Some time ago I drove to several small towns in rural Arkansas with my 89 year old father and my siblings, tracking the steps of the ministry of both my dad and his father. The experience was memorable. We visited small towns that even Arkansans might not recognize today: Cotter, Caledonia, Hagersville, Greenwood, LaVaca—twelve in all. These were the places where my father, and his father, labored for Christ eighty and ninety years ago.
Much has changed in the landscape of rural America in those eighty plus years. For one thing, most farms have been eaten up by large conglomerates, dramatically reducing population. The size of families has dropped and the area Walmart has made ghost towns of the typical downtown areas. Families long ago moved out of these rural places for the big cities in order to find work, and what young people you may find will almost certainly not stay where there is no action. With these demographic alterations, the country church has been reduced to only a shadow of what it once was.
But this does not mean the country church is not there. There are yellow brick buildings with mud stains around their base that still exist as the gathering place for those few faithful (and often reserved) older citizens and, in several cases, a family or two or even more containing younger people.
The “county seat” town churches are doing better, but even they feel the changes. Some have become regional churches for the surrounding areas. In fact, there are some notable exceptions to the general rule that rural churches are failing. In one Arkansas town that you have likely never heard of, there were 900 attending the largest church on Sunday mornings. The more remote rural churches have yielded their younger families over to these active centers which often carry on vibrant ministries. Regionalization is definitely a trend. We could call it the “Walmartization” of the rural church.
I’ve been there in my own ministry, pastoring in historic Washington, Arkansas as my first assignment. Thirty-five years ago, this town consisted of about 400 occupants, half black and half white. It has now lost much of that population and has turned into a state park (it was the old Civil War capitol of Arkansas). I never knew what quiet was until I pastored in that town. I used a “privy” behind the café and I waited out the lonely nights in a “Jim Walter” home provided by the church. It grew up to about 60 in attendance while I was there, but stayed mostly around 40. The grade school moved to Hope just after I was there, and things went down further. There is not as much going on now as far as church life is concerned, since the town has become a state park site. We said, even at that time, that the church was “just past Hope.” In more recent days, I’ve been back to that town and have reminisced about the good days of early ministry there, learning from kind people.
In addition to that, I’ve preached in so many rural churches that I could not even begin to recount them all. My ministry of 40 years of preaching has landed me in both city and rural churches, some huge, others in towns so sleepy that the grass grows unmolested on the two-lane highway—and deacons wear overalls. Though I’ve loved all of the experiences I’ve been privileged to have, I have to admit that it is often easier to visit than to stay in such a church. And I’ve scratched my head with the pastor wondering how the church could find vitality.
What happens when the young seminarian or college ministerial student takes his first churches in these areas? And what should the committed rural pastor think about his church’s future?
Some Thoughts for Rural Pastors
Here are some thoughts for rural pastors. You are the experts, not me. But these thoughts might stimulate something in a church that is not going to be known, outside of a miracle, for its numerical growth. In fact, you may wonder sometimes if God knows you are there.
Remember that you are entirely unaware of the impact of your ministry. For instance, you may teach older adults without much visible impact. But one of them, perhaps a grandparent of an unconverted child, may receive stimulus from your ministry that makes her a true witness to her grandchild. Her witness, prompted by your stimulus and instruction, may be the very thing God uses to bring that child to Him. She may not even be aware of her impact. In fact, it may not come to bear until after she has passed on. The grandchild, in time, may one day marry a believer and raise up children who also become believers in another part of America. Do you really know what that will mean in terms of eternity? Do you know what it means in terms of generations of believers? What if, three generations down the line, one of the Christians in this line is instrumental in the evangelization of an unreached tribal group? Did you see that when you taught that grandparent on a sleepy Sunday morning? Likely not.
Don’t forget that Jesus said, “I will build my church.” The time you taught that grandparent might be far more instrumental in the building of the universal church than ten years of ministry in some large city church with all its innovations and activities. You cannot know how God will work for sure, yet you can be confident that it would be a total surprise to you how significant your labors are. Therefore, “sow in hope.”
Be happy to know that you may not be able to change much but lives. I mean by this that the structure of things, the hackneyed songs, the unrefined style of your meetings, the organizational plan, the leadership set, may not be within your power to alter. I don’t say you should not try. But, at the end of the day, the real purpose of your being there is to change lives, not to make things look good.
I found, through years of ministry, that you will often not know your impact until you are gone. I recently received a letter from someone at that Old Washington, Arkansas church who was affected by my novice ministry in ways I did not dream. She was then a child visiting without her parents, and I had paid real attention to her. She continued to come, though almost always hidden in the shadows. My attention to her resulted in her eventual conversion and a life of serving God for which she was extremely thankful. Her brother, who died as a youth, had also been converted. She had been seen as not just a visiting girl, but as a soul important to God. The importance of that attempt at caring was completely unknown to me until I received that letter.
The focus, then, should be on people. So, keep your aim right. For instance, you may start a book club with any of your people who care to participate. Let’s say that you provide readable, accessible books, that have marvelous truths to be understood. You set reachable goals and meet every week, or every other week in your home, just to chat informally about what is learned. You drink coffee and just enjoy learning something. No pressure. Over time, this one idea may build some mighty believers. It’s not a great program that somebody will write up, but it focuses on people and the changes that God can bring.
Be energized by the concept that your church could become the most loving church in the world. I find this compelling. There will be many things your church may not be. It may not be the most educated church or the most innovative church, or the most evangelistic church, but it can be the most loving church. There is nothing to stop that from happening except your lack of determination and/or the will of the people. Love, after all, is the sign of maturity as a church. Now, if you are seeing this, you will find ways to encourage love.
Putting love first will mean that you will work out ways for people to be in your home, and in the home of the other church members. You will think of ways to get people to really know the insides of each other. Sheep need help to overcome their reserved nature. They will need to be commended for acts of love, just as Paul often did. You will need to set the pace and demonstrate a passionate love for the people. Dream about this. And, my experience is (and the Bible’s teaching is) that this is a powerful way to witness. The love of the people of God for each other is, as Francis Schaeffer said, “the final apologetic.”
Well, there is more, but these three should serve to encourage you. I know you need it. When it is all said and done, we are going to be thrilled at the way God has used the out-of-the-way places, the forgotten places, to do some of His most significant things.
I love the rural church and hope you do. Some of you will serve all your life in them. God bless you for your perseverance and courage.
Copyright 2006 Jim Elliff; revised 2022