Small Town and Rural Outreach from the Inside Out

Small Town and Rural Outreach from the Inside Out
Rhonda Sholar

Can you reach families and grow a church in a small town? Leaders say yes but it requires intentionality.

Chad McCallum has learned to milk a cow, operate a combine and even tap his toes to the tunes of Randy Travis and Rascal Flats. It’s quite a different life than this self-proclaimed city boy from Indiana was accustomed to before moving to Burnips, Mich., population 200, in 2000. When he accepted the pastorate of the New Life Burnips Church, McCallum joined 77 million other Americans living in small metropolitan and rural areas. Although a seasoned pastor already, his new appointment brought a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

Burnips, located 15 miles outside of Grand Rapids, is home to a 45-member Methodist church, post office, diner and a recently opened pizza parlor. The Wesleyan church, founded in 1923, has grown in attendance from 270 to 325 under McCallum’s watch, attracting mostly blue-collar workers and farmers to the church, which now offers two styles of worship: Bill Gaither-esque and a more up-tempo style with a live band.

“I could imagine as a farmer how it would be,” was a popular line McCallum used to say from the pulpit as a way of connecting with his congregation. But church members wanted him to do more than imagine, so they gave him an unforgettable pounding named Crisis Mode, a living, mooing cow. “They weren’t going to listen to me until I showed up on their turf,” he says. So he did, literally. Several mornings he arrived at the milking parlor as early as 4 a.m., ready to pitch in where needed.

With 48 U.S. states showing increases in their rural populations, U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate that across America a rural rebound is taking place—challenging church leaders like McCallum to roll up their sleeves and address the unique challenges and opportunities that rustic life brings. As a result of their efforts, churches like Burnips Wesleyan are connecting with their communities and welcoming new believers into their congregations.

Meeting People Where They Live

When Cheri DiNovo, now a city pastor at Emmanuel Howard Park United Church in Toronto, accepted her first pastoral position in 1995, she settled into the tiny agricultural town of Brucefield, England, population 100. At first people came to church in droves to see a woman pastor, but soon after the novelty wore off, skepticism and disenchantment set in, she says. The church had a history of pastors leaving after two years, and the lack of commitment had taken its toll on the morale of congregants and growth of the 150-year-old ministry.

The issue of clergy longevity and the apathy that it creates in the church and the community are two of the main challenges pastors often face when coming to a rural church, says Sandra LeBlanc, chairperson of the Rural Church Network and director of Rural Ministry Resources and Networking of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. To counteract the jaded perceptions, DiNovo took deliberate steps to get to know the community and meet people where they live.

She discovered that visitation opened the door to accompany congregants through the crises of their lives in a way that is impossible in larger, more urban settings. “In the country, I found that visiting was critical,” she says. “I set a goal of visiting every family, really getting to know people by going where they lived, knowing what their farming day was about, knowing what rural life was about, and walking with people through their lives.”

Bringing Families Back to Church

Part of being a church in any setting is identifying the marginalized in the community and responding to their needs. In a city church, that might mean at-risk youth, but in the country, these people are often bored, un-ambitious teens and stay-at-home moms isolated from husbands who work long hours. For DiNovo, connecting with these groups was the necessary kindling for bringing apathetic and skeptical families back to church.

To reach its community’s local youth, Burnips Wesleyan Church in rural Burnips, Mich., made church a destination place for youth by turning an old grain mill into a teen and tween hangout called the Harvest Center. There, 50 to 60 kids gather on Wednesday nights for Bible study and fellowship at a program called J.C. (Jesus Christ) Feed & Seed Co., which includes regular mission’s trips, kindness evangelism and pen pal opportunities with a sister church in Auckland, New Zealand. DiNovo’s first initiative in Brucefield was starting up a youth group, in partnership with a neighboring church.

“That gave us a bigger pool of youth to start with,” she says. Then she phoned every teen and gave them a personal invitation to the group’s first outing, a trip to Laser Quest in London. To keep teens coming and at the same time instill biblical values, she developed a program in which one meeting out of every four revolved around either a Christian education purpose or giving back to the community in some way. The other three times were predominately fun.

To connect with stay-at-home moms, she started a Moms and Tots group, asking for help from the church’s older women who remembered their own experience and understood the need. Gradually, the group grew and today hosts 50 women and children who meet four times a week. The program brought young families back into the church on Sunday mornings, DiNovo says. “As a result, families started to remember what church was all about, and they got to meet each other.”

Easing the Load

Other rural life challenges come in the form of economics. As the overall U.S. economy has struggled, rural communities have been especially hard hit. In 2003, a report from the Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit organization rooted in rural America, indicated that 244 of the 250 poorest counties in America are rural.

Rural churches have felt the hit, with thousands of families affected by job loss. Last year, 10 families at Burnips Wesleyan Church were affected by job loss. For some, the church provided groceries from the church’s food pantry. For others with more desperate needs, Burnips extended financial assistance.

LeBlanc, a contributor to the book Rural Ministry: The Shape of the Renewal to Come (Abingdon Press) recently completed a two-year study addressing models of economic development for people living in poverty. She suggests that churches in rural areas can actually be the community’s support center in an economic downturn by offering food and clothing banks; opening a day care center; running a youth center on the weekends; providing an after-school tutoring program; or adopting a few local families.

Andrew Irvine, Canadian coordinator of Rural Social Science by Extension, an organization helping clergy in rural areas to reflect together on ministry concerns, recalls how the small, country church he and his family attended connected with the community through something as simple as a backyard carnival or Mother’s Day banquet.

“Our kids knew that if the county fair came to town, they probably couldn’t afford to go, and if they did go they couldn’t afford many rides,” says Irvine. So when the fair came to town, the church hosted an old-fashioned country fair in its backyard, and invited the kids and their parents to come. On Mother’s Day, the church turned its basement into a cafe and cooked a meal.

“Our Sunday school kids had seen on TV that they should buy their mothers a gift, or take her out for dinner for Mother’s Day, but their families couldn’t afford to buy bubble gum, let alone dinner,” Irvine says. “So we told the kids to invite their mothers and the rest of their families to a Mother’s Day dinner on us.

“What that demonstrated to the parents was, ‘Hey, this church cares about my child and my family.’ It was all about finding ways to reach out. And as a result people’s lives were touched with the reality of the Gospel and the love of the church.”

Culture Clashes

While apathy, isolation and economy come with their own set of obstacles and opportunities, one of the newest challenges for rural churches is the hybrid of people who are settling in the country. As more areas free of concrete and interstates become recreation areas and retirement communities, a new kind of people group is emerging in rural communities—challenging churches to relate to a mixture of traditional, rural people and “exurbanites.” The newly coined term describes the group of people beyond urbanites and suburbanites who keep moving farther and farther from the center ring of a population.

“Mixing those two groups presents a clash of cultures that could be a real challenge,” says LeBlanc. “Exurbanites expect a certain type of worship service, and they are not quite as relational as rural people.” However, exurbanites, often unchurched, also present opportunities for both evangelism and internal growth. McCallum has experienced the merging of population as his church “lifers” learn that there are people “outside of the family tree that need love and concern.”

One such lifer came to him, upset that a first-time visitor smoked cigarettes on the church lawn before heading inside for the service. Responding to his complaint, McCallum simply asked, “But where is he going to find Jesus?’ Visibly angry, the man replied, “Not in this church.” The visitor kept coming and eventually accepted Christ.

“Recently, I heard the guy who was so hard against him pray for him by name,” McCallum says, adding that he builds connection points by having the so-called “outsiders” share testimonies during the service. “It is very easy for people to throw rocks at some nameless person who’s smoking in front of the church,” he says. “It’s much more difficult to throw stones when that person has a name and a family.”

An environment that accepts and loves people regardless of their flaws or past experiences has drawn people, like Burnips trustee and board vice chairperson Gary Jager, back to church. Jager, 53, attended the church in high school until getting involved in drugs and alcohol. He returned in his 30s, attracted by the one-on-one aspect a small church affords.

“I thought they knew my past and wouldn’t accept me,” he shares. “Actually, they did know, but they still accepted me with open arms.” “People view the slow pace of rural life as a disadvantage,” McCallum adds, “but there is a whole lot more that gets done over coffee or leaning over a guy’s tractor than in a boardroom.”

This article “Small Town and Rural Outreach from the Inside Out” by Rhonda Sholar was excerpted from web site. June 2008. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”