By Justin Horey
Imagine you live a half hour from the nearest pizza place, and no one delivers. That’s not the premise for a new reality television show. It’s how Dr. Barney Wells, graduate academic dean and associate professor of Bible and ministry at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University, playfully defines “rural communities” for his undergraduate students.
Although millions of Americans live in rural communities, small-town people are often overlooked and misunderstood by sociologists and economists more focused on serving larger population centers. Likewise, few have studied or analyzed what it takes to succeed and thrive as a ministry in a rural community.
Wells is one of fewer than a dozen people in the world with a doctor of ministry degree in rural church work. Randy Kirk is the senior minister with First Capital Christian Church in Corydon, Indiana—a church of 900 in a town of just 3,000—and the founder of the Large Church, Small Town Summit. Christian Standard spoke with Wells and Kirk about the challenges of rural ministry and how to overcome them.
Fishing in a Small Pond
Clearly, the small and sparse population inherent in a rural setting is one of the primary challenges of rural ministry. Today, in many rural counties across the United States, small towns are getting even smaller. This “negative population growth” provides an even greater challenge to rural churches. Kirk noted it’s not easy to be fishers of men in small and shrinking “ponds.”
Ministering to a small population, Kirk said, requires patience and endurance. “[Change] won’t happen overnight. In a rural church context, I think it takes longer to earn people’s trust.”
While it may not be a popular ministry strategy, Kirk said it’s essential to be patient and go slowly to earn the trust of the people in a rural congregation. “You’ve got to be there long enough that they trust you.” Without that trust, it’s impossible to implement any new programs or methods that might create changes in the church.
Building trust means building relationships. Kirk and Wells agree that to succeed in rural ministry, you have to be comfortable being relational with people. “If you don’t like people,” Wells said, “you’re going to struggle.”
Rural ministers must be patient to develop relationships, but Wells cautioned that people in rural communities sometimes grow tired of relationally focused ministry programs. Whereas suburban churches generally have to work at building community, intimacy, and accountability through small groups, Wells said, “rural communities already have more community, intimacy, and accountability than they can stand!” The most successful small groups in rural settings, therefore, tend to be sermon-based or interest-based.
Embracing Change, Slowly
Building trust over time is also essential for rural ministers seeking to change a church’s culture or programs. “Agrarian people are slow to accept change,” Kirk said. Agricultural practices and process don’t typically change in a remarkable way from year to year, nor does small-town culture. As a result, ministers seeking to implement rapid changes in rural churches can quickly become frustrated.
In rural areas, Kirk said, “you just have to go slow.”
In suburban settings, dynamic churches are able to grow numerically even when longtime attendees fail to embrace change and leave the congregation. But in rural communities, where the population is small and stable, churches can’t allow “turnover” and still hope to grow. As Wells said, “You have to work at building consensus.”
Small for a Reason
The few people who call a small town home typically have grown accustomed to small things—small stores, small schools, and yes, small churches. Kirk said, “Small towns are small for a reason.” Since people in rural communities tend to like things small, it can be very difficult to grow a church in a small town.
Wells pointed out that smaller communities also tend to have lots of churches. He said it’s not uncommon for a town of 2,000 people to have as many as 20 churches—all of them drawing fewer than 100 people each week.
Furthermore, “Small-town people tend to be very loyal to their small town,” Wells said. It can be very difficult for a rural church in a small town to attract people from neighboring communities. For that reason, churches “outside of town”—out in the country—tend to grow larger than congregations located in small towns. “It’s tough to get over 400 as a church in a small town,” he said.
When numeric growth is elusive, one way small-town churches can maximize their impact is by collaborating with other local congregations. Wells has observed churches cooperating on benevolence ministries and missions projects to achieve together what they couldn’t accomplish on their own. In his experience, it’s a common and effective approach.
Turning Faith into Action
When ministering among a stable, rural population, one of the challenges is what Wells called “a mistaken emphasis on legacy.” Kirk was more blunt, saying, “Ministers in rural areas have to overcome the past.”
Old methods can become entrenched in any culture, but Kirk has seen it be a particular problem for rural congregations.
“Rural churches sometimes value preference over purpose. You’ve got to flip it,” he said.
“It’s easy to keep a building open,” Wells said, “it’s harder to keep a Christian witness going.”
Ministers in rural areas must teach their churches to “keep a Christian witness going,” and Kirk offered a simple prescription: “I believe that to grow disciples, we have to turn belief into action.”
At First Capital Christian Church, Kirk and his team refer to those actions as “faith catalysts.”
“Faith isn’t faith until it moves from something you think to something you do,” Kirk said. Churches are able to do this in a rural context, he said, because “rural people see being a ‘neighbor’ as a reality, and not just ‘church speak.’ Rural people will drop what they’re doing to help their neighbor.”
To put faith into action, First Capital throws a free party for the community annually called “Fall Down on the Fairgrounds.” Between 4,000 and 5,000 people attend each September to eat, play, and experience the love of Christ. While all are welcome to attend, Kirk said the event is designed to bless the impoverished in the community—single moms, grandparents raising their grandchildren, and anyone else struggling with financial hardship.
Last school year, First Capital also provided new shoes and snow boots to every child in the local elementary school. “That’s what neighbors do,” Kirk said.
The Urban-Rural Connection
Surprisingly, much of what works in inner-city ministry also works for rural churches, Wells said. Despite the many obvious differences between urban communities and rural towns, Wells noted that both communities tend to have older, established neighborhoods where people know their neighbors and family members live nearby.
Kirk pointed out that, much like urban congregations, rural churches are often made up of significant numbers of people serving the disenfranchised.
A number of ministry programs and strategies that have largely been abandoned by suburban churches work well for churches in rural settings. Wells has observed that after-school programs, one-on-one discipleship, sermon-based or project-based small groups, and Vacation Bible School are often effective tools for reaching and discipling people in rural and urban communities alike.
Breaking through Barriers
Naturally, when rural churches do begin to grow, new challenges arise. Wells pointed out that as a church grows, the staff grows, which requires a shift in the leadership style. While some numeric growth barriers are fairly common, Wells believes they are overemphasized.
“The biggest growth barrier in a rural church is between the leader’s ears,” Wells said.
If the senior leader can embrace a new, decentralized leadership style where the responsibilities and relationships of ministry are shared by multiple people, the church can continue to expand its impact. If the minister is unwilling or unable to share the responsibility for individual discipleship, the church’s growth will be limited.
Numerically, Wells said, the greatest barrier for rural churches is growing from 125 to 225. But even that is largely a mental barrier. Once a church reaches 225, he said, “the church has to start thinking differently.”
Still, some small churches don’t want to grow beyond the point “where everybody knows your name.” The staff and congregants alike often struggle to reconcile the Great Commission and the second greatest commandment.
“A church ought to be growing, but a church ought to be relational,” Wells said. Those two values sometimes seem to conflict in growing churches—especially in rural churches that have traditionally valued relationships over growth.
Kirk remembers that when FCCC began to reach capacity on Sunday mornings, a number of people in the congregation wanted to plant a new church instead of starting a second worship service. Kirk maintained that it was better stewardship to add a second service than to launch an entirely new church, and today FCCC offers three worship services each weekend—including one on Saturday.
Kirk said, “Every barrier has fear at its root”—fear of the unknown, fear of offending other generations, or fear of losing intimacy among church members. But in his view, overcoming those fears is essential to success in rural ministry. “Trust is overcoming fear.”
Kirk encourages small-town ministers to look for the fear behind any and every growth barrier.
“As a church leader, ask yourself: What’s the fear? How can I build trust? How can I rely on God to overcome it?”
Success in rural ministry requires more than the right tactics at the right time.
“You also need enough self-confidence to know that strategies from big churches won’t work,” Wells said.
Since a majority of ministry resources, conferences, and programs are designed by and for suburban churches, rural ministry requires ongoing discernment to separate the relevant ideas from the irrelevant.
Sadly, one of the most significant challenges to rural ministry is a stigma among other ministry professionals. Wells said well-meaning ministers can inadvertently discourage others from pursuing rural ministry, but he and Kirk were both quick to point out that people in small communities need to hear the gospel as much as anyone. “Those people are just as lost as people anywhere else,” Wells said.
In rural communities, the rewards of faithful ministry can be dramatic—if less immediate than in the suburbs. One advantage of rural culture is that entire families are regularly saved together, as often happened in the New Testament. At First Capital Christian, Kirk said, it’s not uncommon to lead one person to Christ and wind up winning “a family of 25.”
“I believe strongly that ministry in small towns and rural settings has to be approached differently than an urban or suburban context,” Kirk said. “I also have a concern that those interested in ministry are pulled by the magnetic force of the megachurch away from considering ministry in small towns and rural contexts. Those people need Christ, too. And they deserve our best as well.”
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.