Many people see small, rural churches like the minor leagues: They are a great place for pastors to be trained, but the really good ones won’t ever stay there. The real game is played in the big cities. Or so we’ve been told. Well, I think we’ve been told wrong. Rural churches matter much more than we’ve been led to believe. Here are three reasons why.
For most of my life, I’ve been hearing about unreached people groups. It wasn’t until I became a pastor that I realized that you don’t have to go very far to find them.
I pastor a church in the Bible Belt. My town is the big shiny Hank Williams Jr. buckle of that belt. Most of what you’ve seen in the movies about towns like mine is true. We have fairs. There’s a big water tower. People drive huge trucks. And yes, there really is a church on every corner. Where I live, if you walk outside and throw a rock, there’s a greater than 90 percent chance that you’ll hit either a church, a Waffle House or a guy wearing a Hank Williams Jr. belt buckle. If you hit the guy with the belt buckle, you didn’t get the idea from me.
I have several friends who live in these kind of towns, and their Sunday morning options are bleak. There’s the church where you’re sure to hear a rousing sermon on how bad the liberals have messed everything up in America. There’s the church where the pastor shares a few tips picked up from a conference in Atlanta about communing with nature. And, of course, there’s the prominent church on the square where a motion was passed at a business meeting in 1982 that prohibited the Holy Spirit from ever coming back again. He hasn’t.
As you might imagine, many of the people who do manage to find their way into the typical rural American church don’t exactly come out sharing William Carey’s passion for the lost. They come out ready to eat lunch. And other than trying to live a moral life, they don’t give Jesus’ life, words, death and resurrection a whole lot of thought throughout the week. For them, going to church on a Sunday morning is a lot like going to a football game on a Friday night. At both events, they watch other people do all of the work and come back home basically the same as they were when they went out.
There are some towns that are still divided by railroad tracks. And depending on who you ask, there’s still the right side and the wrong side of the tracks. Those tracks might as well be a 50-foot wall. Despite all of the talk on love and acceptance, a lot of people like division. They like people staying on their side of the tracks. They’re too busy having their ears tickled by television programmers and their buddies on social media to even consider walking across the tracks.
Pastor, if you are serving in a rural church, you are not in the minor leagues. You are on the front lines. Don’t let the lack of conferences or publications devoted to your area fool you. What you are doing matters. You are needed.
I know that it can be discouraging preaching through books of the Bible when all the people want to hear is how great America is. But if you don’t preach the gospel, who will?
I know that it’s frustrating to pour your life into your ministry and never see any real change. But remember that God is more honored by your obedience than he is by your numbers.
And I know it’s hard to be an agent of grace and peace in an area where everyone is quite comfortable fighting for their side. But if you get fed up with the struggle and leave, I wouldn’t expect the Chamber of Commerce to pick up where you left off.
A few weeks before I moved to the rural south to become a pastor, I met a guy who also was about to make a move. He was headed to Afghanistan to live and work as a missionary. When he told me that, I expressed shock. I said something to him about how hard of a job that would be. I’ll never forget his response.
“My job is no different than yours. We’re both going to a group of deeply religious people who think that they’re OK with God even though they really aren’t.”
The gospel compels us to bring Christ to the lady in Afghanistan wearing a headscarf.
And it compels us to bring Christ to the man in Jackson, Georgia, wearing a Hank Williams Jr. belt buckle.
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