Rural Outreach From the Inside Out
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.”
FROM THE BEST OF OUTREACH: This article originally appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Outreach magazine.