Over the past decade, the church has witnessed an increasing emphasis on urban ministry, and rightly so! Demographic studies reveal that masses of people are now moving back into our nation’s largest cities. In addition, the phenomenon known as “globalization,” the growing affinity that world class cities have with each other that makes New York City culturally more like Bejing that neighboring New York state suburbs, makes apparent the necessity of strategically targeting the city. Missiologists are correct when they say that if we can reach the cities, we will eventually reach the world!
But can we reach the cities by urban evangelism alone? While a cursory glance at the demographic landscape might suggest an affirmative answer, a deeper look at what is happening in the countrysides of North America puts to bed the notion that our rural and town and country churches have no place in reaching the world with the Gospel of Christ.
In my capacity at the Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, I am witnessing these happenings first hand. Our association is comprised of 56 churches and church plants. Of that number, 19 are located in rural or town and country areas where rolling fields, silos and farms still outnumber tall buildings and bustling highways. Still, these areas have experienced much more change over the past several years than is immediately apparent, most of which has been caused by new residents who have moved into these areas. Want to take a guess where most of these new residents work? If you guessed the city, you guessed correctly! If we reach the cities, we reach the world. At the same time, reaching the city means reaching those who work there. Bottom line: Our rural churches are just as crucial as our suburban and urban churches are when it comes to reaching the city!
Regrettably, the appropriate focus of church growth literature on urban and suburban areas has resulted in town and country churches being largely neglected. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that most of our rural churches were started when the area around them was . . . .well, rural! Although the landscape still looks the same, the mindset of rural residents has changed dramatically over the past several years. Marty Giese, who has pastored churches in rural areas for over three decades, even suggests that the term “rural” may in fact be misleading. While it may still accurately reflect the geographic surroundings, it no longer describes the worldview and culture of many who now live there. As an alternative to the terms “rural” and “urban,” Giese suggests the use of the terms “agrarian” and “cosmopolitan.” Such terms can be used to accurately describe the mindset of the different kinds of people who now live in the country.
One real-life example of these differing mindsets would be my own home. I live in northwestern Howard Country Maryland, an area referred to by locals as “Western County.” Having grown up in a rural area, I am taking full advantage of living in an area that is largely still zoned for farming. I own chickens and my neighbors own horses. But while the area where we live is still rural, few of us now living in that area are “agrarian.” My next-door neighbor is a contractor for the Defense Department, specializing in anti-terrorism. Simply put, he doesn’t think like a farmer. While he lives in the country, his worldview is very cosmopolitan.
Another solemn reminder of this cultural clash comes by observing the influx into the countryside of the kind of societal ills that once only plagued the cities. Domestic violence, drug abuse, and a host of other “urban” problems are now just as prominent in our rural areas, and I have heard many of our pastors who minister in these areas testify to this fact.
The question then is how Pastors of churches in these changing rural environments can empower their congregations to more effectively reach the changing communities around them. Ephesians tells us that the pastor’s calling is to “equip” his people to minister effectively in their context. This calling, coupled with the above-described reality means that pastors in rural areas now bear an especially weighty responsibility! They must serve as a “cultural interpreter” between their congregation and the community. They require the capacity to lead their churches through the changes necessary to be effective, and they must be able to mobilize their people for outreach in this new context.
With this reality in view, denominational entities such as our Association should be about the task of helping equip and empower churches in the country. Regrettably, this is likely not the case for most denominational agencies. Two things currently impede denominations ability to provide what is needed. One of these is an appropriate focus on the cities that unintentionally minimizes those in rural areas. The other is that the methods currently used to equip rural pastors and churches are almost identical to those utilized a half-century ago. The cities aren't the only areas that require a new approach to ministry, and it is high time denominations who serve rural churches realize this.
For our part, this realization has resulted in a renewed focus on ministry and mission in "cosmorural" areas. Initiating this emphasis is a conference that we are sponsoring together with two neighboring associations called "Leading the Rurban Church." Our hope is that this conference will better equip our town and country pastors for this task. Dr. Marty Giese, a veteran rural pastor and author of a recent book on rural church ministry, will lead our sessions, and help us to learn from each other.
Our calling is to reach the world, and one of the reasons Associations and other denominational entities should exist is to combine our collective resources to do this more effectively. Currently, the best way for us to evangelize the world is to evangelize the city. But ironically, one of the best weapons we may have to accomplish this just might be our “country churches.”