Wednesday, September 1, 2021

An Affirmation for the Rural Church in Mission

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I was teaching a Course of Study class on mission recently, and several of my students asked how they could lead mission in their small, rural, elderly, and tired churches. I appreciated the sincerity and the trace of anguish in their question. There are a lot of small, rural, elderly, and tired churches in the United States, and they don’t fit with the models we usually hold up for church success.

Their question also resonated with me personally. I’ve spent half of my life living in towns of less than 10,000 people, and the majority of the churches I’ve been associated with have worshipped under 100 people on a Sunday, some of them as low as 12-20 people. I know the sense of repressed grief in good, faithful church people as they look around at Sunday school classrooms that haven’t been used in a decade and as they try to figure out whether they can scrape together just enough volunteers to hold their annual charity fundraiser at least one more time. I know that it’s not just the church; that small towns in general feel left behind by the modern world. I’ve walked throughout downtowns that are just a hair salon, a restaurant, and a lot of empty buildings. I know that the best and brightest frequently leave small towns because there are no good jobs locally. And I’ve sat in pews where 80% of the congregants are over 65 because of this combination of younger generations leaving for work or just not coming to church at all anymore.

Yet, despite all these winds blowing against small, rural, elderly churches, I do believe that God still calls them to participate in God’s mission. I believe there is good they can do in the world. God does not call us to be successful in the world’s eyes; God calls us to be faithful, and there is plenty of room yet for faithfulness, even in small, rural, elderly churches.

So, I want to share here the affirmations of the role of small, rural, elderly churches in God’s mission that I shared with my class. There have been other recent articles and commentaries about small, rural churches, and I hope this post adds to those to offer a sense of encouragement.

My comments draw on the six principles of asset-based ministry set out by Michael Mather in Having Nothing, Possessing Everything. Although Mather’s work was in poor, urban areas, I am convinced that his insights apply more widely.

I want to begin by saying that God doesn’t require tired, elderly congregants to have all the resources or energy of a congregation filled with 30- or 40-somethings. God can work with whatever your congregants are able to provide, and God will supply the rest of what’s needed through other people. Mather’s process of learning to see abundance in his communities wasn’t about getting more out of his congregants. It was about noticing the abundance that was outside of but all around his congregations. Part of engaging in God’s mission as a small, rural, elderly church is about discovering the abundance around the church, not figuring out how to get more out of already tired congregants.

Mather’s first principle is “Our neighbors are God’s people. Act like it.” Acting like our neighbors are God’s people is both sometimes easier and sometimes harder in small communities where people know each other. People have an easier time seeing people as individuals and not stereotypes, but at the same time, people can get locked into seeing each other in one way, and it may be hard to escape previous bad impressions. Part of engaging in mission, then, is being willing to see those around the congregation in new ways, even if congregants have known them their whole lives.

As part of this principle, I think it’s important to reframe mission from “the well-to-do helping the needy” to “neighbors helping neighbors,” a practice with long roots in many rural areas. While God does call us to serve others, we should not see other people as just “needy.” We need to see other people as full people, full children of God, with assets and abilities as well as needs. That’s essential to treating people with dignity.

Mather’s second principle is “Everything begins with and builds on the gifts of our neighbors.” Even if there are fewer of them, rural churches still have neighbors, and those neighbors still have gifts that can be used to serve others. Part of living out this principle is collaborating ecumenically or with other community organizations rather than a small, elderly church trying to run all mission endeavors themselves.

It is also about drawing on the sorts of personal, informal networks that often characterize rural areas. If your congregation includes people that have connections to others in the community, draw on those connections! That could be a helping professional like a teacher, police officer, or social worker, but it could just as well be a member of the classic car enthusiast club or quilting group, or it could be the person who works at the local gas station and knows everyone in town because they come in to buy gas.

Mather’s third principle is “Parents and guardians are the first and best teachers. Respect this.” I think this principle is equally valid in cities, suburbs, small towns, and the countryside.

Mather’s fourth principle is “We invest first and foremost in the good the people of the neighborhood seek.” I think rural communities have their own sense of what they want for their communities (or individuals within those communities may have several different senses of this), and I still think it’s worth listening to what those are rather than deciding that we know what the community needs. Also, we’re very used to thinking about need in economic terms. We assume those “in need” are those with less economic resources. And rural poverty can be particularly grinding and invisible. But all of us are in need in some way. Maybe the work God is calling your church to is not about money. Maybe it’s about loneliness, or maybe it’s about support for those going through cancer and their families, or maybe it’s grief support, or maybe it’s help finding childcare. Needs are everywhere, just as gifts are.

Mather’s fifth principle is “Money must flow to the neighborhood.” In an age where it’s almost always cheaper to drive 30 miles to get something at Walmart or to order it online, I think making sure that money flows back to local communities is essential in rural areas. Support your local small businesses whenever possible in whatever you do in mission, even if it costs a bit more.

And finally, Mather’s sixth principle is “Practice neighbor love.” I think love is just as important in rural areas as anywhere else. And I don’t think love requires a formal program that runs in perpetuity. Churches often get hung up on trying to establish on-going programs that they run themselves, which can be especially challenging for a small, rural, elderly congregation. But loving people, in whatever way presents itself at that moment? That’s something that all people everywhere can do. And when we change or those we’re loving change, then the ways in which we love them can change too.

Following these principles doesn’t guarantee that your small, rural, aging congregation will suddenly be filled with new, young families. But that’s not the point. Your church may still close in ten years. But if you knew that was going to be true, if you knew that your church would close no matter what, what would you want to do with those last ten years? What sort of legacy would you like to leave?

The good news is this: Small, rural, elderly churches can be faithful in responding to God’s call, and when they do, they produce fruit and establish a faithful legacy, no matter what happens in the future. God is at work, including in rural areas. May our churches see God’s mission proceeding and join in.

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