Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021
Distinctives of the Rural Context for Christian Mission
The article examines the distinctive context of the countryside for Christian mission. Firstly, some of the challenges raised by remote or rural settings are examined. There is then a consideration of some of the advantages inherent in such a context and finally some concluding thoughts on the unique opportunities for mission in rural areas.
I. A Distinct Rural Context?
The first task in addressing the issue of a rural context for mission is to consider whether there is a distinct rural context at all. Not all are convinced that this is the case in the twenty-first century. The “McDonaldisation” of the world has led to a flattening out of cultural distinctives, especially amongst young people. Timothy Keller, for one, argues that technology has led to the urbanising of even the most remote rural areas:
People, especially young people want to live in cities. The rise of new forms of technology has not weakened this desire. Instead, it has dramatically expanded the reach of urban culture. This urbanizing influence now extends far beyond the city limits, affecting even the most rural areas of remote countries.
Following this line of thought, some maintain that effective mission in rural Britain requires little by way of contextualisation that is specifically rural, as urbanism has carried all before it.
However, even allowing for the significant homogenisation of popular culture, society remains diverse and an awareness of the distinctiveness of different geographical and social contexts is vital for fruitful mission. Even the term “urban” encompasses contexts which differ significantly because of unique histories and differing attitudes to authority and community, economic realities and social challenges. One Anglican vicar, Gary Jenkins, describes his move from a London housing estate to a wealthy suburb in terms of coming to terms with a radically different society: “In 2001, I took a journey of 12 miles and entered another world”
Jenkins found that in his first urban charge the members were working class, orientated towards family and community, resource poor and weak in leadership; business meetings tended to be less focussed but more spon-taneous and fun. His suburban people were middle-class, goal-orientated, resource rich and highly individualistic. Whereas the people in the “estate” were open and willing to talk about their experiences, the suburban folk were less free in expressing their feelings and more driven by “right answers”. Recognising the differences in context was crucial to ministering well.
In a similar way, even though Instagram and Netflix mean that city and country have a shared discourse, the difference in history, landscape, relationships to place and community, remoteness and resources mean that the countryside, changing as it is, still presents a very different context from urban and suburban ministry. There is a commonality of distinction that justifies the concept of “rural context”. In what follows I want to map out some of the issues that make rural ministry challenging, then consider the strengths inherent in the context and finally the distinct opportunities provided in rural areas.
II. Challenges Within a Rural Setting
Rural communities have long suffered from a sense of being undervalued by the church. This plays out in several ways: Rural charges are often regarded as suitable territory for the beginning or the end of a ministry. They are seen as a good place for a young minister to cut his teeth, make his mistakes and then move on to a place with more potential. Similarly, it is expected that ministers drawing near to retirement will “ease down” by moving to a rural charge where there will be less demands made of them. This attitude is not peculiar to Britain. Wendell Berry laments a similar situation in the United States and accuses the church of being complicit in a more widespread drain of resources away from country to city:
No church official, apparently, sees any logical, much less any spiritual problem in sending young people to minister to country churches before they have, according to their institutional superiors, become eligible to be ministers. These student ministers invariably leave the rural congregations that have sponsored or endured their educations as soon as possible once they have their diploma in hand. The denominational hierarchies, then, evidently regard country places in exactly the same way as “the economy” does: as sources of economic power to be exploited for the advantage of “better” places.
Allied to the stereotype of rural places as sleepy villages where nothing much happens is the emphasis in much modern mission thinking on the strategic priority of the city. This urban mission emphasis is based firstly on an understanding of the biblical data that sees the rapid growth of the early church as arising from the strategic insight of Paul and his associate evangelists in making urban centres of influence such as Ephesus and Corinth the focus of their missionary activity. There is often a biblical theology articulated which seeks to demonstrate that the city – and not a restored Eden – is God’s future purpose for the earth.  Cities are regarded as the centres of influence for politics, the arts and science; the city is where we find the cultural elites and the upwardly mobile young people who will shape tomorrow. Thus, urban mission is articulated in terms of a “trickle down” strategy. Influence the city and the rest of the nation will follow, it is argued.
So powerful is the conviction that urban areas are strategic and cutting edge that the implication is sometimes given that to minister anywhere else is to avoid the challenge of mission altogether. Take for example the words of one urban mission advocate from over thirty years ago:
Cities are simply huge clusters of people, and Jesus goes where the people are. In His earthly ministry Jesus wept with compassion for the crowds of Jerusalem and moved among them in ministry.
Over half of the world’s population lives in urban centres. In developed nations like the United States, the percentage of urban dwellers is much higher. In California, for example, 91 percent of the population lives in cities.
My city, Los Angeles, is crowded, expensive, violent, and polluted. I would rather raise my children in rural isolation or suburban convenience, but Jesus has called me here. Jesus has always been attracted to the dark places… By the year 2010, three out of every four people on earth will live in cities.
The above quotation also illustrates the tendency to overstate the shift to urban settings. The United Nations estimates that currently 55 percent of the world’s population live in urban areas. The 45 percent of rural dwellers represents 3.4 billion souls.
What is seldom acknowledged by the urban strategists is the delight that God takes in confounding the wisdom of the world (1 Cor 1:18-31). It is this delight in acting against the grain of the “strategic” for his own glory that resulted in his choice of Israel (Deut 7:7-8) and the removal of Phillip from a revival in Samaria to speak to one individual in the middle of nowhere (Acts 8:26-40).
Not only was Jesus born in a rural setting, but he grew up in a community which was regarded as a rural backwater unlikely to lead to any significant developments: “‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see’, said Philip.” (John 1:46)
According to archaeological research, Nazareth in Jesus’ day had a population of only 120 to 150 people. This was a farming-based village, situated high on a hill and away from the main trade routes. Nathanael’s instinctive scorn would have reflected the general view of such a tiny community.
The bulk of Jesus’ ministry was conducted in rural Galilee. If Jesus had adopted the “trickle down” strategies of many modern mission thinkers, he would have gone to Jerusalem and sought to win the religious and political elite. Instead, whilst Jesus was burdened for the people of Jerusalem and devoted time to preach and teach there, he also chose to devote significant attention to the villages of the land. As New Testament scholar N. T. Wright comments,
We should not be surprised that Jesus in announcing [the gospel] kept on the move, going from village to village and, so far as we can tell, keeping away from Sepphoris and Tiberias, the two largest cities in Galilee. He was not so much like a wandering preacher preaching sermons, or a wandering philosopher offering maxims, as like a politician gathering support for a new and highly risky movement.
In fact, deprecating rural mission may turn out to be a poor move. Recent history has shown how movements once thought to be irreversible may in fact be reversed unexpectedly. The rise of political populism in the twenty-first century has seen a move away from open frontiers and the free movement of labour. The Covid-19 global pandemic influenced social trends in many surprising ways, some of which may be enduring. Who is to say that globalisation and urbanisation are as unstoppable as we have been told so confidently and for so long?
Even if one were to accept all the assumptions made by those who advocate prioritising the city it would still, within these terms, make sense to recognise the huge potential of the often-overlooked rural mission field. In his autobiography, the founder of Walmart (until recently the owners of Asda), Sam Walton writes of how his business strategy was to focus on small country towns of under 10,000 people which were being overlooked by the competition:
Now that we were out of debt, we could really do something with our key strategy which was to put good-sized discount stores into little one-horse towns which everybody else was ignoring. In those days Kmart wasn’t going to towns below 50,000, and even Gibson’s wouldn’t go to towns much smaller than 10,000 or 12,000. We knew our formula was working even in towns smaller than 5000 people and there were plenty of those towns out there for us to expand into. When people want to simplify the Wal-Mart story, that’s usually how they sum up the secret of our success: “Oh they went into small towns when nobody else would.” And a long time ago, when we were first being noticed, a lot of folks in the industry wrote us off as a bunch of country hicks who had stumbled onto this idea by a big accident.
It would be tragic if, in a laudable attempt to flag up the importance of reaching cities of the world, it was suggested that mission to the countryside is “less strategic”. Encouraging our best men to give their best years to rural mission may turn out to be highly strategic. My own denomination (the Free Church of Scotland) has several good stories to tell of rural churches that have been re-vitalised resulting in a significant impact on the community and the morale of the wider church.
2. Socially Suffocating
Rural social dynamics are perceived as negative in two respects. There are, first, the factors which encroach on social goods such as privacy which are taken for granted in the city. People often speak of the “goldfish bowl” of rural life: Everyone knows your business. It is hard to keep much private and people feel free to comment on your affairs. Some people find this difficult to adjust to. Others enjoy the sense of belonging which comes from living in a place where everyone knows your name and waves when you pass in the car.
The sense of being under scrutiny is greater when a minister or church planter moves to an area where he has strong ties. In Lowland Scotland, the phrase, “We kent yer faither” (“We knew your father”) usually indicates that the speakers are unwilling for the person in question to rise “above his station”.
But this was, of course, the same comment that was thrown out against Jesus: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us?” (Matt 13:55-56)
Jesus, in other words, knew the reality of small-town hostility but it did not prevent him preaching in Nazareth and other parts of Galilee. He had nothing to hide from the people, whether or not they rejected him. And if someone is willing to embrace the close context of rural living then the power of incarnating the gospel is strong. Likewise, the spiritual fruit of gospel ministry will make a proportionately greater impact in a close-knit community. It is much harder to deny the reality of spiritual conversion in a small town or village.
The city is often identified with the possibility of living authentically and realising one’s potential away from the glare of small-town gossip. “In New York you can be a new man”, sings the chorus in the musical Hamilton. But it can also be seen as the place where vice thrives unseen in the darkness, unchecked by the homespun morality of the village.
Secondly, the social conservatism of rural areas is seen as slowing down the progress of the gospel. Rural people are regarded as inward-looking, conservative and slow to change. In the city, by contrast, people are more diverse and mobile and hence more open to change. Once again, these things may be true socially, but they are not of themselves barriers to the working of the Holy Spirit as the histories of spiritual revivals rooted in deeply traditional rural areas will testify.
One negative feature of rural ministry and mission which is acknowledged by all is that the rural church is under-resourced in terms of buildings, personnel and finance.
John Clarke, director of the Arthur Rank Centre, an organisation based in Warwickshire, England that seeks to resource the rural church, paints the contrast between urban and rural churches in terms of building resources as follows:
This [the city church] is the church which besides meeting for worship on a Sunday has an active programme of events during the week. Extensive use is made of the church buildings which will usually include a hall, smaller meeting rooms, toilets, and kitchen. This building is the primary locus and focus of the church’s mission.
Compare that with a village church or chapel. The Parish Church will probably be several centuries old, with no toilet or kitchen and will be heavily ‘pewed’. There may be a small room constructed in the bell tower. The chapel may have an extra room, with a sink at one end, and perhaps a toilet, but many are simply a rectangular shell.
The smaller population of rural areas may mean that there are fewer people available to share the work of outreach and pastoral care. Small numbers also affect the dynamics of church life: Arlin Rothauge of Seabury Western Theological Seminary in the USA has made an analysis of the social impact of church size which has been very influential. He categorises congregation size as follows:
- The family church. These are congregations of up to 50 members. They may have been without a paid leader for some time and are used to functioning informally.
- The pastoral church of 50 to 150 members. At this point the numbers are too large for one or two “parental figures” to dominate and the seminary-trained minister is central. Members expect their spiritual needs to be met through their direct relationship with the minister. Church size is small enough for everyone to know each other.
- The programme church of 150 to 350 members. The church is at a size where personal care and leadership must be supplemented by lay-led cells of activity such as pastoral care groups, programmes for recovering from divorce, abuse, addiction etc.
- The corporate church with more than 350 members. Here a relatively high-profile senior minster and well-resourced Sunday services provide unity whilst a significant number of paid staff deliver multiple ministries.
Rural churches are usually in either the first or second category, with the great majority being family churches. These churches may be part of a grouping of similar-sized fellowships under the oversight of a paid minister. However, the real decision-maker in the family church may be the patriarch/matriarch of the family group. This person may see his/her role as preventing the minister from leading the church off in a radically new direction. The minister’s role is seen as chaplain to this church “family”. Clearly there is potential for conflict if the vision of the minister is not shared from the start. By contrast, in church plant situations the small size of the group becomes an advantage because the core group is selected on the basis of a shared vision and so the unity of vision becomes a powerful driver from the outset.
One of the features of the British countryside for many years has been the movement of urbanites into the country looking for a better quality of life. This movement, whilst bringing in new blood has often been at the expense of young local families who are unable to compete for local housing. In the Highlands of Scotland, the term “white settler” was coined to describe a new breed of incomer who arrived with patronising attitudes towards “natives” and sought to modify the community to fit more closely the city dynamics they had, ironically, left behind for a better life!
At the same time, much of the growth of rural churches may come from these newcomers. For some of them, the move to the country may be indicative of some wider soul-searching or a hankering for authentic community. The division in the community between old and new residents may then be reflected by tension within the church if the suggestions for changes in practice are, for example, welcomed more enthusiastically by the newcomers than by the indigenous folks.
However, although these new tensions are undoubtedly a challenge within the rural situation, they also represent a stimulating new dynamic which is often fruitful.
III. The Strengths of the Rural Context
When Cain sinned, his punishment was to become rootless, a wanderer in the land east of Eden (Gen 4:12). In contrast, when the idealised Israel is portrayed in Scripture it is characteristically presented in terms of being a life in which the Israelite is rooted in the land and at peace with God and his neighbour (e.g., Micah 4:4)
The countryside provides an alternative to the hypermobility of the city. Rural churches tend not to suffer from the emotional fatigue that arises from welcoming newcomers to church who have little intention of staying long. In contrast to what is generally the case in the urban setting, they offer the opportunity to make long-term commitments to people and place. When relationships break down it is much more difficult to simply move on and avoid the issues.
Land/landscape is important in anchoring people to place. As theologian Walter Bruegemann points out, to connect with the land is to find your place in a bigger whole. “Land is never simply physical dirt but is always physical dirt freighted with social meanings derived from historical experience.” As a result, there is a kind of anchoring of people in a rural setting which does not happen so easily in the city with its man-made and transient surroundings. “People do form bonds with place, and territory is vitally important to people and may serve as an integral component of self-identity.” 
Although the mobility of urban people is often represented as a positive aspect for mission (people are less stuck in their thinking, more open to change, etc.), it can also be seen as a manifestation of consumerism. People move to find an even better neighbourhood, a higher-paying job, a safer part of the city etc. Experience shows that consumerist attitudes are often carried over into the church: it is all too easy in the city to hop from one church to another in pursuit of greater affirmation, more people who share your interests, or more engaging preaching. In the rural church there is the possibility of working with people who see themselves as heavily invested in the locality and hence in the prospering of this church.
2. A Sense of Community Ownership of the Church.
In urban and suburban contexts, church planters and those involved in church revitalisation will seek to position the church as a community church. They will want to communicate the church’s desire to serve the people, identify with them in their struggles and communicate in ways that are accessible. This identification with the community is highly desirable in order to communicate the gospel in an incarnational manner rather than aloofly from a distance.
In a rural area that community connection is already there to a much larger extent than in the city. This is how John Clark of the Arthur Rank Centre contrasts rural and urban churches in terms of their relationship with the community:
Membership in a village church is by identification rather than by participation. One becomes a member of an urban congregation by attending worship and becoming involved in the life of that church. In the village, one may attend rarely (Harvest Festivals, Remembrance Sunday, Christmas) or not at all, but still regard oneself as a member. In the city people belong to a church; in the village, the church belongs to the people.
As Clarke goes on to acknowledge, this sense of community ownership is a double-edged sword. On the negative side it can be harder to evangelise nominal Christians who think that they are already “in” by virtue of living in the village and turning up for the occasional church fundraiser.
But positively it represents significantly less alienation from the church than is found in highly-secularised urban situations. There are multiplied connections of which to take advantage to share the gospel: The minister will be expected to take an active part in the local school; often the connection will extend beyond formal chaplaincy roles to involvement on school boards, sports coaching, travelling with young people on school excursions etc. In the city, these are opportunities of which Christian leaders can only dream – in the country they constitute the normal expectations of the community. The minister or church worker is seen both as a local leader and a representative of a community organisation. In urban settings it requires steady work over years to overcome suspicion and develop a successful children’s work. In a rural parish the entire population of the village school is likely to turn out for a summer children’s mission.
Because the church is the community’s church, a large proportion of the community are likely to turn out for key life events such as a funeral, a wedding or for Remembrance Sunday. Christmas and Easter represent significant opportunities for connecting and because a proportion of the community may have some connection with agriculture, there is the potential to sensitively engage with key points of the farming year. An example would be extending a community-wide invitation to a harvest thanksgiving service.
3. Organic Evangelism
Rural churches are rarely able to operate the kind of programmes typical of congregation sizes 150 to 350 in Rothauge’s size classification. Churches this large are common in urban and suburban settings and use a suite of modern rooms and the skills of ministry assistants to provide a menu of events to assimilate newcomers.
What rural churches can do, however, is to provide Christian influence and witness via members who are naturally involved in the community. In my last (rural) charge we had very little in the way of hall space to provide a programmed approach to mission. However, members of the congregation taught in the local school, were active in local business, were founding members of the local community trust, and involved in activities to promote the local Gaelic culture. Such connectivity, where Christians relate to their non-Christian neighbours in informal, non-religious contexts, is a great opportunity for church leaders to equip the saints for being salt within the community.
Notwithstanding all that was said in 2 above, rural areas are not immune from the impact of secularism, the growing divide between church and community and the portrayal of the Christian message as regressive. As we move into times more reminiscent of the first two centuries of the church it will be relational, organic witness that will prove to be more effective than event-based evangelism and programmes. Features of the rural church context which appear as weaknesses may turn out to be strengths with growing secularisation.
4. A Context for Dialogue on Contemporary Issues
Some of the most pressing questions of our day relate to the rural context. Issues such as wildlife conservation, pollution, animal welfare, re-wilding, veganism, genetic engineering and cloning, country sports, and the health of the food chain are discussed in the wine bars of the city, but it is in the countryside where they are an everyday reality. In the past, topical issues such as new town planning, industrial relations, the nuclear threat etc. seemed remote from the countryside. Today, however, there is a sense in which the rural context is more relevant than ever. All these topics call for sustained theological reflection by the church.
Agrarianism is a philosophical outlook that goes back to at least the eighth century BC and is often associated with American founding father, Thomas Jefferson. In its modern form, agrarianism stresses the importance to society of family farms, valuing the local and committing to community, prizing work for what it contributes to human flourishing rather than profit, and respecting creation. Especially in North America, a new Christian agrarianism has developed as a result of the work of Christian thinkers such as Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson and Frederick L Kirschenmann. Their thinking has been implemented by Christian practitioners such as Virginia farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms who is an articulate advocate of regenerative farming. These developments are a significant resource to equip the rural church to speak prophetically to the issues of our day.
IV. Opportunities for Mission in the Rural Context
1. Championing the Rural Community
We began by exploring the question as to whether or not the rural context is a reality and affirmed that it is indeed a distinct context with strengths as well as weaknesses. It is vital to recognise this and to avoid the temptation of trying to build a city church in the countryside. It is important to play to the strengths of the rural context. One of these, we noticed, was the strong residual connection between church and community.
There are many opportunities for church leaders to strengthen this by championing the local community in different ways. It may be that the minister is able to provide strong local leadership by speaking out for the community in the face of threats to the wellbeing of the area. Chairing a local forum or writing on behalf of the community need not distract from gospel ministry and may enhance the perception of the church being for the people.
It is often possible to celebrate local events in the community’s history. Perhaps a memorial service for some tragedy or a celebration of the life of a notable person who came from the area. During the Year of Homecoming in Scotland many churches (including my own) celebrated their local communities through photographic exhibitions, historic trails, open-air services, or specially-written leaflets commemorating the area and especially people with links to the church from the community.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of church leaders loving the area in which they minister, whether that be a city location or a rural location. If a church leader speaks critically of a place – decrying it for being boring or sleepy – or appears to be condescending in any way, then the credibility of his ministry is seriously undermined. But if they speak well of the community, show genuine affection for the history, traditions and activities of the community, and stand up for it when necessary, then the community remembers and turns to them at key moments knowing that here is “someone who is for us”.
One of the challenges that a new minister or church planter has in a rural area is to ask questions of the context. What is important to people in this community? What leisure activities are popular? Where do people go to eat? What is perceived negatively by the community? Rural communities are rooted and take a pride in belonging. By shopping locally, patronising the local restaurant, taking up sports that they may not have considered before, newcomers to the village sensitively overcome the barrier of being perceived as an outsider and instead become a good local.
When young able ministers and church planters go to rural areas and refuse to be allured to “bigger and better” charges in the city, they are seen to identify with the community and their ministry gains credibility with each passing year. Rural areas have been conditioned to believe that they are places with no future – that their usefulness, such as it is, is to provide a flow of resources to the city. Championing the countryside and committing to stay delivers a powerful message to the contrary.
2. Training the People of God in Friendship Evangelism
The typical rural congregation will have multiple contacts within the community. This is as much an outcome of necessity as anything else. Small populations, the need for people to perform several different functions within the community and inter-relatedness mean that one individual may be meaningfully connected to more people than someone who lives in the suburbs and “plugs in” to a workplace in the city. This is a huge opportunity for mission. How thrilled urban evangelists would be to know that their co-workers knew every parent in the school!
However, these connections do not necessarily translate into missionary contacts. Often rural Christians may be blind to these opportunities because they do not look on their community as a mission field. Sometimes the fear of upsetting relationships in a small community makes people reticent to use the opportunities that lie before them.
There is a need to challenge people to be open about their faith and to be bold in sharing the gospel in a natural way. Contextualised evangelism in rural situations will be highly relational, small-scale and all-embracing. Blanket mailshots may not be a good idea, but word of mouth invitations will usually be the best way forward.
Courses like Christianity Explored can be very suitable for rural areas because they are intentionally relational, are best carried out in conjunction with a meal, and are effective with small numbers. Where it is possible to co-operate with other evangelical churches, this greatly enhances the effectiveness of mission as the division between churches is often perceived (correctly) as contributing to fragmentation within the village.
Christians need to be trained in personal evangelism so that they are confident in sharing the gospel message and alerted to the many opportunities that exist all around them.
3. Developing Leadership Through Every-Member Ministry
One of the challenges facing rural mission is the lack of resources to provide paid leadership. In fact, this limitation can be turned on its head and seen as an opportunity for mobilising lay people in mission. The New Testament makes clear that the function of spiritual leaders in the church is not to do all the work but to equip and enable the whole body of Christ to build the church. The classic statement of this principle of “every member ministry” is found in Ephesians 4:11-12:
So, Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.
These works of service involve the “one-anothering” activities to which the readership is exhorted at the close of many of Paul’s letters. To list just a few of these, we have: “encourage one another” (2 Cor 13:11); “speaking to one another in psalms hymns and songs from the Spirit (Eph 5:19); “spur one another on to love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24); “Carry each other’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). But the equipping of the body of Christ also includes training for building up the church through evangelism: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15).
Whilst nearly all Christian leaders agree with the idea that they are not to do all the work but to equip others to be co-workers, in practice it is often a neglected principle. Training others for mission requires intentionality and perseverance and so it is often not carried out.
Where there are financial resources available, the temptation is to fund full or part- time workers to do evangelism. Even where these resources are not there, the temptation is to look for non-stipendiary leaders who will do the work of ministry and mission. It is much more fruitful to recognise the situation as an opportunity for mobilising all the people of God.
Because of rural geography, one congregation is likely to be spread over several villages with gatherings in each one operating semi-autonomously. Such gatherings are under the direct oversight of elders, perhaps with a full-time teaching elder providing vision and spiritual leadership and preaching in rotation in each centre. The use of online communication, which has had such a big impact in 2020/21, is likely to continue to be influential in mission to rural communities, enabling the minister to connect the place where he happens to preach in one instance with the other centres. However, new technology must not perpetuate reliance on the one leader but rather be used to enable training and the multiplying of leaders as well as creating a sense of unity.
One of the primary tasks of the minister/church-planter/salaried church leader will be to envision the eldership with the importance of training the membership in evangelism. Not all the elders will necessarily make good trainers, but the aim should be to have them all committed to the project. The elder begins with a group of people who are enthusiastic to be trained in one-to-one Bible reading, online evangelistic Bible study, sharing testimony, gospel outlines etc. People are trained by being told the principles, then they are shown how these principles are put into practice. There is no greater stimulus to equipping than the leaders who lead by example. Then, finally, the individuals in the group need to become active themselves whilst being supported. As they build up their confidence, they then go on to train others.
In a rural context training up others may be seen as the only solution to a desperate shortage of manpower. The good news is that this is the route that all churches should be pursuing any way! The need is simply more focussed in the countryside. There may, of course, be resistance to moving from a traditional pattern. However, the fragility of the situation in new and long-established churches means that there should be a greater willingness to move in this direction.
4. Building Partnership with City Churches
Highlighting the city as a mission field was undoubtedly necessary but, as so often happens, the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. We need not seek balance by decrying urban mission; both urban and rural mission are clearly needed, and urbanisation is an undisputed phenomenon. What we need is a proper recognition that what we perceive as being small and unimportant places may be seen very differently from a heavenly perspective. A fruitful corrective can be the willingness of city churches to partner in mission.
There is a general dynamic whereby urban centres concentrate resources by channelling people and commodities from the hinterland to enrich the centre. City churches often grow in like manner: Country churches put in the hard graft of evangelising young people, discipling them and bringing them into church membership, only for them to leave for large, gathered city congregations just when they have most to offer. Gospel partnership between city and rural churches addresses this imbalance.
If partnerships with city churches are to be fruitful, then it must be a partnership of equals. There is no place for the city team coming with a superior attitude, assuming that they have all the answers for the country folk; imperialism kills partnership. Nor should the country church look to its city partner as though it was a rich uncle ready with handouts of money, people and skills. Rural Christians must recognise that they come to the table with a contribution to make; city teams must come willing to listen to the locals before acting. They must be ready to learn from their time in the country context and expect that there will be aspects of rural spirituality which are needed as correctives for city life.
Such church partnerships mirror the symbiosis between country and town that is seen in Old Testament Israel where the people of the land were custodians of a rich heritage and were in constant spiritual interaction with Jerusalem. City churches can supply the larger numbers of young people needed to mount effective youth missions, train in mercy ministry and counselling and help to fund trainees for gospel ministry. Rural churches can model long-term commitment to the local church and community, the importance of relational witness and intergenerational fellowship.
5. Holistic Mission
Finally, the rural context presents the opportunity/challenge of developing a truly holistic theology. At heart, such a theology is quite simple. I have written elsewhere of the triangle of relationships which is presented in Scripture as fundamental to our human situation. These are our relation to God, to one another, and to the earth. These relationships were distorted by the Fall and are substantially healed by the gospel; they will be restored completely when Christ comes again.
It is an important part of the church’s task to show how the gospel addresses each of these three relationships. It is true that the primary relationship is that of people to their Creator – until this is addressed then interpersonal relationships and the issue of the groaning creation cannot be addressed. For that reason, the minister/church planter must recognise that he is called to “preach Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). The evangelical church has been rightly anxious not to allow social justice issues to displace the primary task of alerting men and women to their fractured relationship with their Maker and the need to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
However, reconciled men and women live in the real world and face a hundred new questions each day regarding how they work and save and play and shop and eat and relate to new technology and global trends. There is a need in every church to teach Christians how to develop a Christian world view. In the rural context that must include issues of creation care, sustainable food production, the importance of place and community. Our message must take note of our context if it is to be authentic.
When it shrinks back from addressing all aspects of that triangle of relationships fractured by the Fall and healed by the gospel, the church can be guilty of a functional dualism that divides life into the spiritual and the secular. Wendell Berry spoke with compelling insight about this tendency in a lecture given to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky:
If we are to maintain any sense of coherence or meaning in our lives, we cannot tolerate the present utter disconnection between religion and economy. By “economy” I do not mean “economics” which is the study of money-making, but rather the ways of human housekeeping, the ways by which the human household is situated and maintained within the household of nature. To be uninterested in economy is to be uninterested in the practice of religion; it is to be uninterested in culture and character. Probably the most urgent question now faced by people who would adhere to the Bible is this: What sort of economy would be responsible to the holiness of life? What, for Christians, would be the economy, the practices and restraints of “right livelihood”? I do not believe that organized Christianity now has any idea. I think its idea of Christian economy is no more or less than the industrial economy – which is an economy firmly founded on the seven deadly sins and the breaking of all ten of the Ten Commandments. Obviously if Christianity is going to survive as more than a respecter and comforter of profitable iniquities, then Christians, regardless of their organizations, are going to have to interest themselves in economy – which is to say, in nature and in work. They are going to have to give workable answers to those who say we cannot live without this economy that is destroying us and our world, who see the murder of Creation as the only way of life.
Here then is one of the greatest challenges to the rural church. Its context provides a workshop for these issues of “economy” to be worked out Christianly. There is a developing literature of Christian thought on the rural situation, but it must impact the congregation. The church planter or church revitalizer must equip the people of God to think through the issues that relate to their context. They must organise adult Christian education classes and seminars, distribute literature and initiate discussion groups on the subject. The people of God are then equipped to put Christian principles into practice in their work or to discuss the issues meaningfully with non-Christian friends. We do this because it is the right thing to do as people born again of the Holy Spirit. We honour God by yielding to his sovereignty over all of life. But additionally, in this way we build bridges with those who are not yet Christians. In this way we command a hearing from our sceptical neighbours who have long considered Christianity an irrelevance to their lives.
The rural context remains quite different from the urban context for mission despite many cultural changes. It is a great mistake to try to make a city church of a rural church. The rural church should not seek to be a scaled-down version of the city church; it is quite different. It is a different mission field with different opportunities and souls that are as valuable as they are anywhere else.
Acknowledging this is an important beginning, but it is only a beginning. The strengths and challenges of the rural context mentioned above are common to most situations but there is always a great deal of work to be done in thinking through the particular features of each individual community.
There is, in truth, no one size that fits all and it is important to acknowledge the challenges and play to the strengths of a rural setting to the glory of God.
* Ivor MacDonald is minister of the Free Church of Scotland congregation Hope Church Coatbridge. He ministered previously in two rural congregations and prior to that worked as an agricultural advisor.
Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 154. back
Wendell Berry, “God and Country” in What are people for? (New York: North Point Press, 1990), 97. back
See, for example Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 2001). back
Keller, Center Church, 148. back
John Dawson, Taking Our Cities for God (Altamonte Springs FL.: Creation House, 1989), 34. back
https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html (accessed 8 January 2021). back
Erin Zimmerman https://www1.cbn.com/BibleArcheology/archive/2010/12/19/five-things-you-didnt-know-about-nazareth (accessed 23 January 2021). back
Quoted in Donnie Griggs, Small Town Jesus (Damascus MD: EverTruth, 2016), 49. back
Sam Walton, Sam Walton: Made in America (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 139-140. back
John Clarke, Rural Ministry (https://www.ministrytoday.org.uk/magazine/issues/13/61) (accessed 8 January 2021). back
Arlin Rothauge, Sizing up a congregation for new member ministry (New York: Seabury Press, 1982). See also Paul Beasley-Murray, (https://www.paulbeasleymurray.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08What_Type_of_Church_is_Yours_Autumn_2008.pdf) accessed 8 January 2021, and Roy M. Oswald, (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/54c7d7ede4b03a45e09cd270/t/5aa00b43652dea8c73c46299/1520438089615/HowToMinisterEffectivelyInFamilyPastoralProgramandCorporate-SizedChurches.pdf) accessed 11 May 2021. back
Walter Bruegemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 2. back
David Storey, Territory: The Claiming of Space (Harlow, Essex: Prentice Hall, 2001), 17. back
Keller, Center Church, 148. back
Clarke, Rural Ministry. back
My previous congregation was Kilmuir and Stenscholl Church of Scotland, Isle of Skye. back
See his The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, (New York: Avon, 1977). back
See, for example, Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to this Place (Berkeley CA: Counterpoint, 1996). back
Frederick L. Kirschenmann, Developing an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher (Berkeley CA: Counterpoint, 2010). back
Griggs, Small Town Jesus, 143. back
Clarke, Rural Ministry. back
These are not new insights of course but are recognised as essential paths to equipping the whole people of God. See, for example, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine: The ministry mind-shift that changes everything (Sydney: Matthias Media 2009); Harry Reeder and David Swavely, From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church (Phillipsburg NJ.: P&R Publishing, 2008). back
Ivor MacDonald, Land of the Living: Christian Reflections on the Countryside (College Station TX.: Virtualbookworm.com, 2005). back
Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” in The Art of the Commonplace: The agrarian essays of Wendell Berry (ed. Norman Wirzba; Emeryville CA: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2002), 309. back