Rural Compassion for the Harvest — Small Towns, Big Possibilities
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By Steve Donaldson and Kent Anderson
Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson, authors of The Externally Focused Church, state, “If your church vanished, would your community weep? Would anyone notice? Would anyone care?”
When people in your community face challenges, does your church immediately come to their minds? Is your church showing God’s mercy, giving people what they need?
For the pastor in the smaller community, Rusaw and Swanson believe, “The question, ‘How big is our church?’ should be replaced with ‘How big is the impact our church is making in our community?”1
Nearly 50 million Americans live in nonmetropolitan areas. Using the federal government’s definition of rural, 49 percent of Assemblies of God churches are in the open country, village, and small town category. Pastors and churches in these communities have a tremendous opportunity to reach their communities through compassion ministry.
Rural America’s Poverty
Rural America is not, as many believe, simply swaying corn, picket fences, county fairs, and tractor pulls. Rural America is no longer Mayberry RFD. Poverty is very much a part of rural America.
Pembroke, Illinois, population 3,000, is 70 miles south of Chicago. It is Illinois’ most impoverished community. Fifty-five percent of the residents live beneath the poverty level and 40 percent live without running water. Some homes are without electricity and have dirt floors. The unemployment rate in 2010 was 44 percent, and the average family income was $14,000, up from $9,700 in 2005. Pembroke has no bank, drug store, medical facility, and few paved roads.
In 2005, Oprah Winfrey dedicated a show on Pembroke. She said, “I grew up poor with no running water. It’s shocking that there are people who don’t have running water in their homes.”2
In that show, Pastor Jon Dyson described the town: “What’s really amazing is these people have survived here all this time with little or nothing with third-world conditions in some areas.” Dyson says every day is a struggle for survival. The town receives few tax dollars, so it cannot afford emergency services, police and fire departments, trash pickup, tornado warning systems, and animal control. Adding to their plight, on June 9, 2010, without warning, a tornado struck Pembroke. Even though the state had awarded the community $32,000 for an emergency warning system, the town never received the money.3
Another example of need in rural America took place recently in Arkansas. One of our partners delivered a care package that included toothbrushes to a family of seven living in a mobile home. As our partner entered the home, a 7-year-old girl looked into the package and quickly removed a toothbrush. Tears streamed down her face. Our partner wondered, Did I do something wrong? Is it the wrong color?
The girl disappeared down the hallway. In a matter of minutes she returned with the new toothbrush in one hand and an old toothbrush in the other. The bristles on the old toothbrush were worn down to nothing. The girl said, “Thanks, ma’m, for bringing us this new toothbrush. We’ve all been using this one.”
The following statistics reveal the needs in many of America’s rural areas.
- 88 percent of persistent poverty counties are rural.4
- One in five children in rural America live in deep poverty.5
- A rural teen is more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol than an urban teen.6
- 15.1 percent of rural Americans are considered poor compared to12.5 percent of urban Americans.7
- Rural areas have more single-guardian households.8
- Families in rural areas have less access to services, support for disabilities, and quality educational opportunities.9
Rural areas struggle with unemployment, poverty, substance abuse, and domestic abuse. According to Pew Research Service, the leading problem in rural America is drug abuse. A rural pastor in Missouri told us the main sources of income in his community of 500 people are welfare assistance and meth production.
Pastors who live in these situations understand the vastness of the poverty around them. They may wonder, with their own limited resources, how they can minister to those in need. Many times this process starts with a change in focus.
Becoming Externally Focused
If being externally focused is important, how can a rural church become externally focused? Here are a few guidelines to help churches move toward this objective:
Plan wisely. You may need to change your church’s outreach mentality to where it sees cleaning up the local park is as spiritual as doing an Easter musical. A pastor must seek God’s timetable for change. It takes wisdom to blend cultures, generations, styles, and preferences in a rural church.
Pray persistently. Every church must move forward in outreach knee first. The best place to start is with the pastor and leadership. Pray for the church to reach hurting people. Set aside a Wednesday night or Sunday night service for corporate prayer. Organize a prayer walk through your town.
Proclaim it. The pastor must regularly and consistently teach and preach on evangelism, outreach, and serving. Have members of your congregation share victories they experience in their outreaches. Every church member needs to realize that no act of service is too menial.
Participate regularly. The pastor is the most important person to get involved in serving and building relationships in the community. When you share stories of personal wins in building relationships in your community and serving others, you will encourage and ignite your congregation to do the same. You cannot teach what you do not know, and you cannot lead where you will not go.
Reaching Your Community
A change from an inward to outward focus is only part of the solution. The church must also find practical ways to reach and serve the community. Here are 11 practical outreach ideas rural churches can implement:
1. Assess the needs of your community. Pastors can uncover needs in their community that others are not addressing. Websites such as epodunk.com, census.gov, and dataplace.org will help you assess your community. Ask members of your community what they feel are their most pressing needs. Ask, “In your opinion, what would be the best thing our church could do for our town?”
2. Meet with community gatekeepers. A rural pastor must be intentional in developing solid relationships with community leaders. Gatekeepers can be the mayor, school principal, high school coach, or others. Community leaders know firsthand the issues their community is facing.
3. Become a friend of your school system. The question every rural church must ask is, “How can we wrap our arms around our local school?” In a rural setting, the school is the hub of the community. We recently talked to a school principal, and he said, “I think the church folks in this town hate us. They only show up to my office and school board meetings and complain.”
Some churches bring cinnamon rolls to the teachers’ lounge and coffee and donuts to bus drivers. They provide reading buddies, do after-school programs, honor teachers and staff, provide supplies for classrooms, and do projects around the school.
4. Community involvement. How can the church plug into the community calendar? What events are taking place throughout the year that your church could join? What sporting events and holiday celebrations can the church be involved in? What does the community offer in the way of meals on wheels, senior center activities, etc., in which your church can partner?
Offer an event for your community such as a kidsfest in the park, mega sports camp, hunting clinic, horse-riding clinic, etc. Connect with your firefighters and police and host a hero day for them and their families.
5. Have an adoption program. What groups, places, or organizations could your church adopt? This program could include adopting teachers, social workers, firefighters, sports teams, classrooms, the senior center, or the local park. One church in Kansas adopted the town’s main street and the youth washed all the windows of the downtown businesses. A rural church in Iowa painted the benches on Main Street.
6. Become a specialty provider. Many rural churches do not have the capacity to run a food pantry, clothing closet, or thrift store. Become the church that has a specialty item — diapers, baby formula, underwear and socks, hygiene products.
One church in Montana offers firewood for people in the area. Another church in West Virginia designated a Sunday School room for teachers and offered them supplies for their classroom.
7. Offer a need-based program. Offer a program based on the findings of your assessment. Programs like Celebrate Recovery, Marriage Encounter, Financial Peace, Angel Food ministry, single moms ministry, and MOPS can be a way to reach out to people in need.
8. Create a helping hands ministry. Organize a Sunday School class or small group focused solely on outreach. The class or small group prays, plans, and implements ministry to the community. One church asks each ministry to do one service project each year. A church then could have ministry going on in its community every month.
9. Prepare your church for emergency response. Partner with organizations such as Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), Red Cross, emergency personnel, etc. Train church members to be first responders when disaster hits.
10. Conduct a one-day outreach. Plan a day for an outreach that might include distributing school supplies, clothing, shoes, coats, etc. Partner with social services, such as medical, dental, and businesses. A rural church in Illinois conducted a one-day outreach called Sharefest and had over 600 in attendance. The town’s population is 2,000.
11. Partner with suburban churches. These relationships include opportunities to serve the vision of the rural church. Suburban churches can take mission trips to small towns for evangelistic outreach, to work on facilities, and for humanitarian assistance. Some create a sister church relationship where they assist financially. Larger congregations with specialized staff can create structure for ministry to children, youth, seniors, or worship.
Many rural pastors are bivocational and live on a limited income. Suburban churches can bless the rural pastor financially. One suburban church takes its Wednesday night offering to help rural pastors and also has a closet of new items available to rural pastors. Churches that have leadership training resources can make these materials available to rural pastors who do not have funds to buy these items.
Suburban churches also work with Rural Compassion to sponsor weekend training for about 20 rural pastors and their spouses. This training teaches rural pastors how to effectively reach their communities.
One church contacted the school principal for a way it could serve the school. The principal asked if they would paint and clean up some of the classrooms during the summer. The church sent a group to clean and paint a classroom of a teacher who was unchurched. At the end of the day the teacher commented, “If this is Christianity, then I am interested.”
If we want to influence our community, the best way is the Jesus way — to serve into the lives of the people in our town. “The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
The impact of a powerful Pentecostal church in a community should make it a better place for people to live. As General Superintendent George O. Wood said, “We must have substantial evidence of being baptized in the Holy Spirit.” Our prayer should be, “Let my heart break with the things that break God’s heart.”
The Old Testament law sets a pattern of caring for the needs in our communities, “ ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien’ ” (Leviticus 23:22).
Every rural church needs to have a corner of its ministry focused on reaching outside its four walls with the love of Christ. “When being is divorced from doing, pious thoughts become a substitute for washing dirty feet.”10 How big of an impact does your church have in your community?
1. Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson, The Externally Focused Church (Loveland, Colorado: Group, 2004).
2. “Special Report: Inside the Life of America,” from The Oprah Winfrey Show, October 12, 2005. http://www.oprah.com/world/Invisible-Lives. Accessed April 25, 2011.
3. “Pembroke Township: Mired in Poverty, Now Devastated by Tornadoes, With No Help in Sight” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/09/pembroke-township-mired-i_n_606337.html. Accessed April 25, 2011.
4. Bruce Weber, “Poverty in Rural America: What Do We Know and What Do We Need To Know?” from In the Shadows of Poverty: Strengthening the Rural Poverty Research Capacity of the South (A Conference by Southern Rural Development Center and RUPRI Rural Poverty Research Center Memphis, Tennessee, July 21, 2004).
5. United States Department of Agriculture, “Rural Poverty at a Glance” in Rural Development Research Report No. 100 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004). http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/rdrr100/rdrr100.pdf. Accessed April 25,2011.
6. John Grever, “Rx Drug Abuse Heaviest in Rural Teens” in MedPage Today November 1, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.medpagetoday.com/Psychiatry/Addictions/23101. Accessed April 25, 2011.
7. Leif Jensen, “At the Razor’s Edge: Building Hope for America’s Poor” in Rural Realities, 10, no. 1 (2006): 1–8. http://www.ruralsociology.org/StaticContent/Publications/Ruralrealities/pubs/RuralRealities1-1.pdf. Accessed April 25, 2011.
8. Eric P. Jensen, Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does To Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. (Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD, 2009).
10. Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-up, and Burnt Out (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2000).