Sustaining Rural Ministry
By Glenn Daman
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in rural ministry. Books were written, mini-conferences were established, and web pages were built to equip rural churches and encourage those serving in the neglected landscape of rural communities. But in this wake-up call to recognize the value and importance of rural communities and churches, the question remains: Is this a fad or a movement? The danger we face is that this becomes one of the latest ecclesiastical fads that generate excitement and interest but soon fade into the foggy distance of forgotten memories. In his article, "A Movement or a Fad?" David Fitch points out, "The difference between a fad and a movement is that a movement produces long-term enduring change. A fad, on the other hand, feeds off something that already exists: a cultural awareness, a disenchantment, or even a novel idea and expands on it. Through media, publishing, and viral exchange, it becomes a sensation that sells books, creates a lot of activity, makes people feel something exciting, but in the end it doesn't produce enough substance to sustain lasting change in history."[i] Fads are comparable to a lake. The waters are still and tranquil. When you throw a rock into it, there is a splash and ripples, but soon the water returns to tranquility. Movements are like a river. The flow of the water is continuous, always moving, constantly changing its course to adapt to new impulses.
Therein lies the danger of the new interest in rural ministry. Like fads, it can sweep across the countryside but fade into the distance. In an age when we celebrate bigness, success, and recognition, the rural ministry often falls by the wayside. This brings us to the question: How do we turn the renewed interest in rural ministry into a sustainable movement that impacts and revitalizes rural churches for decades to come? What happens with the polish and shine of the new car (albeit an old car restored) become dull and mundane, and the recognition we now receive from denominational leaders turns aside in pursuit of the next fad? The challenge before us is to develop a sustainable movement rather than the latest trend that is exciting today but forgotten tomorrow. For this to happen, we need to embrace eight core principles to govern our view of rural ministry and provide the impetus for us to maintain our focus on reaching rural communities.
1. We must see rural ministry as a theological necessity rather than a denominational ministry.
To be sustainable, rural ministry must be theologically driven. We must see rural ministry as more than just a social necessity but a gospel-driven mandate. Although trends are driven by culture and the latest program, sustainable ministry is driven by the great commission. It sees the ministry not as a program but as a gospel necessity grounded in the spiritual bankruptcy of rural areas and the need for spiritual transformation. The failure to see the necessity of rural missions is to undermine the gospel of Christ, who came to save the whole world, including people in rural communities. The great commission is not a call to go where the crowds reside but a call to go to the very corner of the earth. It is a commission to take the gospel to every individual, from downtown Manhattan to the outer villages of the Alaskan tundra. Any view of the church and the great commission that places a value on one group over another, or focuses upon numbers rather than individuals, distorts the gospel. Christ came to die, not for the masses but each individual. Christ died for the thief on the cross as well as for the sins of the world. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch showed God's concern for the individual when he moved Phillip to leave the fast-paced, productive ministry to the Samaritans and the Jews in Jerusalem to send him to a single individual seeking God in the isolated wilderness (Acts 8:26-40). Jesus spent the bulk of His ministry not in the population centers of Israel but in the small, rural villages of Galilee (Mark 1:38 and Matthew 9:35). Paul not only went to the urban centers but also spent time ministering to the outer villages and communities. Galatians 1:17, Pauls' visit to Arabia suggests he left Damascus to visit the surrounding desert, which was more sparsely populated. In Acts 17:10-15, Paul commends the believers in Berea, a small city of little consequence or importance.
The rural church played such an essential role in the early church that Church Historian Thomas A. Robinson dispels the thesis that the formation of Christianity was primarily an urban movement. Instead, it was driven mainly by the church's growth in rural communities. After examining the historical data regarding the development of the church in the first 300 years, he concludes, "The most blunt and baffling matter that needs correction is the assumption that there could have been a significant Christian presence in the (Roman) empire without a sizeable rural component in the Christian Membership." He goes on to state, "As to the presence of Christianity in the countryside, if Christians represented even a small minority in the Roman Empire (say, 5%), then some element, and perhaps a substantial element of the Christian movement, almost certainly would have been rural-based."[ii] Historically and Biblically, rural communities remain crucial for God's redemptive plan. Therefore, we need to have a theology of rural ministry simply because it is part of the purpose and plan of God.
2. To be sustainable, rural ministry must become embedded in theological education.
Before the recent attention given to rural ministry, seminaries and Bible Colleges often ignored any rural contextualization of the ministry. Classes on church leadership were taught by professors who gained their experience in an urban and suburban churches. It was assumed that the urban model was the model for all churches in all locations. Many regarded rural ministry as a place for young ministers to gain experience before moving onward and upward on the clerical ladder of success or as a place for pastors past their prime to end their ministry in the much slower-paced church.
The American Sociological Association points out that in universities and colleges, "Rural sociology survives as a relatively mini sub-discipline pursued by a small and committed band of scholars. Despite the iconic place the heartland inhabits in the national psyche, rural policy remains the most obscure of concerns."[iii] Tragically this remains true regarding the place of rural ministry in educational institutions. If the new focus transforms rural communities in the long term, Seminaries and Bible Colleges need to make rural ministry a part of the academic training. This will involve several shifts in the educational perspective. First, it requires schools to raise the visibility of rural ministry as a viable ministry for the students. Because academic instructions are located in large urban centers, there is little interaction with rural ministry. Internships are conducted in urban churches, students attend urban and suburban churches, and professors teach and worship at churches in the city. The only exposure that students get to the needs of rural areas comes from students who left rural communities.
Second, the schools need to provide training to equip future church leaders in rural areas. This involves incorporating a portion of the courses on church leadership to discuss the nature and difference between urban and rural ministry. We are mistaken about the one-size-fits-all approach seminaries often take in preparing people for ministry. What works in a large multi-site suburban church will not work in rural communities. Yet we try to replicate them, and they often fail, damaging the church and discouraging the pastors. Instead, we need to equip future pastors to understand the needs of rural communities, the culture of rural people, and the church structures that function in rural areas.
3. To be sustainable, rural ministry must remain culturally relevant.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul sets forth an essential principle in practical ministry. It requires one to be Biblically grounded as well as culturally relevant. Rural communities and rural churches operate and view the church and the world differently. Without understanding these differences, we can alienate ourselves from the people we are trying to reach. Not only must we know these differences, but we must also understand the differences even within each community. It involves understanding how rural communities relate to one another and view the world around them. A logging community in the west has different norms and values than a rural community in the east, where manufacturing or tourism dictates the economy and influences the local culture.
We need to recognize that rural ministry is often cross-cultural ministry. The failure to understand this will only result in frustration for both the pastor and the congregation. Just as it would be foolish to try to duplicate a suburban church in the areas of Central Africa, it is unreasonable to try and replicate urban church models in rural communities. If we are to be effective in reaching rural communities, we need to understand and accept their culture and worldview and not look down upon them as behind-the-times country bumkins. The failure to understand them leads to paternalism, where we look down upon them and fail to listen to them. Instead of adapting our ministry to the local setting, we try to force them into our agenda as enlightened leaders. Sustaining rural ministry involves cultural understanding adaptation.
Not only must we understand their culture, but we must also understand the needs of rural communities. We must see beyond the golden fields of grain and the purple mountain majesties to see broken people. In Matthew 9:36, the disciples saw people who were their friends, good Jews who were good people. They saw farmers and shepherds, mothers and fathers, and laughing children. But Christ disrupts their perspective by revealing that they were "distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” They were broken people in need of the redemptive gospel of Christ. We must look beyond the white picket fences and the mowed lawns of farmhouses and see the people captured by addictions, struggling in poverty, and enslaved to sin. We must do more than look; we must SEE. Unless we see rural America as, in the words of Osha Davidson, the broken heartland that is becoming America's rural ghetto,[iv] we will never see the desperate need rural people have for the hope of the gospel.
4. To be sustainable, we must have a clear perspective of success.
In our culture of recognition, growth, and prosperity, we view success in the church to be measured by the numerical growth, the recognition of the leaders, and the excitement it generates. While it is unwritten in books, it remains propagated by the individuals who are chosen to speak at conferences, who are the popular authors, and those we honor and esteem at denominational conferences. To be someone, you need to accomplish something meaningful. This leaves the rural church on the outside, where effectiveness and accomplishments are measured by sustainability and relationships. We are constantly told to either change or decline into oblivion, either grow or vanish, adapt to the new or die with the old, and the list goes on. But in the teaching of Christ, we find a different perspective, one that turns our cultural views of success upside down. The greatest is the servant; the giver of a "widow's mite" is the model of generosity; to live is to die, and to die is to live; the wise and learned are ignorant, but an uneducated fisherman reveals unparalleled insight. The woman who sits and listens is commended, while the one who hustles in activities is condemned. The lost one is more important than the 99 that are gathered. The child is the greatest in the kingdom, and the esteemed are rejected. Success in God's eyes is radically different from success in the eyes of man. Nevertheless, we adopt a secular view of success, where success is measured by growth and recognition rather than character, transformation, and faithfulness.
In God's economy, the faithful receive recognition and reward. In Mathew 25:14-30, the basis for the evaluation of the servants is not the success and growth achieved but the faithfulness by which they performed their duties. While there are some whom God has blessed with a large growing church in visible ministries. Others He calls to serve His people in obscure areas where there is little numerical growth and will never receive any recognition. But what gets overlooked by man does not get overlooked by God. What He examines is not the achievements we attain but the faithfulness by which we have performed our duties and the character we manifest in our daily lives. In rural ministry, most pastors will never experience exponential growth. They will never get recognition for their church. They will never receive any "lifetime achievement awards" from their denomination or alma mater. But what they will get is the approval of our heavenly Master, and in the end, that is all we need. To reach rural communities, we must set aside our dreams and visions of recognition and instead faithfully preach the Word and love the people. We will not write books, but we will have our name written in His book and He will reward us for our faithfulness, and that is the only definition of success we should have.
5. To be sustainable, we must remain committed to rural ministry for the long term.
In a fast-paced world, we want excitement and instant results for our efforts. Sustaining rural ministry involves a long-term approach to ministry. We need to embrace the slowness of the rural culture. Life is in constant flux in urban centers as it embraces the latest fads and technology. Walk in downtown Manhattan, and one is overwhelmed with the rapid and continuous flow of society as cars honk in a vain attempt to move faster. In urban life, one embraces the latest and newest to keep up with the rapidity of change.
In rural areas, the cycle of life is measured in years rather than days. A farmer plants wheat in the fall and then patiently waits for a whole year before the return is realized. A logger replants a forest knowing that the next harvest will be done by the next generation. Live and change is measured in years not days. The same is true of the church.
In the urban church, change is embraced as the necessity of life. To be labeled "old fashioned" is tantamount to being labeled a heretic. Woe is the church that does not have a dynamic worship team that plays music so loud one cannot hear the person singing next to them (assuming that they are singing.).
In the rural church, the people gather to sing the same music sung by the previous generation, played on the piano that remains permanently embedded in the bedrock of the church. The most significant and most discussed change in the past year was the addition of PowerPoint slides in the service. The rural church can lose its appeal when we have a generation taught to live in constant flux. Yet this slowing down of life becomes the basis for hearing God's voice. To be effective in the rural church, we need leaders who see the slow progression of long-term discipleship as the key to spiritual transformation. We need to see that sustainability is sometimes more critical than changeability.
In many cases, lasting change occurs slowly as the Holy Spirit moves in the people's hearts to conform them to the person of Christ. Discipleship is not a 12-week program, not an event, not a sudden transformation. Discipleship is a life-long process involving slow and steady change rather than sudden and dramatic modification. It requires pastors who are shepherds, not promoters. Paul commands Timothy to preach the Word and be an example. We need to realize that preaching is both verbalized and exemplified. It involves a message preached for a half-hour on Sunday, and a model of a life lived 24-7. Providing a living sermon takes not only time but also daily interaction. This is why longevity is so critical in ministry. A flash in the pan creates excitement and movement, but it soon disappears. Slow and steady wins the race, for lasting transformation is achieved by slow progression.
6. To be sustainable, we must be people-driven rather corporate-driven.
Sustaining rural ministry involves a people driven ministry rather than a corporate-driven ministry. In the corporate model of ministry, success is driven and measured by growth. People become the product, and so numbers become the goal. Growing churches, and those that serve them, are recognized and upheld as the model of success. Church becomes a business where glitz and glamour are elevated to be the keys to success. Worship is no longer defined by the humble response to God but by the pursuit of emotional experiences that rival the current pop culture.
However, a people-driven church is centered upon the proclamation of the Word and the spiritual maturation of each individual. Numerical growth may be the bi-product but it is not necessarily the goal. Involvement in the church is not determined by skill but by spiritual giftedness. In the corporate church, talent is celebrated. In a people driven church, heart is celebrated. In the corporate world, a person can perform a special number only after an audition where their singing talent is evaluated. In a people-driven church, a person can perform a special because they have a song of praise to sing to God. Discipleship, not hype, becomes the focus. In a people-driven church, worship is not dependent upon the type of music or the glitz of the lighting. Worship is not an emotional response but the inward response of obedience in which we respond in humble surrender to the living God of the universe. In a corporate-driven church, the rural church remains forgotten and disregarded for it does not have market appeal. In a people-driven church, rural churches are seen as equally valued, for it is not the size of the church that measures health. Vibrancy and health are measured by two or more people gathering together to share in a mutual expression and communion with God. A healthy church is not determined by outward conformity to the latest fads but by the inward transformation of the heart as people gather together to encounter God through the proclamation of the Word. The corporate church becomes a mile wide and an inch deep as it caters to felt needs. A healthy church grows deep in its faith as it strives to mine the riches of God's truth as revealed in scripture. When a church is people-driven, then it does not matter that it lacks a dynamic worship team or follows the latest marketing strategy, or even that it receives recognition from the denominational leaders. Its focus is on what is happening in the heart of the person, even if it is just one person.
7. For rural ministry to be sustainable, we must embrace the insignificant.
Several years ago, the Prayer of Jabez became a national fad. People embraced the promises of an obscure prayer that, we were told, if prayed continually, God would "bless me and enlarge my territory! And keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." It was the perfect prayer for a self-indulgent, success-driven culture. It became the new mantra of the church. We are to pray that God would enlarge our influence, enlarge our ministry, enlarge our work and business. Yet we never stopped to ask, "What if God does not desire to enlarge our territory?" What if God's will is not to enlarge our ministry but to send us to the obscure? What if he calls us to a ministry where the people are "stubborn, obstinate, and will refuse to listen," yet in the end, "they will know that a prophet has been among them" (Ezekiel 2:1-10). We are told that God desired to increase our "spiritual territory and claim a generation for the Lord of Israel." Yet, in a Prayer of Jabez world, the rural ministry seems to be the antithesis of this prayer.
Sustainable rural ministry involves embracing of insignificance. I am convinced the greatest prayer in the bible, the one that should always be the driving force of our ministry is not the prayer of Jabez but the prayer of John the Baptist. In John 3, the disciples of John were becoming concerned. The crowds were diminishing as people were leaving John to go hear the new itinerate preacher—Jesus. Instead of his territory enlarging, it was starting to shrink. John needed a new strategy for his ministry was teetering on the cliff of failure (at least in their minds). Instead of sharing their concern, John replied, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven." Then he states the prayer that should be the center of our prayer life: "He must increase, but I must decrease." OK, granted, it is not properly a prayer, yet it conveys the critical attitude we should have in ministry. Instead of praying for God to enlarge our church, we should be praying that Christ would be the focal point of our ministry. Ministry is never about us; it is always about Christ. Instead of being caught up in the pursuit of success, we should focus on being insignificant, that people would not celebrate us and what we have done, but that they would see Christ in us. Our goal should not be to enlarge our ministry but to be faithful in doing what God has assigned for us. If the prayer of Jabez is our focus, the rural ministry will seem old-fashioned and unimportant. But if our prayer is that we would decrease so that Christ might increase, rural ministry becomes powerful and essential simply because it is essential to God. This is true, whether it be the large urban church in Chicago or the small forgotten church in the backwoods of Idaho. The pathway to significance in God's economy often is achieved on the trail towards insignificance.
8. To be sustainable, we must see ministry (and rural ministry) as a calling, not a career.
It is easy for ministry to become a career. When we entered seminary, we had aspirations of a successful ministry where people clamor to hear our words, and we see the powerful movement of God in our midst. But the excitement and appeal of ministry soon become dashed upon the rocks of criticism and rejection. Instead of receiving a double honor, we often feel we are given a double rejection. We bought into the illusion that ministry should be easy, enjoyable, and engaging. When adversity strikes, when we are rejected by the congregation that we devoted ourselves to serve, when it seems we labor for years and fail to see any measurable results, it is easy to get discouraged and question our ministry. We enter ministry with dreams of God's blessing, only to experience the struggles of sorrow.[v] When we see ministry as a career, there is no place for suffering and trials. When people reject our message, question our motives, and criticize our actions, it is easy to look for a change in churches or even a career.
While a career motivates, a calling sustains. To endure in ministry, we must see it not as a career but as a calling. Paul understood the pain, sorrow, and personal criticism in experiences in ministry. If there was anyone who experienced the full range of suffering in ministry, it was Paul. When we read of all the struggles he faced in his ministry, it is hard to imagine how Paul was able to maintain his faith, much less his ministry. However, in 1 Cor 9:16 -17, we see what sustained Paul. The word "compulsion" speaks of that which is a complete and necessary obligation, a state absolutely required. A.T. Robertson comments on this passage, "Jesus had called him (Acts 9:6, 15; Gal. 1:15f.; Rom. 1:14). He could do no other and deserves no credit for doing it. …Paul had to heed the call of Christ that he had heard. He had a real call to the ministry. Would that this were the case with every modern preacher."[vi] For Paul, his ministry was not a job, and his service to the church was not a career. It was a binding duty that he could not flee. He had no other choice or option. For Paul to forsake the ministry assigned to him would bring him face to face with divine judgment.
When ministry becomes a career, we choose ministries that advance our profession. We see ministry only as a steppingstone until a better offer comes along. Tragically many rural churches have learned not to place too much trust in the newly arriving pastor, for they recognize that he will soon leave when a bigger church comes knocking. For the rural ministry to be sustainable, we need to see it as a calling by God. It is not a place to serve until a better offer comes along; it is a place we serve until it is clear that God desires us to move. It should never be about career advancement. Sustaining rural ministry requires sacrifice: sacrificing the dreams of our success for the growth and salvation of people, sacrificing financial security for the church. What sustains us in rural ministry is the realization that there is no other task so essential and so rewarding. No job or career is more privileged and more rewarding than to be a servant of the living God. We can stay in our small church because we enjoy the God who calls us and sustains us, the God who placed us in this position as one of the greatest gifts that can be given. We can focus on ministry because we know that God has already secured our future, and he will take care of our lives today and for all eternity. The most remarkable ministry we can ever have is the one that God has placed us in, whether in a large church or a small church, in a growing church or a struggling church, in an urban church or a rural church.
Presently, rural ministry has become the latest fad, but it should never have become a fad. Instead, it should have always been a part of the broader church ministry and focus. If we do not see the rural church on equal footing as the urban church, the inner-city church, the ethnic church, or the overseas church, then we are failing in our understanding of the gospel. If the renewed focus on rural ministry again fades into the forgotten corner of denominations and seminaries, we have lost more than rural people, we have lost the gospel itself.
[i] https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2010/february-online-only/movement-or-fad.html accessed 3/4/2022. [ii] Thomas A. Robinson, Who were the First Christians? Dismantling the Urban Thesis, (New York: Oxford Universitiy Press, 2017), p. 210-211. [iii] Carr, Patrick J., and Maria Kefalas. Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011) p. 140. [iv] See Osha Gray Davidson, Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996). [v] For a more detailed perspective of the struggles of ministry see, Glenn Daman, When Shepherds Weep: Finding Tears of Joy for Wounded Pastors, Lexham Press, 2015. [vi] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures of the New Testament, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), 1 Co 9:16.