The prophet Zechariah once said, “For who despises the day of small things?” (Zechariah 4:10) We know the answer to this question: Many people in the church mistakenly think that because a congregation is small, anything it does is tiny and mundane. But, the story of the widow’s small gift (Mark 12:41-44) should forever diffuse that notion. God loves little things, chooses nobodies, and gathered a small group as His closest friends. He must love small churches, because He has made so many of them!
They’re making a difference for the kingdom. As the Lord said of the woman who anointed Him, “She has done what she could.” (Mark 14:8) That’s all He asks. Don’t be too hasty to write an obituary for small and rural ministries. Those churches may be small, but it’s still God’s people working in the vineyard for the Master and Him in them.
In I Samuel 14:6, Jonathan says, “Nothing can keep the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.” But some folks don’t actually believe it. For many who have never had a small church experience, the common perception is that small churches are failures, ingrown, or too small, weak and ineffective. Their Pastors are thought of not being flashy enough to bring in multitudes. But, in reality, they experience real community, real discipleship, and a genuine communion with Christ’s flock. They’re changing the world from where they are. When Jesus said His church was to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth, He did not exclude the rural and small towns!
Yet, a shrinking population is just one of many factors that have contributed to the complications of rural and small town ministries. In addition to a smaller populace, narrow roads, weather-hampered travel conditions, and church attendance becoming less and less of a priority, small and rural churches are feeling a pinch. Smaller numbers of church-goers, usually decreases fiscal soundness. Because of this, many churches cannot afford a full-time Pastor. Many Pastors have to find other jobs in order to “get by.” It depends on the individual church but many churches scratch their heads about how try to keep its doors open.
In addition, people in general have fallen away from church. All of America is in a decline in church attendance. Work, school functions, and other activities, have switched from a church that is no longer the social center of a community. Many of our neighbors feel the church has a “nothing-there-for-me” attitude. But, God hasn’t changed. He calls us all to come together and worship.
A Pew Research report found poor white Americans in the South (where many of our rural communities exist) are prone to skip church. One third of white Southerners (32 percent) making less than $30,000 a year seldom or ever go to church. That drops to 27 percent for those who make more than $100,000 a year. (Christianity Today, June 2018.) Yet, the Pew Research reports that after years of population decline, rural areas have begun to make a comeback: In 2017, they grew by about 33,000 residents nationwide after losing more than 15,000 residents in 2016.
In his book, Transforming Church in Rural America: Breaking All the Rurals, Shannon O’Dell writes, “For centuries, the rural church has been isolated and insulated from the greater Body of Christ by the sheer realities of geography. Those days are gone. There’s absolutely no reason that we cannot be networking together as leaders — those who are resisting the urge to settle — by sharing resources, encouragement, wisdom, and vision. We do not have to do it alone anymore; together we can do so much more and do it so much better.”
Small and rural churches have more of a “family atmosphere.” People there help each other out. Everyone comes together. If anyone needs anything, someone is there to help. Yet, the number of people living below the poverty line in rural areas grew by more than two million from 2000 to 2016, according to Pew Research. The increase of poverty means churches often have more needs to meet in their communities, while, at the same time, there is less money in the collection plate.
Yet, when a newer Pastor who comes from suburbia sets out to head to a rural church, he finds that when he preached his first sermon or performs his first funeral, he finds himself embraced in the love, in the experience of community, and the giving nature of people who live there. One Pastor put it this way, “As long as Jesus is resurrected from the dead, we ought to be hopeful for rural and small-town churches.”
Yet, with more than 48 million people in rural America, there’s an emerging and encouraging movement to plant and re-plant churches in rural areas. Recently, the greater church has been partnering with community leaders, organizations, and churches to provide ways to meet the needs of small and rural ministries. The determination and grassroots solutions in small towns may lack some of the essential resources, but they provide a compassion that is highly relevant and deeply needed.
Christians belong in this rural and small town space. We can carry a message of hope that is vitally needed there. The rural environment provides a much smaller footprint but where a life-giving church can work to help a community find life again. The Holy Spirit is directing us to His divine purpose for rural and small town ministries. We must love them as Jesus loves them. We must see the challenges and acknowledge the people in their setting. To deliver the message of Jesus, we must be where the people need Him.
Even though many people may see small and rural churches like the minor leagues, these are great places for ministry to grow. Rural churches matter much more than we’ve been led to believe. Here are three reasons why:
UNREACHED: We soon realize that we don’t have to go very far to find the unchurched or uninvolved. In the Bible Belt, the Mid-South District is that shiny Hank Williams Jr. buckle on the belt. We have county fairs, big water towers, guys who drive big trucks, and a church on every street corner. If you throw a rock, there’s a good chance that you’ll either hit a church, a Waffle House, a Dollar General, or a guy wearing a Hank Williams Jr. belt buckle. We have friends who live in these towns. Their Sunday morning options may seem bleak. There’s a church where you’re sure to hear a rousing sermon, or hear another Pastor share a few tidbits he picked up from a conference in Little Rock, Atlanta, or Johnson City about communing with nature.
UNDISCIPLING: Most “Bible-belters” who find their way into a typical rural church don’t exactly have a passion for the lost. If they make it to church, they want to eat lunch – on time. Other than trying to live a good, moral life, they don’t usually give Jesus’ life, words, death and resurrection a whole lot of thought during the week. Going to church might be a lot like going to the football game last Friday night: They watch other people do their thing.
UNMOTIVATED: Some towns are still divided by railroad tracks – a right side and the wrong side. Those tracks may as well be a 50-foot wall. Despite all of the talk on love and acceptance, a lot of people like finding the place where the tracks cross in front of lives, “People ought to stay on their side of the tracks.”
This is why Pastors in a rural church are not in the minor leagues. They’re on the front lines. God is more honored by faithfulness than numbers. The Gospel compels us to bring Christ’s Gospel to a farmer in his rice field as much as the businessman in our cities, or our neighbor wearing a Hank Williams Jr. belt buckle. Pastors of small churches can be happy and content and yet challenged every day. Because they know their members intimately, small-church Pastors see their spiritual growth up close and share in the joys and heartaches of the people.
Small is not the same thing as unhealthy. Smallness can be an asset. No one gets lost or overlooked in the small congregation. When a family is out, everyone notices. When a few people join, the church becomes stronger. Give thanks to God for our small and rural churches that are doing great things for Him. We need all the churches – big, small, city and rural. We will never discount the small church down the street or the one in the little town across the county. God is using them for His Kingdom.
Rev. Dr. Roger Paavola
President, Mid-South District of LCMS