Six Trends Affecting the Rural Church
By Glenn Daman
Ministry is not static, but dynamic. It is not conducted in a sterile test-tube isolated from the winds of culture. Instead, we find that the culture in which we live intertwines with the programs we conduct. As a result, the trends that blow across the cultural landscape infiltrate the cracks of the church and affect the ministry and flow of the congregation. Some of these trends are positive, resulting in new opportunities to reach people for Christ. Others undermine the foundation of the church and, if not confronted, assault the stability of the ministry. Still others are neutral, having in themselves no moral or spiritual implications, but radically affecting the manner in which the church conducts its ministry. Paul recognized the transitory nature of the culture when he wrote, "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Part of the reason for Paul's success was that he kept his finger upon the heartbeat of the culture and adapted his methodology to fit the people that he was serving.
While the number of trends and cultural issues confronting the church rapidly and continually changes, there are six that play an important role in defining and influencing the manner in which the church serves its people and its community.
1. The mobility of people. People are constantly on the move. Where farmers once tilled only the land that was in close proximity to their home, now it is common for them to travel thirty to forty miles to reach segments of their farm. Ranchers have summer and winter ranges in different states to benefit from various climates. People in rural towns will drive to larger cities for their shopping, socializing, and church activities. People in the city will by-pass a number of solid, evangelical churches of varying sizes and denomination to attend the church of their choice. The effect of this movement means that the church, even in the areas, cannot assume that people will attend just because their doors are open. The church needs to carefully examine who it desires to reach, what it is doing to attract people, and how it will keep them once they start coming.
2. Multiple social centers. In many rural towns, the church used to be the social center of people within the congregation and community. People would pack the church to hear a gospel singing group or traveling evangelists because it was the only social and entertaining activity around. In today's culture, there are so many social activities available for the family that many feel overwhelmed. For adults there are social clubs such as the Lions, the local volunteer fire department, softball, bowling and golf leagues. For the children there are swimming meets, little league, junior soccer, Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls. This, coupled with the fact that since the early 1970's people's leisure time has declined by as much as one-third, has resulted in modern family feeling pulled in a number of different directions with little time for church activities.1 Now churches struggle to get even their own members to attend special events. Getting the unchurched to attend seems impossible. No longer is the church a social center for the community. Consequently, it is having to rethink how it will conduct its evangelistic programs in order to attract new people.
3. Poverty. Poverty is no longer an inter-city problem. The percent of families below the poverty line is approximately the same in rural and non-metropolitan areas as it is in the central city. However, there is a marked difference in the percent of poor families who receive welfare. Fifty percent of inter-city families below the poverty line receive assistance compared only to thirty percent of people residing in rural areas.2 As a result, in rural communities more emphasis is placed upon community assistance than federal programs. The church needs to be sensitive to the economic needs of people and be willing to assist people as a way of gaining an audience for sharing the gospel of Christ. Social action is not just for the inter-city church, it is for the rural church as well. Food baskets during the holidays, special offerings for needy families, providing presents for children, having clothing exchanges where out- grown clothing can be made available for others, Deacon's funds, etc., are all ways that the rural church can demonstrate the love of Christ and reach people in the surrounding area.
4. Economic Shifts. Many rural communities have had a significant change in their economic base. Agriculture and timber no longer supply jobs and industry to support and attract new people. Tourism, industry, and a host of other business opportunities have brought new people and new economic forces within the community. Rural towns that were once isolated from larger cities have become bedroom communities. This has caused a major shift in the mentality and cultural mind set of the people. Where the populace was once homogeneous, now they find themselves culturally eclectic. The result has been new people with new ideas coming into the church and challenging the established patterns set by the 'old timers.' The congregation needs to work carefully with people as they sort through a menagerie of different ideas concerning music, Bible versions, behavior patterns, and expectations. They need to help people realize the unity we have in Christ and the importance of being sensitive to the other person's expression of personal faith. The leadership needs to have greater skills to resolve conflicts as different traditions collide within the programs, worship styles, and ideas of people.
5. Population Shifts. In the past one hundred years a significant shift in the population has influenced how the rural church conducts its ministry. While the percent of people living on the farm has declined from 39 percent in 1900 to only 1.9 percent in 1991, the number of people living in rural areas has risen from 45 million in 1900 to 68 million in 1990. In the last ten years, the percent of the population residing in rural areas has risen form 26.3 percent to 27.3 percent.3 This has resulted in new opportunities for the church for evangelism. The challenge is be attractive to the new people moving into the community and to include them in the life and ministry of the congregation which has been dominated by bloodlines and traditions. People moving into an area will be more influenced by popular culture than those who have lived their whole lives in the community. They will have different views upon political and social issues, often finding a church unattractive, not because of the theology or programs, but because of the political and social undertones that characterize the people.
6. Church Growth Movement. Whether we realize it or not this movement has drastically influenced (both positively and negatively) the landscape of the rural church. Positively, it has raised the awareness and importance of outreach and evangelism. It has shown the church the value and necessity of understanding our community and the thought process of the unsaved. It has assisted the congregation by providing helpful ideas for reaching people with the gospel. Negatively, it has redefined success in ministry so that success, and even spirituality, is measured by the numerical growth rather than the heart and character of people. As a result many rural churches and pastors have become discouraged by the lack of apparent results. Because of the growth that some churches have experienced, people's and the pastor's expectations have changed so that if numerical growth does not occur, people blame the pastor and the pastor blames the people. While we should recognize the contribution the church growth movement has made, we should also guard against its negative influences. We need to be more evangelistic, but we must also recognize that salvation is ultimately the product of divine initiative rather than personal efforts, stemming from the convicting work of the Holy Spirit rather than excellent programs (1 Corinthians 3:3-9). Thus, the focus must shift from the results of evangelism (which belong to God) to the process of faithful proclamation (which is the responsibility of people). The critical question is not whether the church is adding to its numbers, but are people sharing their faith with their neighbors, friends, and co-workers.