EVANGELISM IN SMALL TOWNS AND RURAL AREAS
How does the small town or rural church reach out and grow? This is a question of increasing urgency to many Christian Reformed churches.
Let us define first of all what we mean by a rural area. Sociologists describe a rural area as “an area of low population density, with some or all of the following characteristics”:
* Self-Sufficiency. The totality of life is lived there. The rural community tends to be thought of as sufficient unto itself. Vocations,
social contacts, recreational programs, business contacts tend to be focused in the lightly populated rural area where one lives.
* Generally Primary Relationships. One deals with people not only in specialized ways-as doctor, gas station attendant, school teacher-but also, besides all these, as neighbor, fellow church members, a friend, parent of a friend, etc. This is contrasted to the urban style, where one deals with many different people during the course of the day and in each relationship is concerned about one verses narrow spectrum of his life.
* Social Accountability. Rural people tend to be aware that their conduct is reviewed and spoken of by their neighbors. In a rural community, people tend to regard it as highly desirable to be spoken well of by a large percentage of the community.
* Individualism and Independence. Rural people hold to a commitment to individual responsibility, They also tend to think of themselves as pledged to the right of each individual to speak and do as he feels he must.
These four characteristics describe rural tendencies. This is not to say that urban or metropolitan people do not experience these tendencies. They are more typical, however, of people in rural areas. And if one is to understand the rural community, he must take these four characteristics into account.
Notice that nothing was said about agriculture. Many persons in defining the rural community immediately think of farms. In this day and age, when many a small town has industry not directly related to farming, this is inappropriate. It may never have been appropriate since some rural areas deal not in agriculture so much as in logging or mining or resort industry or some other.
Some Characteristics of a Rural Pastor
The pastor of a rural congregation must not be thought of as entirely different from pastors in metropolitan settings. If that were so, it would be difficult to account for the fact that many Christian Reformed pastors move from a rural to a metropolitan church and again in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, as rural areas in general have some characteristics that are different from metropolitan areas, so there are certain qualities which are desirable in the rural pastor:
* He must be a people-oriented person. He must have the ability to relate quickly to a variety of people where they are. It must be easy for him to understand the kind of work they do, the feelings they have about their community, the new and especially the old relationships they have with others in their church. He must be able to entertain widely different kinds of persons in his home. and to do it with comfort and enjoyment.
* He must be a patient person. Most rural churches have deeply ingrained traditions. Since rural families and rural communities have suffered much in the many changes that have occurred during the last hundred years, he must understand that rural societies are often reluctant to change. He must know how to give gentle and constant leadership, encouraging people to attempt new things in faith. He must himself be ready to make long-term commitments, not seeing the rural church as a temporary lodging on the way to “something better,” but committing himself to be a long-term servant of these people.
* He must be a man of positive vision. He must have a quick eye for the potential of his congregation and of the community in which they live. He must be able to help people understand their own optimistic visions. He must be able to identify and work with the natural leaders in the community.
In the rural church, relationships are even more important than in many metropolitan churches. This is reflected in each of the four points below: all of them stress ministry through people.
* The pastor must know the community before he tries to lead them. He should soak up its history, its atmosphere, its traditions. He should learn the basis of the community’s pride and the focus of the community’s concern. This may require many months or even years, but unless he gives it priority, he will not be able to lead effectively.
* The pastor must be able to discover natural leadership that exists in the church and in the community. He must fraternize freely and comfortably with community leaders as well as congregational leaders. He must demonstrate his interest in their concerns and his willingness to assist them where his gifts can make a contribution. He must also demonstrate respect for their ability to assist him with his concerns. As much as possible, he must seek to work through such people in designing and executing programs.
* The pastor should seek out to “bridge people.” These are people who have good standing in diverse components of the church’s membership and the community’s population. They are people who, even when they can’t explain one group to the other, will convince members of the different groups that brotherhood is possible and cooperation fruitful.
* The pastor should select a core group of people from his congregation for discipleship training. He must encourage and direct them in the discipline of others.
Understanding the Unchurched Person
As the apostle Paul was always sensitive to his audience, seeking to address himself to them as they were (“becoming all things to all men”), so the church must be very aware of the people to whom it speaks. It must be particularly sensitive to the fact that the unchurched person is different now from what he was twenty years ago.
* He has changed more than the church has changed. Thus he feels further away from the church than he has ever been.
* He is no longer isolated as an individual in the community. At one time the few unchurched people in a community were effectively ostracized by the rest. Now large numbers of people do not attend church and they are not embarrassed by it. The unchurched person is a part of the large community, and his failure to attend church does not generally affect his standing.
* He sees the church as socially distant. It is a remote subculture to him, an alternate life-style which he doesn’t understand. It is so different from what he perceives his life-style to be that its chances of attracting him become relatively small.
* He is basically neutral in the area of religion. He is ignorant of Christianity and of other religions. He has no religious vocabulary. He doesn’t care about things religious. References to the life to come, sin, grace, Christ, etc., neither lift nor depress him. They just don’t affect him. He thinks of himself as thoroughly secular – and he is.
* The existential moment is more important to him than institutions. Neither traditions nor ancient rituals direct him. He is not swayed by “authority” nor molded by others’ expectations. He is directed by his gut-level response to the situation of the moment.
Program Ideas for Rural Evangelism
In the area of evangelism programming, some differences between metropolitan and rural areas are obvious. There are metropolitan programs which will not suit a rural area. On the other hand, many of them will. Rural churches should not bypass specific evangelism programs on the grounds that they work in metropolitan areas. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of a program that will work in a rural area which would not be equally effective in a metropolitan setting.
The following are some of the more effective rural evangelism programs. Some of them are most useful in establishing first contacts, others in cultivating those contact and building those relationships, and still others in drawing and discipline those who have been befriended by the church:
1. For First Contacts
a. Welcome Wagon visitation
b. Mailing programs (e.g., “Our Home”)
d. Day Care
e. Local radio and newspaper releases
f. Vacation Bible School (VBS)
2. For Building Relationships. Most of the Above Programs Plus
c. Coffee Break ministry
d. Saturday Morning Bible Clubs
e. Life Enrichment Programs
1) Pre-Marriage Course
2) Marriage Enrichment Weekend
3) Family Involvement Training (PET)
3. For Training of Prospective Members and New Members
a. Navigator 2:7
b. Bethel Bible Series
c. Faith Builder Series and Discipleship Series
d. Happiness Is and/or Searchlight
4. Training the Congregation for Outreach
a. Leaders’ Seminar on the Growing Church
c. Witnessing Where You Are
d. Congregational Evangelism Training
It must be understood that no outreach or evangelism program will be effective in drawing people into the church without the right atmosphere in the church itself.
* There must be genuine openness on the part of the members.
* There must be a repetitive and redundant effort to welcome people to the church and to make them feel at home.
* Organizations in the church must be not only open but warmly receptive toward people who seek to join them.
* Members of the church must be diligent in calling on people who have been, one way or another, contacted by the church.
* The pastor must be concerned about visitors who come and must endeavor to include them in his preaching, prayers, etc.
* Community concerns must be regularly found in the agenda of the church- in the consistory meetings, in organization meetings and activities, in congregational prayers, etc.
Pastors, consistories and evangelism committees must deliberately teach, preach and program in order to develop this kind of attitude in the church towards the community.
The most powerful evangelism program in the world will be wholly ineffective if the church does not diligently and sincerely extend a convincing welcome at each phase of the community person’s entrance into the church or its organizations. This is not an after-thought. The truth is that an evangelism program is frequently much easier to conceive and to execute than establishing this kind of atmosphere in the existing church.
But when any church loves the unsaved and reaches out to them with the Gospel and with other ministries in Christ’s name, it can expect God’s blessing. The rich spiritual resources of all Christian Reformed congregations ought to be applied to this challenging work so that we might be blessed in blessing others.