frustration and heartache that will be experienced by any minister of the gospel.