By Jim Estep
As a freshman in college, my first preaching ministry was with Elm Fork Christian Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky. When I arrived, 8 people attended the church. Not 18, not 80 . . . 8. Moreover, the church did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. There was literally a two-seater outhouse out back with a sign that read, “Pastor’s Study.” Fortunately for me, I never used that “Pastor’s Study”! The only source of heat in the winter was a makeshift wood-burning stove. Even the hymnals dated back to the early 1900s. Since my tenure at Elm Fork in 1981, I’ve had the opportunity to speak for, consult with, and periodically serve rural congregations.
Elders in rural congregations usually come from their community. They embrace the rural life that is familiar to them and serve the church in that rural community. But this can lend itself to a nostalgic approach to leading a rural church. Our personal orientation that informs our decisions, directions, leadership, and ministry may need to be reoriented in light of changes occurring in rural America, changes that may call us to challenge our assumptions and reinvigorate our leadership.
How Rural Is Rural Living Today?
It is easy to think of rural communities and congregations as a sort of time capsule, seemingly untouched by contemporary culture and trends. This may well have been the case several decades ago, but rural no longer means isolated. The Internet alone has opened rural communities to everything from global news and information to trends in pop culture to the easy availability of streaming entertainment. There is very little difference between the living room of a rural home and that of a suburban or urban home, other than the views through the window.
So, what’s the point?
If elders are oriented toward the ministry in the “old rural” context of their youth and childhood, it probably no longer exists as we remember it. We need to reorient our ministry toward the current conditions in rural communities rather than holding to a nostalgic embrace of the past.
Are You a Rural or a Small-Town Community?
This past year, I lived in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Having grown up in nearby Lexington, I was familiar with Shelbyville. In my early years, Shelbyville was a small, rural, agricultural community centered around crops and pig farms to support Purnell Sausage. Shelbyville had a quaint but active main street made for antiquing, and the town served as the American Saddlebred Capital of the World. When I moved there in 2016, the landscape had changed. It is still a small, rural community; but it has become a bedroom community for Lexington, Louisville, and the state capital of Frankfort. Large subdivisions, a plethora of popular restaurants, “white-collar” communities, and a few high-end coffeehouses—including Starbucks—define the new Shelbyville. It is still Shelbyville, but now a mix of natives (those born and raised there, who are part of the old Shelbyville) and newbies (those who have come to Shelbyville in the last 20 years who don’t necessarily share the rural past of the natives) live there.
What’s the point?
Being a small town doesn’t make you rural. Your congregation may have been in the community 100 years ago, when the community was strictly rural, and identified itself as such. Yet, demographic shifts affect small towns, rural or otherwise, and the church needs to identify these shifts and respond accordingly. Elders cannot assume it’s the community of the past. Instead, church leaders need to reorient themselves to the new reality of who comprises their community and who is being overlooked by the church’s current model of ministry. We cannot assume our town is the same one in which we perhaps were raised but now are called to serve.
Do Rural Churches Have to Mimic Their Suburban/Urban Counterparts?
A church should not simply mimic another congregation, particularly when it comes to the rural church. Many urban and suburban churches need to be on the cutting edge of cultural awareness and ministry design (if not the bleeding-edge) just to gain voice in communities that are increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. This is not so in rural communities, which still seem to have an affection for Christianity. (For affirmation of this, listen for the many references to Christianity and church in country music.)
So, what’s the point?
Rural congregations, and the elders who lead them, do not need to emulate nonrural models. The rural church must embody three nonnegotiables, however: relevance—the church must minister to its current community; excellence—the quality of the church’s ministry must be readily evident; and authenticity—the church must be genuine rather than artificial. These three essentials form a matrix for ministry in all circumstances. And so, rather than mimicking other congregations, rural churches should endeavor to be relevant, exhibit excellence, and be an authentic witness for Christ in their communities.
Rural Churches Are Helplessly Small, Right?
I remember doing a revival at a small, rural church (yes, revivals sometimes still work there). About halfway through the revival week, the pastor and I shared lunch. He complimented my messages but then gave the subtle rebuke: “Don’t challenge us too much. We’re just a small church in a small community. We won’t be much more than that.” While many rural towns are small, and to some extent value their smallness, many rural congregations have experienced growth and renewal over the past decades. In fact, the Large Church, Small Town Summit has convened twice, and both times reports of more growth, new church plants, and revitalized ministries pour into the event. Given some of the demographic shifts mentioned previously, these self-imposed limitations may no longer apply.
What’s the point?
Elders are often oriented toward being a small church in a small town; they’ve allowed the cultural DNA to dictate the church’s DNA. Elders need to reorient their thinking about the church, drawing in the biblical mission of the church as its DNA, calling it to disciple-making and advancing the kingdom of God. When this happens, the church will influence the culture rather than the culture influencing the church.
Jim Estep serves as projects director with e2: effective elders and as equipping pastor with Heritage Christian Church, Fayetteville, Georgia.