The focus of this study will be on the viability or sustainability of rural churches. Below I have tried to categorize some of the variables that might impact sustainability. Many of the categories might have either a positive or a negative effect. Please read the list. Comment. Critique. Make suggested additions.
In 1922 the Sunday School Board and the Home Mission Board did a major study of the 20,000 village and country Southern Baptist congregations. From these, ten were selected (as representative of the most effective rural churches) for a special in-depth survey. When I discovered this publication, I began wondering, “whatever happened to . . . ? With the help of directors of associational missions, I found out.
Many ministers are ill-prepared to lead a small rural or village church. The new pastor comes to the pastorate with one set of expectations and understandings and finds a church with a different set. The stage is set for conflict and hurt. You do not want this. The church does not need it. May I suggest some steps you might take in discovering the inner life of the smaller membership church you serve?
1. Better housed
2. Better equipped
3. More and better-prepared worship services
4. More, greater variety of programs, events and projects
5. Laity better trained/more informed
6. The members are more cosmopolitan/secular
7.New and more diverse rhythms of life characterize the congregation
8. Increased community diversity
The material that follows is drawn from experiences and reflections upon more than a decade of experience as a bivocational pastor in rural and village settings, discussions and interviews with many who serve in this setting, and from reading and hearing the insights of close observers of small churches such as Carl Dudley, Lyle Schaller, and Garland Hendricks.
Recently, I was privileged to attend a training offered by Lyle Schaller on doing consultations with congregations. What follows is my effort to summarize the points that he made as applied to smaller membership churches.
A. Work from a Biblical base (Our Church on Mission, Ephesians 4-6, Revelation 2-3)
B. There is a place for smaller-membership churches in the life of the Christian movement
1. There are two basic ecclesiologies:
Western European Heritage: Parish. Pastoral Care. Salvation is in and through the church. For Christendom. Colony. Mainlines and Roman Catholics
Made in America: Salvation comes through an encounter with God. Product of the Great Awakenings. Gathered. Evangelical. Conquest.
Often I have been asked, “What is the difference between large suburban and small rural churches?” The answer came to me one Sunday about a year ago as I looked out over the congregation of Aliceville Baptist Church. Four and five generations of a family, in fact of several families, were spread out across a pew. Pew after pew.
As the first fingers of light began to streak the eastern sky, from the vantage point of the top of the cemetery hill in the Shady Grove community, one could observe a steady stream of automobiles and farm trucks coming from both directions along state route 37. Soon the parking lot was filled and overflowed. Little knots of people carefully made their way to the brow of the hill, visiting in hushed tones.
Small town ministry is challenging. It demands creative and committed persons. People who are both Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20) and Great Command (Matt. 22:37-40) persons…