Rural Churches: an ancient-modern mission

given on Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reading an article by Martin Thielin, “How a Two-Hundred-Year-Old, Declining, County Seat Church Got Its Groove Back” and focusing on the concept of “rethinking church,” I stumbled upon the descriptor ‘ancient-modern’ as a reference to a successful style of worship.  Then it occurred to me that that same descriptor really applied to the rural churches and the dilemma in which they struggle to survive.  The first step to managing the dilemma is that we have to be honest and admit that the rural churches are struggling to survive.  The struggle for survival also identifies a new field for mission.

Rural church, especially those at least 15 miles outside even small cities, are not growing in membership and are looking for ways to stay inside their aging facilities.  Most of these churches have dwindling congregations, extremely limited financial resources, and buildings that need repair.  The members are no longer able to do the maintenance work, are tired of the same leadership role they have held 20 years ago, or really do not ‘see’—sometimes literally– the problems evident to others driving past the church.

The crisis in today’s rural communities is similar to what has been termed urban blight.  Rural churches are now victims of poverty-ridden communities, declining populations, aging congregations, changing demographics, influx of drugs and gangs, and loss of jobs.  Urban blight is also rural blight; and the rural churches are fighting the very same battles as inner city churches.  For years, mission teams have seen the need to do work for the inner city churches or to develop special programming for the young people in those communities.  Urban blight was a descriptor that called out for help; now, rural blight needs to be identified and that same cry for help needs hearing.

The reality of the data is that there are many more small rural churches stretching across the states than there are urban churches.  These rural churches still serve almost half the denominations’ members, too, but the members in these rural churches are dwindling.  Why, then, is it important to consider these churches as a mission field?

The Board of Global Ministries’ website defines the United Methodists’ mission focus.  There are four priorities:

  • Ministry with the Poor
  • Global Health
  • Congregational Development
  • Leadership Development

 

The ancient roles of the rural church have to change to meet the needs of the modern world.  The congregations and their facilities need attention right now if they are to continue serving today’s modern communities.  Rural blight needs action and John Wesley’s ‘ancient’ methods still work in today’s modern world.

This weekend, as the St. Charles’s First UMC, steps out of the urban core to serve in rural Missouri, we see the growth of a new mission field.  The mission is to provide any assistance it can to make sure that our facilities are equipped to do God’s work in the best way it can.  It is going to ‘makeover’ a space so that it can provide service to a modern world, rather than a 1960’s world.

Maybe this seems unnecessary to congregational members who ‘see’ the church through the memories of its pinnacle:  years of family memories, neighborhood gatherings, Christmas pageants, kids running around the sanctuaries, Bible School programs which ended with a huge program and overflowing pews, and so much more.  These images in most rural churches are delightful and tell the story of how the young people of our communities began their lives preparing for the ethical leadership of the modern world.

Rural churches did not prepare for the 21st century.  During the mid 20th century, the rural churches existed in communities dependent on the family farm and the businesses that serve them.  The rural communities today are different.  A family farm was the model, but now has had to grow into a corporation in order to be financially successful.  Modern farmers depend on the latest technology to work the fields and science designs the best seed for the land’s conditions and the highest yield.

The description of today’s rural communities continues to change and the factors that contribute to its survival or to its blight are as unique as the environmental descriptors.  The descriptors include the ages, the education level, and the income of the residents.  The technology and communication services such as internet access, phone service—cell and land line, and cable or satellite video feeds also contribute to the survival of the communities.

When Bishop Schnase talked in April, the explanation of how the rural communities were developed depended on the size of land holdings and how many family members lived on that land.  My own family is a prime example of the principle.  One son owned a large section of land.  His family had about seven kids, who each ended up with one portion of the land or married into another family with the same structure.  The farms where managed by the number of kids in the family.  All of them went to church.  All of them were actively involved in the community.

The church was the social center and in many cases the educational center of the community.  Another community developed about eight miles away, because that was the distance that could be conveniently traveled in a reasonable time frame by the horse-drawn means of transportation.  This is how the rural churches developed; this is how the churches thrived in healthy communities.  This is what was a modern world in what we now consider ancient times.

When Jesus turned to the Apostles and told them to go make disciples, the setting was so very different than our own setting.  Here we talk about the 1950s as ancient, but compare that to life 2,000 years earlier than today.  Life focused on making a living; and for some that meant a minimal existence while others, in comparison, were living in wealthy circumstances.  As a skilled carpenter, Jesus probably was living a comfortable middle class lifestyle.  But he left that life and became a nomadic missionary carrying God’s message of the new covenant wherever he could.

In the scripture from Mark, we see that Jesus met difficulty in his own hometown, so he took his mission elsewhere.  In Mark 6:7-13, he tells the Apostles what their mission is, too:

8These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. 10Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.”

 

The ancient call to serve leaves very little to the imagination.  The clothes on the backs of the Apostles, the sandals on their feet, a walking stick, and faith was all Jesus wanted his followers to use.  He wanted the words from them to spread the message.  He wanted them to heal the sick and to cast out demons.  If that community refused to listen, then leave and do not fret over it.

This weekend we have disciples who have answered God’s call to mission.  This is a new mission for the team; and it may seem a bit awkward for our small congregations to meet new people and open our arms to embrace them.   It may seem unnecessary to ask them for help.  But the bigger call to mission comes directly from God—we are to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.  Are we equipped for it?   Are we able to open our arms to the modern world?  Are we going to remember the past but push forward for the future of the Church?

As we get to know the team members from First Church, find out what serving in mission means to them.  Ask them how they got involved?  What type of mission experiences have they done?  Do they feel First Church is an outwardly focused or risk-taking church?  Has the church embraced the practice of risk-taking mission?  Which age groups are involved in mission?  Finally, ask them what they think our churches need to do to become outwardly focused?  Do they have any recommendations?  What can we do to be a successful ancient-modern church?

We are disciples.  Yet this weekend, we witness the mission of other disciples.  We learn from the mission of others.  We serve others who are in mission.  We have a mission of hospitality this weekend as a large city church takes the risk stepping into an unfamiliar rural setting and giving.  Thank you to the team.  Thank you to God.  Thank you to the congregation of this community eagerly offering hospitality.  Who knows what outcomes may develop.  Who knows what the future of missions will be among these rural churches.

Dear Heavenly Father,

We know that you expect us to serve one another in love.  We are to be your grace by putting love into action.  We thank you for those who come to serve, and for those who serve with hospitality.

We have heard your commission to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.  We are aware of the poor in our community and we are aware of the neighbors whose health is poor.

Equip us to continue as your disciples.  Equip us to share our faith with others.  Equip us to be gracious to others who serve you, too.

As we depart and join in fellowship together, bless us, guide us, and fill us with the Holy Spirit so we may make a difference right here, right now.         –Amen

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