EJ ONLINE: Ministry in Rural America

Are rural pastors and churches doomed merely to get by the best they can with what they have — to be satisfied with smallness and embrace it?

by Curtis Pryor

Pastor Rob struggled to focus during the long and boring drive home from the annual spring pastor’s conference. While hopelessly searching for radio stations along a desolate stretch of freeway, Rob’s thoughts tortured him. He felt genuinely inspired by the presentations he’d heard at the event. Some of the most well-known experts in church growth delivered the messages with passion and excellence. But the reality of his rural church ministry persistently interrupted his sweet daydream of a cutting-edge church — led by him, of course.

Many pastors across America face a similar struggle. It revolves around a desire to embrace current, seemingly foolproof methods of church growth and the reality of a rural context that does not always fall into lockstep with conventional wisdom regarding the church growth movement.

Most rural pastors do not pursue their ministry to fly beneath the radar and avoid the stress of urban ministry. On the contrary, the majority pray for God’s guidance. Rural pastors go where God leads them, with an expectant heart. Pastor Rob represents a multitude of rural pastors in America — men and women who yearn to see revitalization among the faithful. They daily strive to help their flocks live out faith in the community.

Pastor Rob gets it; he understands. He possesses a clear knowledge of foundational things: evangelism, nurturing, and discipling new believers. He seeks to equip Christians to continue this circular, ongoing process so that the Church will fulfill its role in the kingdom of God. He is confident about God’s will for the church, whether rural, urban, or somewhere in between. It is all about the Great Commission, clearly proclaimed by Jesus: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19,20).

Pastor Rob strongly embraces the vital importance of Holy Spirit empowerment in equipping the Church to fulfill God’s mission (Acts 1:8). In other words, this pastor, like so many dedicated rural pastors, possesses a biblically sound understanding regarding the role of the body of Christ in this world. He knows what the Church is designed to do and that the Holy Spirit is the empowering source who makes it all possible. However, the gap between “getting it” and actually doing it feels daunting much of the time.

Hardworking and steadfast pastors throughout rural America are called and willing to do the work. However, the challenges of rural ministry in America have a way of causing a unique form of paralysis to set in. In the face of the Great Commission, rural pastors feel a sense of urgency that may cause them to “freeze” because of a lack of time, workers, and necessary support to fulfill the mission. In this state of paralysis, pastors can succumb to discouragement to the point of considering giving up altogether. In addition to feeling overwhelmed, they may feel unqualified to perform the wide array of tasks that require attention. Thankfully, many pastors win the battle of paralysis through prayer and patience.

Rural pastors, like most pastors, read books, magazines, blogs, and social media posts to gain inspiration for the task at hand. They are intelligent, realizing that in their real world of smaller communities and unique cultures, implementation is not a plug-and-play proposition. Even programs specifically designed for the rural setting are not one-size-fits-all. Application is not a simple task because the rural context is unique, with each community offering its own set of challenges.

Are rural pastors and churches doomed merely to get by the best they can with what they have — to be satisfied with smallness and embrace it? Or do they need to dig in and find a way to implement the programs and principles available in all the books and conferences, whatever it takes? Neither! Prayer-driven, creatively thoughtful, biblically sound common sense is the way to approach ministry in rural America. Rural pastors and churches must not be content with the status quo. Jesus’ strident command to go and make disciples of all nations goes out to His entire Church — in every location, population, culture, and circumstance.

Rural pastors can glean a great deal from the abundance of quality church growth ideas available. Much of the content is applicable and should not be dismissed outright, with the attitude that only “big city” churches can use the information. On the other hand, rural pastors must recognize the importance of immersing themselves in the culture of their community — in the people and what motivates them — customizing their approach to the shape of the community.

For example, a rural farming community presents a completely different set of challenges than that of a rural bedroom community populated by a large number of commuters. Some communities lean heavily toward Mormonism, Catholicism, or perhaps a combination of several prominent religious traditions. Others have a mix of various ethnic groups, while some contain a high percentage of one particular group.

Economics vary greatly from community to community. Rural ministry efforts must adapt to the setting to realize a positive outcome. The more a pastor takes ownership of the unique mission field, the more encouraged and determined the pastor will become.

Specific methods and programs have great value, but a leader must first address foundational issues dealing with character and motivation. Although the virtues of patience, commitment, and adaptability reflect what is needed in all pastoral work, regardless of context, they are especially pertinent within the distinctive and challenging world of rural ministry in America. Most rural pastors do not have the blessing of a large staff or an abundant supply of equipped volunteers to come alongside them in ministry, especially in the early days of a pastorate. Financial challenges can also slow down progress in a major way.

If the rural pastor is not able to follow God’s direction prayerfully, humbly, and patiently, things will eventually fall apart. If the pastor is not willing to commit fully to the mission field of the community, why stay? The pastor must be flexible and able to adapt to cultural, economic, and social challenges in the rural context.

Indispensable character traits of the rural pastor include patience, commitment, and adaptability.

Pray for Patience

Someone has said, tongue in cheek: Don’t pray for patience. Rural pastor, you certainly should pray for patience. Patience is your best friend because rural ministry moves at a unique pace — usually slow, or slower, with occasional bursts of frantic activity that can overwhelm you.

Don’t let this discourage you. Common sense informs us that in a setting where staff, workers, and finances present a significant challenge, progress takes longer. In a world demanding instantaneous satisfaction, waiting for results from your efforts can drive you crazy — unless you cultivate patience. You risk paralysis if you don’t pace yourself by consistently praying, studying, and listening. Progress will come. You can count on it if you keep your eyes on the prize, patiently designing and implementing (along with your leaders) a biblically sound purpose and process that fits your local setting like a glove.

One of the most important areas requiring endurance in rural ministry is the development of leaders and workers. You will be tempted simply to put together a plan and try to make it work on your own. In the short run, it may seem easier to do it yourself because no one else is willing or qualified. However, this approach is destined to fail because you will eventually become weary, depressed, and irritable.

The Church accomplishes the work of the Great Commission by working together in unity. As the body of Christ, God designed the Church to operate with all members moving within their areas of gifting. The rural pastor would do well to set aside time for the preparation of leaders and workers rather than rushing ahead of them, hoping they will catch on at some point and join the cause. Practically speaking, the rural pastor sets the tone, demonstrating a sound strategy of ministry for the people to observe and adopt over time. From a biblical perspective, pastors are obligated to model servant-leadership, leading by example.

Developing leaders and workers necessitates clearly communicating a biblically sound purpose and process the church can pursue. This preparation phase mandates that the pastor listen to the people in order to make sure everyone is in unity. It will certainly take time for them to catch the vision. If the pastor is willing to be patient, investing time in developing leaders will provide an amazing season of growth for everyone involved. By intentionally listening to the people, the pastor will uncover some valuable information. They know the history, challenges, and needs of their community better than anyone. Patiently listening and learning from them will bring priceless insight that can powerfully influence any ministry strategy.

Commit Yourself for the Long Haul

When following the call to take on the pastorate of a rural church, do not go unless you are prepared to be there until God releases you — even if that means staying the rest of your life. Most would agree with this viewpoint. However, it is one thing to espouse a philosophy of long-term commitment, but when push comes to shove, do you really mean it?

You cannot expect transformation in your church and community if you are not willing to see it through. If, in the back of your mind, you are contemplating an escape route, how can you bring passion, energy, or anointing to the task set before you? Committing to see it through forces you to look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Did you really mean it when you said you will remain here until God moves you? Are you willing to make the sacrifices necessary to love and serve these people with your whole heart?”

Long-term commitment does not mean the pastor simply settles in and rides the wave until it dies. Making the commitment to be there means pledging to roll up your sleeves, jump into the trenches, and do the work of Ephesians 4:11–16: equipping the flock for service in the Kingdom, partnering with the Holy Spirit to see them mature and unite in their calling as members of the body of Christ.

The commitment of any pastor, by definition, requires teaching and preaching as an absolute top priority. A parallel commitment the rural pastor must pursue is a well-designed, intentional plan of discipleship, creatively using whatever means make the most sense in that church community. Here’s where common sense comes in. The rural church does not necessarily need to mimic urban church programs to accomplish transformative discipleship. Small groups make sense, but implementation may look completely different compared to small groups in the city. The point is, get discipleship done because it is essential for church growth and health. Follow the examples of Jesus and the Early Church, applying these biblical templates to your setting.

The rural pastor can certainly lead a Great Commission church, but it will not materialize overnight. It takes long-term commitment simply because time is required to see all the pieces begin to come together. Persistence, prayer, and a determination to see it through will bring a harvest of lives transformed for time and eternity.

Do Your Stretching Exercises

Flexibility pays off in the physical realm. Athletes learn that stretching and body conditioning protect them from injury and enable them to perform better on the field. If they neglect these elements of their training, injury or inferior performance may follow.

Why is adaptability so important for the rural pastor? Every community is unique in its culture, ethnic makeup, economics, and religious climate. In addition to measurable demographics, each community has its own personality, history, and level of receptivity to the gospel. Therefore, the pastor and local church will find more success by adapting their approach.

What makes your community tick? Is it high school sports, camping and fishing, bird watching, or a prominent family that influences everything in town? What is the spiritual climate? Maybe your community is apathetic toward God in general. Take time to observe your community at a deeper level. This means spending time where the people hang out. Then pray about how to adapt your personal strategy and your church’s strategy to impact your area more effectively. In the process of adapting your approach, be careful not to compromise the message of Jesus Christ.

We have no shortage of amazingly creative ideas from which to draw to help our churches grow into healthy, biblically sound places of worship. However, without the willingness to be patient, committed, and adaptable in the rural setting, we unnecessarily deprive ourselves — and our churches — of the opportunity to fulfill God’s plan.