Rural churches are at a crossroads. They are facing a generational shift, which, if not navigated well and led by the Spirit, will lead to the dying of many churches.
Many denominations, networks, and pastors of large mission-sending churches today have taken rural America off their radar, choosing instead to focus on urban centers.
Don’t misunderstand, it makes sense for denominations and networks to focus on cities, where the per capita population can produce the greater return for our investment of outreach and ministry resources. When we look at the Apostle Paul, he too seemed to have a strategy which centered on larger urban centers.
Yet, we can do more than just urban.
However, by all outward appearances, many seemed to have left their strategy books for rural churches on a dusty shelf. But that’s not necessarily the case and, I would advise, should not be the case. The good news is that we can do both (and more). And Paul likely did minister to people in non-urban settings.
I, too, care deeply about the rural churches, and so should you.
According to a PBS article, 46.2 million people (roughly 15% of the U.S. population) reside in rural America. That is 46 million people who have been, or who can be, impacted by the gospel.
In most places of the world, there is a higher proportion of people who are Christian in rural areas than in urban centers. How are we caring for them and equipping them for their mission in today’s world? How are they being discipled and taught to reach those around them?
These are questions I’ve been asking, and questions which led us at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism to launch a “Rural Matters” focus, a resource and networking group for pastors and leaders in rural churches.
I am convinced that if we are to support the whole Church, then we need to focus on those in lesser populated areas as well as urban centers. Those in rural settings face similar challenges that we all face, but are also unique in some ways.
The truth is, rural families are dissolving just as urban families are dissolving.
Critical problems such as drug addiction, pornography, racial tensions, broken relationships, lack of job opportunities, and more are widespread. And a number of pastors and leaders in rural churches, just like pastors in other unique settings, are not equipped to support their congregations, let alone reach out to those struggling outside the church, and without God.
So let’s focus on the cities.
But let’s never do so to the detriment of those in rural areas and suburbs. Rural America, whether white or black or other, is a critical part of God’s plan to see our world reached for Jesus.
From the Editor: This article was published years ago, but the importance of this content rings truer than ever and has eternal implications if ignored. You see, there is one question that church planters must answer and it makes all the difference.
I read somewhere that “either your gods will cross international borders or your armies will.” In evaluating our country, what would you say is happening? In looking at the world, what is your judgment?
I watched a documentary on the British aristocracy and how their waning finances in the late 1890s were infused with American heiress’ money; cash for titles so to speak. Maybe what we need is a spiritual infusion in our country and our churches. We need more depth and fervor. We need men and women of prayer. We need serious disciples. I’m not interested in my legacy being spiritual luke-warmness, are you?
As church planters, what do we do?
Do we look around the country, see what’s working and try that? Do we attend conferences picking up the latest books, implementing the most recent trends hoping to excite our people for spiritual things? Do we hope that the conference will revive us; kick start our flagging spiritual life. I don’t believe that is the answer.
Many years ago, my husband, Phil, surveyed large successful churches. He had a TV crew and filmed each pastor asking him what made his church grow; you would recognize many of these men. They did many wonderful things: verse by verse exposition, music that moved the heart; great follow-up; super youth groups; sports teams… you name it; they had it. But, in each of the churches, there was a common denominator….a lack of organized prayer.
Let me share what I’ve been reading lately.
I’ve just gotten a pamphlet written on prayer by JC Ryle called, A Call To Prayer. His first paragraph is very succinct. He says, “I have a question to offer you.
It is contained in three words: Do you pray?”
He continues, “The question is one that none but you can answer.
Whether you attend public worship or not, your Minister knows. Whether you have family prayers in your house or not, your relations know. But whether you pray in private or not, is a matter between yourself and God.”
Later he writes, “A man may preach from false motives. A man may write books and make fine speeches and seem diligent in good works, and yet be a Judas Iscariot. But a man seldom goes into his closet, and pours out his soul before God in secret, unless he is in earnest. The Lord himself has set his stamp on prayer as the best proof of true conversion. When he sent Ananias to Saul in Damascus, he gave him no other evidence of his change of heart that this, ‘Behold, he prayeth.’” Acts9:11
The Lord himself has set his stamp on prayer as the best proof of true conversion. Click To Tweet You cannot force your people to pray.
Initiating prayer meetings many times results in people praying for illnesses of co-workers and extended or distant family members; needed, but not what I’m discussing here. Incorporating confessional public prayers are not necessarily the answer. I can only pose the question along with JC Ryle, “Do you pray?”
I hope you are as convicted as I am.
Let’s get on our knees and pray for an infusion of spiritual power in our church, in our city, in our country, and our world. You may have some prayer warriors in your church already praying, and you don’t know it. Find them and pray with them for, “Prayer sets in motion the whole power of God.” Alfred Monod
And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. (Matthew13:53-58 ESV)
It’s interesting to me when this story occurred in the life of Jesus. If you read just prior to this passage, the disciples had finally understood something Jesus taught them. It seems that didn’t happen much in their journey with Jesus. On this occasion, Jesus had just taught them a huge principle. They got it. It was a great day. The best of days. The men He was building into, who would launch the church we know today, understood what was being taught.
That’s a great day for any teacher.
Then suddenly the critics came out of the closet.
(They weren’t really “in the closet”. They never are. They are always watching. Critics are usually the ones waiting in the wings to say, “That won’t work” or “I told you it wouldn’t”. They just appear to sit on the sidelines when things are working, because that fuels nothing they have to say.)
It never seems to fail. I’ve seen it in ministry and marketplace leadership. The best days of life are often followed by some of the darkest days. Monday always follows the weekend. Pastor, deliver your best message and you’ll shortly afterwards find some of your harshest critics. “You should have said it this way.” Deliver the best quarterly sales report and there will be someone who says the business can’t compete in today’s market. Hit an out-of-the-park home run and you’ll find some people ready to stop the ballgame.
Don’t be surprised on those days.
Don’t be dismayed.
Don’t get distracted from what you are called to do.
Those days can even have value, if you allow them to:
They keep us humble.
They keep us learning.
They keep us on our knees.
They keep the glory shining in the rightful place.
They keep us appreciative of the good days.
Are you facing the critics – even during the best of days?
Of course you are – you’re trying to be like Jesus, right?
I run into people regularly who openly wonder how to lead others in the realm of outreaches. “If we are walking in the Spirit do we need to schedule outreaches?” they reason. Isn’t that a bit like scheduling love? Aren’t we called to walk in love continually? How does the planned and the spontaneous line up?
Yes, we are people who love others all the time. We are called by God to be agents of his kingdom wherever we go.
Based on that understanding we are wise to ask one another, “How’s business?” I don’t know about you but I am inconsistent with my love. Some days I do a stellar job of loving others. Other days I am not so successful. Still others days I am up and down in the course of an hour. Bottom line – I am inconsistent with love. I need help in this department if I hope to walk consistently.
As I walk through life I generally become like the people I hang around with. What causes me to grow spiritually? What causes me to grow in my love levels?
More than anything I become like those I spend large amounts of time with. Click To Tweet
We pick up the habits of those we hang with. When we have a shared job that we do enthusiastically, all sorts of positive vibes rub off on one another.
I believe outreach is much like prayer.
We need to be fluent in our praying both individually and in group settings. Hopefully we can pray effectively on our own as well as with others. A big part of my prayer life is set in motion as I pray with others around me.
So it is imperative that we practice group outreaches and individual efforts as well.
Can you watch the horizon and the ground in front of you at the same time?
You must, if you would benefit from long-range planning. Eyes on the horizon keep you focused on your mission. Meanwhile, careful “next steps” avoid obstacles and exploit opportunities.
Long-range planning is necessary for any organization. If you don’t have a goal you’ll never know if you hit it. Vision will remain just that—a vision. Short term, eyes-on-the-ground stuff fabricates reality from vision. But how do you unite the long and short term?
We’ve learned to connect the planning dots this way. We set 20-year goals then cut them into bite size chunks. We simply divide the 20-year goals by two to get 10-year markers. Divide again and we have a reasonable set of five-year goals. Cutting those into five measurable pieces paves a path from the present to the future. To climb Mt Everest, you need to know the location of the camps and when you should arrive at each one.
Goals For A New Church
Planning is easy till you do it—especially in a new church.
We’re three months into a new church. Excitement abounds and we’re growing on all fronts. This weekend we gather team captains to create our first, true, annual calendar and budget.
Our mission is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We know that this is from God because it comes from the Word.
This may be our most crucial meeting in a year. A weak foundation risks much. The first “one-year-plan must reflect our overall mission and lead in a direction pointing clearly towards where we want to be in 2033.
Our core team agrees that we need firm 20-year goals before heading into the meeting. The problem here is that we have a pastor (me) who is big on mission but struggles to codify goals. So after prayer we set these three goals……
Plant thirty “organic” churches (Pastored by people we discipled from within our ranks).
Build spiritually reproductive DNA in every church plant. Each church plant comes out of the box intent on planting others.
Establish a strong church planting presence in three countries (We can identify two of them, while we’re praying for a third).
Goals, Tools and Other Stuff
Did you notice that these goals don’t include buildings, programs etc.?
We expect to gather them on the journey. But at the end of the day they are just tools. The last church I pastored planted a bunch of churches while meeting in parks and public schools.
Our goals are measurable, but none touch on the size of our congregation.
We’re still just a couple of hundred people, but current financial and leadership resources would allow us to launch churches overseas. The words, “To whom much is given, much will be required,” can be scary in situations like this.
We honestly can’t say how large the church “ought to be.” Yeah, we could say how large we want it to grow but want is different than ought.
We expect to grow but will not idolize church growth. Jesus didn’t speak of big churches. He did tell us to go everywhere and make disciples. We have our hands full just centering on that broad mission.
If our 2033 goal is to launch a bunch of churches, that reproduce, we will do certain things in 2014. If the goal was to be the biggest church around we might do them differently.
For instance a bunch of our people are busy launching sports teams. If we want to grow a mega-church, the desire to win games is fascinating. Winning attracts people and is a nice option any day of the week. But, the desire to win can lead to a team made up of expert players who don’t attend our church (Yes, Martha, this has happened before).
However, if our focus is on church planting we need to disciple ballplayers more than we need to win games. In fact, perseverance in a bad season can be excellent training for future leaders…you get the picture.
So, what am I trying to say? First, long-term goals must tie directly to mission. Also, that we do well to link the mission on the horizon to our next steps. Finally, we must be careful that we don’t confuse the possession of tools with goals worthy of our mission.
Self-defeat, the dysfunctional activity of harming oneself, manifests itself in many ways. Some are obvious; others, less so. Suicidal behavior and the various types of addictions are harmful. The harm of manipulation and deception cloaked in spiritual platitudes often is not as obvious.
As a complex phenomenon, self-defeat has a variety of behavioral, psychological, and spiritual aspects.
We must avoid the temptation of reducing it to an oversimplification. For instance, neurological, cultural, relational, and idiosyncratic factors can weigh in as causes of self-defeat. From a biblical perspective, one causal factor stands above all others: self-exaltation. Invariably, leaders who exalt themselves do so at a harmful cost. They might be fortunate enough to get good returns on investments, lead in organizational growth and development, advanced innovations, or earn notoriety for their brand. But, if they exalt themselves, achieving these ends might cost their loss of integrity, damage their relationships, and most assuredly, undermine their walk with God.
In the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, numerous examples are found of leaders who disobeyed God, ignored his warnings, and pursued their self-serving agendas. In the end, the consequences of their actions proved to be self-defeating. How can we forget the self-exaltation of Pharaoh, King Saul, and King Nebuchadnezzar?
On the other hand, let’s not overlook the more subtle approach of Gideon (Judges 8: 22-33).
After enjoying successful leadership in obedience to God, he too capitulated to self-exaltation.
He collected wealth and clothing fit for a king.
He married many wives (a symbol of kingship in the ancient Near East).
He had 70 legitimate sons.
He had concubines (another symbol of kingship).
He named his illegitimate son Abimelech, which meant “My father is king.”
Steve Zeisler provides insightful commentary on the subtle shift in the condition of Gideon’s heart.
“Over time,” says Zeisler, “Gideon begins to like the position of power to which he’s been raised, using it for ends that aren’t right. He continues to credit God (most of the time) for what’s done, but he also believes more and more that the human contribution should be rewarded.”
“He refuses to be king formally, but has had opened the door for an informal testimony to his greatness.”
“Small decisions build on one another to suggest that Gideon liked prestige and royal treatment while continuing to claim, ‘the Lord shall rule over you.’”
Ultimately, Gideon’s actions exacted destructive consequences: Israel’s fall into idolatry and ruin to his family.
On Gideon’s self-defeat, Zeisler states: “In the moment of public temptation to self-aggrandizement, Gideon gave the right answer. Immediately afterward, he began the incremental process of undermining it—a few perks, a bit of gold, a few wives, an idol. His life deteriorated, and though he didn’t suffer most from it, the next generation suffered horribly because the son he left behind was an angry, godless man.”
Gideon’s legacy ought to be a wakeup call to all Christian leaders. We should choose humility over self-exaltation, recognize the subtle temptation that comes with positions of power, and always follow Christ’s example of servanthood (see Luke 14:11, Romans, 11:20, Philippians 2: 3-8, I Peter 5:6).
For more information on leadership and church health purchase Dr. Ridley’s books at Churchsmart.com
Okay, I’ll admit this is very opinionated. But think about it: In so many ways, a pastor has to be a generalist. I think pastors have several big jobs. Equip the saints, pass on creedal basics, lead and shepherd the local church, and think like an evangelist.
But in my mind, this is what we should stop pretending to be:
1. Bible Scholars.
Face it: we’re not. Anytime I hear the average pastor or TV preacher say, “A better translation in the Hebrew would be…” or “The Greek verb really means…”, I get nervous. I’ve done my own fair share of hacking Hebrew and Greek based solely on a commentary, concordance, century-old Edersheim material and “Follow The Rabbi”-type websites…and it ain’t pretty. And I’ve had people who are intensely schooled in dead languages and Koine Greek call me out. As they should.
While pastors must and should study the Bible, it’s not a full-time vocation for us. Of course we know doctrine, understand the canon and its origins, and be able to disciple people through scripture. But we don’t really have the luxury of spending the bulk of our waking hours studying texts because, remember?—we’re pastors.
So let’s stop pretending to be Bible scholars. We can read their work, we can quote them, we should know a few, but we’re not them because we can’t hole up in libraries for hours a day and because we should be with our people in order to lead them.
The Cliff Notes version is this: Bible scholars study text, theologians study what different voices believe about the text. Trees versus forest. And don’t get me started on Biblical theology or systematic theology. But it requires inordinate amounts of time to recognize the nuances and roots of various theological themes. Not for the faint-hearted. Yes, I know by default every believer is a theologian, but you’re a pastor first, a theologian second. Or third. (As Paul said to Pastor Timothy: Do the work of an evangelist.) At its heart, the Good News is deep, but not complicated.
But the argument is the same as #1. Enough said.
3. Professional Counselors.
I believe in Christian counseling with all my heart. I’ve been to some. It’s like the old joke: Q. “Do you believe in infant baptism?” A. “Heck yeah! I’ve actually seen it!”
But it’s a black hole for pastors. And here’s why: it will suck the leadership and pastoral life out of you. For one, most pastors don’t have enough serious clinical counseling training and, second, most of us suffer from acute messianic complexes—we think if we try hard enough we can fix anything. But people are complex cocktails of spiritual, emotional, relational, neurological and chemical challenges. And I can guarantee the psyche-vampires will find you out and want to meet with you. Endlessly. And drain the pastoral blood out of you.
Sure, we can do generalized Biblical counseling; we can even cast out a few demons. But take it from me: beyond one or two introductory meetings, you’re probably in over your head. If you really enjoy counseling people—and many pastors do—just make sure you get continuing education and training, network with professional counselors in your area, and realize that your leadership of the church and evangelistic thrust will take a backseat. You’ll have great stories for sermons (uh, if you’re discreet and wait two years before you tell any “anonymous” story), but have less time mentoring and modeling for leaders.
There’s a reason why we always did our support and recovery work in the context of groups at the church I pastored…and referred intense one-on-ones out to professionals.
Plus, people seem to get better faster when they pay for it. At least they have some skin in the game.
4. The Smartest Guy in the Room.
This is more internal with respect to staff/volunteer/leaders meetings. If you’re the lead pastor, people will naturally turn to you when a decision needs to be made or a confirming or counterpoint view requires expression. That’s your job. But just because you have the position and are potentially the decider, it doesn’t make you the sharpest crayon in the box…and the sooner you realize that, the better. What pastors can be is this: expert generalists. You can and should know a little bit about most things (such as these five roles), but you’re not the expert of any one of them.
Besides, all of us have probably worked for different bosses in different contexts. Did you ever seriously think they were the smartest person in the room? Really? And why would you think differently now that you’re in the first chair?
I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be prophetic. And I mean the whole range of the prophetic: from classic foretelling to forth-telling, from proclamations about direction…to encouragement…to exposing justice-oriented issues often overlooked.
It’s just that typically prophets don’t make great pastors. They can have an edge that counteracts invitation. A church led by a prophet will typically end up being a small group of spiritual Rambos. And those who lean into a prophetic-stance can be susceptible to becoming authoritative and controlling, copping a my-way-or-the-highway style. Interestingly, church people will easily give authority to a prophetic personality, but when they’re discontent they’ll more-than-likely pull out the “God-card” as to why they’re leaving the church because that’s the style that’s been modeled for them. A dangerous “less-than-transparent and false-authenticity” church culture can quickly develop.
Prophesy, but circumspectly and humbly. And be on guard for spiritual abuse; we can easily fall prey to it.
In a book by Julian Lewis Watkins, The 100 Greatest Advertisements, Sir Ernest Shackleton is quoted as having placed an ad in a London newspaper at the turn of the last century looking for men to join him on an expedition to the South Pole.
It read: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful!”
He wrote, “It seemed as if all the men of Briton wanted to accompany me.”
Soon afterward, a curious friend noted in Shackleton’s office three large drawers labeled respectively ‘Mad,’ ‘Hopeless,’ and ‘Possible’ in which the letters of application had been roughly classified.”
Perhaps that how church planters should be classified?
And what about the wives who go along with them?
I don’t think so.
I prefer to claim Luke 1:37, “With God all things are possible.”
In Acts 2, when Peter was inspired to preach mightily by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was evidencing an amazing amount of “faith casting.” In that case, the place where they were meeting was affected by the presence of God in response to what the people were willing to do in response to the word given. Peter was able to see the future of the church in Jerusalem. He could see God’s preferred future for the people of God in that place, and he was endued with the capacity to give great word pictures to what God was up to. The people not only heard, but they also gave themselves entirely to the task at hand to what God was calling them to.
I call it Faith casting for short.
It is a gift that is possessed by the primary leaders of local churches that are taking off in the realm of God’s Spirit. When people can fully see what God is up to, and they lend their strength to all that he is up to in their midst, amazing synchronicity begins to occur.
This is the matter of seeing the not-yet in the already. It is the ability to connect with what God is about to do among his people.
There is an ability on the part of a primary leader to stand before his people and explain what is going on – to give a live interpretation of what is happening – and in so seeing to impart to the people courage to carry out the vision in a powerful way. So it is that God’s people begin to carry out the will of God as they leave the gathering of his people.
For the senior leader to stand before the people and to consistently paint a picture of what is happening is a powerful thing. This gift of interpreting things from the place of heaven to the understanding of earth is a gift that God gives out to those who are primary leaders. It is available for leaders who need it to guide their churches forward onto the place of clarity that God is taking a local church.
What does it take to receive this gift?
First we must have a spiritual environment where God is at work. If nothing much is happening, there isn’t much, if anything, to interpret. This gift is not given out to every senior leader, willy-nilly, in other words.
The good news is you can stir up a spiritual environment in your midst by beginning to lead people to Christ. There is nothing more spiritual than spiritual conversions. Work toward the leading of many into a relationship with Christ, and you will see a mighty upstirring of the exact environment you seek after if that is not already happening in your midst.
Second, people need to be hungry to hear from on high.
This hunger is accomplished through an atmosphere that is saturated with God’s word that is preached and taught consistently and passionately. Added to that is the atmosphere of prayerful dependence upon God as we move forward as a congregation. We make progress, but we make it clear that we are in dire need of the stirring of God to move forward. Steps forward will not be made by the mere decisions of people who are aligned with one another alone.
Most importantly, we make progress with seeing God at work in our midst as we are willing to give away momentum.
We seek to love others consistently as the focus of our congregation. We do this in significant ways that are organized and in a multitude of small, seemingly insignificant ways that are done throughout the outflow of the congregation as people step out to meet the needs of the community in practical ways.
Hear And Do
There is something spiritual that takes place in the setting of a gathering when a senior leader is in full motion and is declaring what the future holds.
God shows up when one of his representatives risks by stepping out to see and say what he sees coming the way of the church. This is more than one person merely gabbing away with small talk about the future.
This is a spiritual activity that can mold and shape the very texture of the roadmap the church will follow as it is taken to heart from that moment forward out the doors of the church and into the streets.
Six years ago, my accountability partner came to Bible Study and asked for prayer. Ken is CEO of a company that franchises boutiques across the country (They opened about 40 that year.) They were opening up the biggest store of their history, in Downtown Disney-Anaheim on Friday, May 20. On Monday the 16th, when the truck was a no show – they began calling, only to find out the truck carrying the entire inventory for the store had been in an accident the previous Thursday in Dallas! A third party company was dispatched to find, recover and liquidate the inventory and the trucking company advised they would send them a check for the amount the load was insured.
With only 4 days before opening, and an inventory that could not be replaced in less than a month, what would you do–cancel, call an attorney, cry, complain?
Ken called his partners together (also Christians) and led his company in prayer. They got on the phone to Fed Ex and finally got to their “Critical Crisis Team” who jumped into action, found the merchandise, and got it from Texas to Anaheim. (I mention Fed Ex because they came through as an excellent company should—but that’s another story). The truck was scheduled to arrive Thursday at 9:00 and finally got there at 11:00 am. With less than 24 hours to do a 4-day job – Ken and one of his partners got on a plane to So. Cal, worked all day/night and straight through to Friday morning, alongside the franchisee and his team, to get all the merchandise inventoried, stocked, and displayed in time for the scheduled opening.
Three days later, Ken had the opportunity to share the story with the head of Disney Retail Properties.
He was so impressed with how they reacted and the quality of the store – that future Disney opportunities were discussed.
So, what are the lessons for us?
When your truck crashes—get on your knees before the Father.
When your truck crashes—call on others to help (the Critical Crisis Team wouldn’t have entered the picture had not Ken asked for their help)
When your truck crashes—don’t get your drawers in a bunch, instead, roll up your sleeves, swallow your pride, and do the hard work that is “way beneath” your station in life.
When your truck crashes—hard work and perseverance will pay big dividends.
I’m proud of my friend. He lives out his faith.
Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example – you should do just as I have done for you.” John 13:14-15