God has strategically placed churches in small towns and rural areas for maximum impact for the Kingdom of God
The majority of American churches have a weekend attendance of less than 100 people, yet many of those churches are the lifeblood of the small, rural towns in which they reside.
Their steeples often rise above dilapidated buildings on once-vibrant main streets. Their ministry leaders not only preach at the Sunday service, but brew coffee and set-up folding chairs before it starts. Their church leadership meetings can look awfully similar to an extended family reunion. Of the more than 150,000 small-sized churches scattered throughout the country, you’ll find many of them reside in towns not large enough for a stoplight.
“Historically rural churches have been able to take on extraordinary trials and keep going. On the flip side, survival can become the only goal, and therefore the inertia that results is one of survival,” said Dr. Martin Giese, a rural church consultant and pastor at Faithbridge Church in Park Rapids, MN.
A new conference called Grow! launches in the spring of 2017 aiming to equip and encourage rural pastors to not just survive, but become more effective in their strategic part of Kingdom of God.
“This conference will address the specific and unique needs of churches that are in rural areas and in small towns. We want to encourage people to be everything that God has called them to be, we want to give information that will help them minister effectively, and we want to help churches in our rural areas and in small towns impact their world for the sake of Jesus Christ,” said Pastor Paul Jorgensen, Lead Pastor at Cornerstone Church in Litchfield, and the founding pastor of the Grow! conference.
Dr. Marty Giese, Dr. Ken Polley and Dr. Leith Anderson, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals will speak at Grow! – a leadership conference for the rural and small town church, held at Cornerstone Church in Litchfield, MN on March 11, 2017.
There are many relational benefits and structural challenges to leading a church in a rural setting.
While people in rural areas tend to be outwardly friendly, it takes a great deal to get beneath the surface.
The stability of rural churches offers the opportunity to build long-term relationships. Although Dr. Giese warns, these relationships are not as easily built as nostalgia might indicate, due to what he calls social exposure and social closure.
“Rural people deal with a great deal of social exposure, meaning everybody knows a great deal more about everybody than anybody likes. The result is considerable social closure. While people in rural areas tend to be outwardly friendly, it takes a great deal to get beneath the surface,” said Dr. Giese.
“We don’t hang out on the front porch anymore in America. Making contact and befriending people and just getting to know them is important for us in rural communities,” said Pastor Jim Johnson, senior pastor at Motley Free Methodist Church in Motley, MN.
Pastor Jim found himself called to ministry while he was a full-time production manager at a local factory and a farmer on the side. He learned a lot about cracking through that cordial facade and getting to know his fellow rural community members.
“The church should make an effort to go and get to know our neighbors and love our neighbors in meaningful and tangible ways. As a small town church, I want to intentionally reach out to people who are looked at as “different”. We want to make an attempt to become part of the “other” people’s lives and invite them to church and more importantly invite them to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Pastor Jim Johnson. Read more from Pastor Jim in Growing Rural Motley Church from Single Digits to 300.
DEALING WITH CONFLICT
For rural church members keeping the peace is often more important than dealing with unresolved conflict.
In a small town, people are not quick to leave a church…
“Most conflict resolutions in rural churches ends in a cease-fire where people restore a surface equilibrium, they are typically not lead all the way to an armistice. Rural conflict can be long-lived because of those socio-cultural dynamics. A pastor who comes in later looking to make a change may trigger a conflict that had been suspended for years,” said Dr. Giese.
That’s what happened to Pastor Marlin Mohrman, when he first started as Lead Pastor at Morris Evangelical Free Church he noticed the people were hiding deep wounds.
“They were very nice and hospitable, but deep down they were hurt from previous conflicts that involved a previous youth pastor. This issue mounted and divided the congregation, resulting in three full-time staff members leaving, including the senior pastor. I came to Morris with full ignorance on how deep the distrust was,” said Pastor Marlin. Read more from Pastor Marlin in Bringing Life and Health Back to a Flat-Lining, Hurt Rural Church.
Decision-making in rural churches is often extremely personal, and the most influential people often aren’t even on the church payroll.
“I often ask church leaders, ‘Who has to sign-off on a decision to make it go forward in your church?’ In a rural church, typically it’s the same one or two names,” said Dr. Ken Polley, a consultant who helps churches struggling with internal conflict, and a former pastor.
Dr. Ken Polley calls these people, high impact people who have undue leverage in a rural churches decision-making processes.
“In some cases these high impact people are a part of the same family, so you are also dealing with the dynamics of extended family members at church,” he said.
The majority of rural pastors lack a strong network of collegial support…
“In a small town, people are not quick to leave a church for another especially if there are family ties to it. They are forced to get along. The hard work of peace-making and reconciliation must be done in the rural or small-town church if it is to move forward, being blessed by God,” said Pastor Marlin Mohrman.
Of the hundreds of thousands of pastors and leaders ministering to rural communities and small towns, the isolation can be one of the hardest parts.
“When I was a pastor in the rural environment, I desperately looked for people I could meet with as mentors and they weren’t available,” said Dr. Polley.
“The majority of rural pastors lack a strong network of collegial support. Some serve in very isolated places and may or may not be able to afford a conference experience. Getting refreshed is difficult,” said Dr. Giese.
We, at Transform Minnesota believe it is important for rural pastors to get refreshed and find a support network; that is why we are a sponsor of the upcoming Grow! conference.
God wants to transform the lives of millions of people living in rural areas and small towns in the US.
“We believe that God has strategically placed churches in small towns and rural areas for maximum impact for the Kingdom of God. We want this conference to inform, equip, and encourage those leading in those churches. God wants to transform the lives of millions of people living in rural areas and small towns in the US, and he is using his church to do it,” said Pastor Paul Jorgensen, Lead Teaching Pastor at Cornerstone Church. Read more from Pastor Paul Jorgensen in Small Town Church Reaches 5-County Region, Doubling Attendance in Five Years.
…reaching and serving some of the millions who live in rural America.
“I challenge the people serving in rural settings to reframe their role as Special Forces operatives – you are highly trained, you are serving behind enemy lines with minimal support, you are extraordinarily creative, solving problems on the ground in real time, and you don’t often have a chance to connect with other ranking officers.”
But Dr. Giese urges these “Special Forces operatives” serving in rural communities to seek community with leaders in similar ministry situations because, “you need to come in once in a while or you’ll go crazy like Rambo,” he says. “This conference is a great chance to come out of the battle and behind the front lines to get refreshed and equipped.”
And Dr. Polley agrees this conference will be an encouragement for those doing the hard work of rural ministry, “You will feel encouraged when you realize everybody else is in the same boat. It is so vital for pastors in rural ministries to appreciate they are not alone in their struggles which helps relieve pastoral stress and guilt. Resources are available to assist pastors gain traction for moving forward,” said Dr. Polley.
Grow! is a conference created by small town, rural pastors for small town, rural pastors.
“The Grow! conference highlights and headlines effective small town church ministry. These are churches and pastors who are very good at reaching and serving some of the millions who live in rural America,” said Dr. Leith Anderson, of the NAE and the keynote speaker at the Grow! conference.
The Grow! team believes you can have a high-impact ministry in a smaller community, because church impact is not about church size.
“We are re-envisioning impact. It’s not about church attendee numbers, it’s about the impact, and a healthy ministry can have a huge impact on a region,” said Dr. Giese.
Click here to register for Grow! Space is limited.
To read more from our Rural Church Pastor’s Column Series:
Small Town Church Reaches 5-County Region, Doubling Attendance in Five Years by Pastor Paul Jorgensen, Lead Teaching Pastor at Cornerstone Church in Litchfield, MN.
Bringing Life and Health Back to a Flat-Lining, Hurt Rural Church by Pastor Marlin Mohrman, Lead Pastor at Morris Evangelical Free Church in Morris, MN.
Growing Rural Motley Church from Single Digits to 300 by Pastor Jim Johnson, Senior Pastor at Motley Free Methodist Church in Motley, MN.