Written by guest contributor Mr. Zach Gray – Master of Theology student in the Campbellsville University School of Theology
While the statistics show that the Southern Baptist Convention is in decline, potential growth can be found back at its beginnings: small rural churches. For these churches, which have remained the “backbone” of the convention, the potential ministry is growing. For the sake of argument the term “small” are congregations numbering roughly 150 or less and “rural” meaning those churches out from the city limits serving a particular but smaller community. This concept is best known if you’ve ever been to one; you would remember it. So why would these type of churches have an advantage over a large church with many resources? Assuming the people are sold on the idea of doing missions there are at least 4 advantages for small rural churches on mission.
1. Location, Location, Location.
For those who have lived and attended church in the rural U.S., especially the South, the churches we attend have existed in the same spot for years. While some take the mindset of “if they were going to come they would’ve done so by now” approach, there is some advantage to this. When these churches were built, they were made at the center of the communities. It represents a place that brought people together. Jump back to 2016; these places are now known for division and disunity. If you’re the type of church that is serious about reaching the community you can still tap in to the former opinion, but now you have to prove it. Getting people back into the building could depend on your ability to draw on their familiarity with your location coupled by showing them that once again the church is a place where they are wanted.
Your immediate community, whether they realize it or not, know right where you are. It is part of the scenery on their daily drive to work. In recent years I have seen and heard stories of churches opening their doors for other reasons than to hold a service. With sometimes burdensome drives to town for the community, churches have become hosts for programs like A.A. or celebrate recovery. The possibilities here are limited only by imagination. Allowing other groups to use the facilities on off days can become a creative way to recapture some sense of the church being a community place and also a place where they care about people’s struggles. Every opportunity that a non-believer has to be inside your building can be turned into an advantage in ministry.
2. Room for Growth
Older church buildings have experienced renovations and additions over time. Many churches, including my own, built with an anticipation of numerical growth. When this didn’t happen many were left paying on unused or underused space. When a congregation decides to become missional what are they to do if they experience rapid growth? The reality is that many churches could hold many, many more people that currently attend. If growth begins to take place (and I hope it does) the church has some space to grow into.
Another aspect to take into account is that this space may allow you to reach people you might not be able to reach otherwise. Growing up in farm country in central Kentucky, I would see a large number of Hispanic workers come in the summer to work in the tobacco fields. With the help of some Spanish speakers and our abundance of space we were able to house not only one congregation on Sunday morning but two! Since these were seasonal workers, they didn’t have a centrally located place to meet. This opened a whole other avenue for ministry as a church and while maintained, became effective in our community.
Though these types take many names, they’re all essentially the same. These are the people that know just about everybody and the name of their dog. They’re usually older, outgoing, and been in your church a long time. Chances are they know your parents, grandparents, aunt, uncle, friend, neighbor, or if nothing else, somebody that looks like you. The potential here is great. Since relationships are so key to doing ministry these people are masters of conversation starting and making connections. This can never be underestimated when it comes to church growth. If a visitor or new community member can’t feel connected within a relatively short amount of time, you might have already lost your chance. Where others may not know how to interact initially, Mrs. Ruth digs to find that one thing that could connect them with your church.
In the eyes of many a small church size is an indication of failure or weakness. In some ways it could indicate a failure of the church to faithfully carry out its mission, but regardless of what caused the numbers to be small, you can use it as a strongpoint. For a world that is the most connected we’ve ever seen (via social media and smartphones) we are also among the least connected of any previous culture. The problem is that we have lost depth to our relationships, and now people are searching for it like no other time. The small rural church has something to offer: intimacy. In a way your strength can be in lack of numbers. This is an advantage that small churches have over big ones. Small churches generally allow more opportunity to let relationships run deeper. Offering a genuine sense of belonging should resonate with the community, and allows an avenue for spreading the gospel.
While this list is not exhaustive, I think it is a good place to start. For far too long small rural churches have been wrongly characterized as ineffective, but the true value is not in the numbers but in the ministry that takes place. If you are part of one of these church, realize that you have strengths to fulfill the great commission and spread the gospel.