Martin Giese is president of Oak Hills Christian College in Bemidji, Minnesota, and co-author of “Leading Through Change: Shepherding the Town and Country Church in a New Era.” He pastored two rural churches over a period of 40 years. In addition to his pastoral ministry, Giese served for 10 years as an adjunct faculty member for the Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism. Giese is a graduate of Oak Hills Christian College, Moody Graduate School and Bethel University.
Our culture is dominated by urban growth, cosmopolitan thinking and global concerns. But the needs and opportunities of rural places are significant as well. And church leaders willing to embrace the challenge discover the potential of rural ministry for unique kingdom impact.
Rural culture is historically very different from urban and suburban culture. Most rural people were farmers, and their livelihoods were constantly subject to factors beyond their control — the weather, crop and livestock diseases, global marketing patterns, etc. Living with this unpredictability and perpetual uncertainty remains a significant pressure in the lives of rural people. The driving dynamics of uncertainty and isolation directly affect how rural people think, relate and make decisions.
Urban life has always been more directly under the influence of people. Livelihood is dependent upon a specialized and interdependent system of commerce that produces and provides goods, services and information. People potential, possibilities and pressures define the environment.
In rural areas, there are fewer people and small institutions. People often work alone and independence is valued. In urban areas, there are more people and large institutions. People often work with others and interdependence is valued. Rural people work together for survival; urban people work together for achievement.
In rural communities, most people are their own CEOs. Organizational structures are flat. Cooperation is among equals. In urban centers, there is a smaller percentage of CEOs. Organizational structures are tiered. Group decisions are typically made through formal process in urban organizations. In rural communities, group decisions are often made by informal consensus.
It’s important to note that 21st century rural churches and communities are often socio-culturally conflicted — experiencing the tension of rural and urban differences. Effective leaders of rural churches must be able to understand and successfully navigate this tension.
And, rural populations today are increasingly complex. Rural is no longer universally synonymous with agriculture. Rural now includes academic communities, area trade centers, recreation communities, retirement communities and bedroom communities (where most people commute to a city for work).
Agriculture — once the defining industry and identity of rural culture — has undergone a transformation from a labor-intensive to a capital-intensive enterprise. Farms are exponentially larger, and the agricultural population of rural regions is exponentially smaller.
Ron Klassen, executive director of the Rural Home Missionary Association said, “Currently, less than two percent of Americans are directly engaged in production agriculture, and 94 percent of the rural labor force is non-agricultural.”
An in-migration of varying ethnicities and varying socio-economic backgrounds has resulted in a new rural that, in some instances mirrors the socio-cultural complexity of larger urban centers.
A Big Mission
There are a lot of rural churches! Roughly one in five Americans live in communities of less than 2,500. Thousands of churches serve these communities. Thousands of additional churches occupy larger communities with a rural heritage and memory.
And, rural populations are growing. From the beginning of the 20th century through the 1960s, a rural exodus populated American cities. However, a reverse, urban to rural migration began in the 1970s, plateaued in the 1980s, rebounded in the 1990s and continues at varying rates today.
In a 2010 article, David Matarrita-Cascante, Richard Stedman and A.E. Lulof, wrote, “Because of their uniqueness and natural beauty, rural natural amenity-rich localities are among the fastest growing areas in the United States … Managing rapid population and economic growth represents a new, potentially serious challenge for these communities.”
Growth and change in rural communities present challenges and opportunities for the churches and church leaders. New churches are needed. Existing churches need renewed vision.
Flourishing Rural Ministry
Rural ministry opportunities abound and defy traditional stereotypes. Not all rural churches are small. (At a recent conference for rural church leaders, guest speakers represented rural churches from 50–1,300 in weekend attendance.)
Not all small rural churches are spiritually stagnant or numerically declining. There are vital, growing, missional rural churches in every region of the country. Many more rural churches await visionary leaders to assist them in rediscovering their mission.
And, as we’ve already noted, not all rural communities have declining populations. Global population growth and regional migration are swelling the populations of both city and countryside with people who need Jesus!
Rural churches offer significant opportunities for leaders who place high value on building disciple-making relationships. Although rural communities are experiencing an increasing cosmopolitan influence and a corresponding acceleration of cultural pace, there remains a memory of — and appreciation for — significant long-term relationships. Rural remains a place where redemptive friendships have time to bear spiritual fruit.
Rural churches have a successful track record of producing and exporting leaders for the work of the kingdom. The rhythms of rural life allow for times of spiritual reflection. The demands of rural life reward a strong work ethic. The unpredictability of rural life is an incentive for people to look to God for security.
High numbers of pastors, missionaries, business leaders and political leaders point to their rural upbringing as a key component in their personal formation. Pastors of rural churches have opportunity to equip the next generation of global leaders.
The Rural Home Missionary Association notes that three out of four graduates seeking pastoral ministry will spend at least some time in a small town or country church. But many are unprepared or underprepared for rural ministry.
Denominations, church associations, seminaries and colleges need to seriously consider how to better equip leaders for success in the rural context. Additional training in contextual analysis and cross-cultural leadership ought to be added to existing curricula. Students must be exposed to effective and successful rural churches and rural church leaders. Existing assumptions about the limitations of rural ministry opportunities need to be challenged.
Reaching the World Through the Rural
Church leaders who are adequately prepared for success in rural ministry are also uniquely equipped to address the mission needs of many of the major urban centers of the world. Contrary to Western assumptions, most of the great cities of the world do not reflect the socio-cultural patterns of the great cities in the West. Conspicuously absent are the expansive, affluent suburbs found in American cities.
Global megacities are often composed of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of rural people groups that have immigrated to the city and continue to protect and preserve their rural culture and perspective. Reaching these people with the gospel requires leaders who understand rural/agrarian cultural values and behaviors. Curiously, in order to effectively reach the largest cities of the world, we must mobilize a new generation of leaders who understand rural.
Celebrate Rural Ministry
Rural ministry leaders are in need of affirmation, encouragement and equipping for greater effectiveness. The American church has consistently celebrated the success of innovative ministries in large population centers while often overlooking or even denigrating innovative, successful ministries in smaller places.
Too often rural ministry is regarded as a context to which we are “consigned” rather than called. However, Jesus gave his life for the salvation of all people. If he gave his life to establish his church in rural places, Christian leaders ought to feel honored, and be honored for serving his church in rural places!
Rural ministry opportunities will continue. This changing, complex, culturally conflicted, growing segment of America presents significant opportunities for ministry professionals willing to serve Christ in the country and beyond.
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.