These days, living in small-town America often means living with less.
2018 marked another year of decline in many rural and small towns: economies suffering; local residents aging or moving away; and many struggling with addiction, disillusionment, or depression.
But just as the nation declares a crisis in small communities, the church has seen new momentum around rural ministry. Proud pastors from blue-collar outskirts, flyover country farmlands, and cozy mountain towns proclaim that in God’s kingdom, less is more.
In new books, blogs, networks, and conferences, these leaders resist popular narratives about rural America to instead embrace the gospel lessons they encounter when doing ministry on a small scale.
“One of the things that the rural church reminds the global church of is God’s commitment to be with people everywhere. We as the people of God have been sent to the ends of the earth and sometimes rural is one of those ends,” said Brad Roth, pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kansas.
“Not every place is going to have the same potential for that growth metric. But every place is still beloved by God and worthy of our best and most thoughtful ministry as the church.”
While plenty of materials are geared toward church growth in bigger congregations, more resources are emerging for leaders in smaller contexts. America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, dedicated its annual pastors’ conference—long the domain of megachurch pastors—to small-church pastors in 2017.
“Despite rapid global urbanization, many millions around the world continue to live in small towns and rural areas. God is calling some of us to live and minister in these places,” read the announcement for a Small Town Summits event to coincide with The Gospel Coalition’s national conference in April. “More than that, he’s calling us to love small places, to see them as simultaneously more delightful and more desperately needy than our wider culture does.”
Small-town pastors know how to look beyond declining numbers to love their communities for something besides productivity and potential. After all, in their own ministries, they’ve had to gauge success beyond membership figures and tithing income—much less their own prominence.
Last fall, Acts 29 launched its Rural Collective, designed to equip congregations in sparse, isolated areas to become churches that plant others. In the words of the collective’s co-director, New Hampshire pastor David Pinckney, “Rural churches are often small and mostly unnoticed. Yet God is glorified through sermons preached in obscure pulpits.”
Churches’ community impact is amplified in such places, where there may be only a few houses of worship or even just a single Bible-believing congregation.
“If you blow it, your public witness is diminished a lot more quickly,” said Stephen Witmer, lead pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship, a 200-person congregation in a 12,000-person town an hour outside of Boston. “But if you’re kind, invested, and involved, you can become a pastor of a community.”
Witmer and his partners at Small Town Summits want to develop a theological vision for rural churches, just as urban churches have been spurred by TGC co-founder Tim Keller’s call to love the city. Around 1 in 5 Americans, 60 million people, live in rural areas.
Americans are now less inclined than ever to move for jobs. Recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that blue-collar families generally stay put in their houses of worship, too; just 38 percent of those with a high school education or less have had to church shop, compared to 59 percent of those with a college degree.
“We have people who will stay forever,” said Hannah Anderson, who has written aboutrural ministry. At her Baptist congregation in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, some members have attended for generations.
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Source: Christianity Today