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What You Need to Know to Pastor a Rural Church

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Excerpted from
The Forgotten Church
By Glenn Daman

RURAL PEOPLE AND THE LAND

If you were to walk into my office, you would see an array of commentaries and religious books, which you would find in any other pastor’s office. What is not as common is the display of approximately one hundred toy farm tractors that I have collected over the years. Most are 1/64 scale, but I have a few that are detailed 1/16 scale models of the tractors and combines my dad owned and I drove as a youth. They remind me of my roots—that no matter where I am and where life takes me, there is a part of me that is forever linked to the land upon which I was raised.

The land is more than just a location for rural people; it is intimately connected to their identity. In urban areas, people live in one place, work in another and recreate in a third. For rural people, the place they live is also where they work, socialize and recreate. Their identity is tied to the land itself. The contrast between urban and rural attitudes toward the land can be summarized this way:

“Whereas land is simply the foundation for the construction of towns and cities, whose urban culture and economy thrive on human ingenuity and industry that may have little direct attachment to the physical ground over which it occurs, historical discourses of rurality place the land at the heart of the rural economy and society. Rural people, such discourses hold, live on the land, work the land, tend the land and know the land. The land formed not only the base of the rural economy, but also shaped rural culture and the rural calendar, and contributed to the constitution of the rural character. As such, the land is central to rural sense of place.” (Making Sense of Place,  2014)

When my father went on vacations, which was rare, to other parts of the country, people would ask what he thought of the scenery. His response was always the same: “It is nice, but it is not Idaho.” Everything he saw, from the Grand Canyon to the ocean, was always second place to the farm in Idaho. The reason went far beyond the natural beauty of the pastoral scene of farmland and fir-covered mountains. Idaho, and the farm on which he lived, was his home and identity. The land was where all the connecting points of his life converged together. As Jung and Agria summarize, “The land is a powerful factor in people’s lives and identities. At heart, as one southwestern Iowa pastor put it, all rural residents are farmers. Even if they themselves are no longer actively farming, their lives are intrinsically bound up with the land.” (Rural Congregational Studies, 1997)

Those who live and make their living on the land see themselves as stewards of the earth. Grounded in a theology of Genesis 2, they see their role as being the gardeners of the land ultimately belonging to God. Thus, while they may have legal ownership of the land, they never fully see the land as belonging to them. They have been given stewardship for a time to work the soil until they pass it on to the next generation. When surveyed, a consistent theme emerges for multigenerational farmers: they will “‘do whatever it takes to pass a viable farm operation on to the next generation.” Their goal was never to become independently wealthy or to retire and travel the country in a motorhome. Rather, it is to “pass down wealth in the form of knowledge, equipment, land, capital and credit to the next generation” while at the same time instilling traditions and values to the next generation to carry on the family and farm legacy. The loss of the farm can be almost impossible to accept, for it brings not only a sense of failure but guilt as well as they fail to keep in the family the land that has been a part of their history for generations. As mentioned before, when the farm falls upon hard times, there is a dramatic increase in depression, suicide, family breakdown, alcoholism and family violence. However, this connection between personal identity and land is not just ingrained in farmers; it is ingrained in all those whose livelihood is bound together with the land on which they live. It is true for loggers and miners as well, who see their work as part of their personal identity.

RURAL PEOPLE AND THE FAMILY

Working the land is a family event. Unlike many urban families, in which the father and mother leave the house to go to separate jobs in different locations that may or may not even be in the same town, members of the rural family not only eat and live together but also work together. During the busy times of the year—spring planting, harvest, calving season, etc.—the whole family becomes involved, each doing their part. Long before I could legally drive a car on the highway, I was driving tractors in the field. The first time I was pulled over by a policeman after I obtained my driver’s license was not because I was driving too fast, but too slow. I was taking a tractor down the road and was stopped because I did not have a slow-moving vehicle sign on the back. By the time I was twelve, I was working for neighbors, bucking bales in the summer. And when I was fourteen, I was driving the combine for my dad since my two older brothers—who were fifteen and seventeen—were employed full-time by neighbors. A typical harvest day on any farm would find the teenage children—both boys and girls—driving the combines, the wife driving trucks to and from the grain storage, the father emptying the trucks and filling the storage, and the youngest, who was barely old enough to reach the clutch and brake, jockeying the trucks around in the field. This mutual involvement in all aspects of life brings a type of closeness within the family that urban families sometimes do not experience.

For the rural family, life is centered upon the family unit. They work together, they play together, eat their meals together and attend church together. The importance and centrality of family can also be seen Sunday morning. In larger urban churches, families arrive together but often go to different age-appropriate services. In rural churches, the children worship with their parents. The idea of separating the children—except for the small preschool children who might go to children’s church—from the parents is not only foreign, but also sacrilegious to many rural Christians. We work together, play together and worship together. While most teens’ social activities revolved around their friends, my brothers’ and my social activities involved doing things together, as brothers. And my experience was not unique, as rural siblings are more likely to spend time together than their urban counterparts.

This family interconnectedness extends across generations as well. In rural areas, often several generations will live on the same farm, work the same mine or log the same forest. I grew up with my grandfather living in a house thirty feet from the house I lived in. While I left the farm to pursue ministry, on the farm, within less than a quarter of a mile, still lived both my brothers and their families and my sister. As a result of this tight-knit family culture, rural children are taught values that are reinforced by generations of influence. They learn the values of “hard work or industry self-reliance and a sense of responsibility, a commitment to family life, social trust and a value system that is not devoted to money and consumerism.”

While many of these same traits exist today within the rural family, there are changes and struggles confronting them. First, children in rural areas today are faced with greater challenges than children in past generations. As schools consolidate, children are spending more time commuting to school, with some having to ride the bus for an hour or more. They also face a lack of career opportunities that would keep them in the area. As extractive industries have become more mechanized, fewer opportunities for employment are available. Consequently, even though young adults in rural areas want to remain, they are forced to leave the rural areas and move to the metropolitan areas in pursuit of jobs. The result is the loss of young families. Second, as more and more young adults are leaving, many of the elderly in rural areas find themselves living without any immediate family in the area. Consequently, more elderly in rural areas are at risk of not having their caregiving needs met. This is further compounded by the fact that older people in rural areas have lower income and higher poverty rates than their metropolitan counterparts. As a result, older people in rural areas rely upon friends and the church for assistance, an issue the church needs to address.

Third, single moms have greater difficulties providing for their family. Because rural life centers on the traditional family, single moms can be overlooked and even ostracized. This, coupled with the lack of available jobs, results in a higher rate of poverty. Further, they lack access to public assistance programs—such as childcare and welfare—making it more difficult to provide for their families. This again provides the rural church an opportunity to minister to the needs of people and introduce them to Christ.

RURAL PEOPLE AND THE COMMUNITY

Beginning with Ferdinand Tonnies in the late 1800s, there has been a debate regarding the nature and differences between urban and rural people’s understanding of community. Tonnies distinguished between rural communities, which were characterized by face-to-face interaction in small groups such as family kinship groups and small villages (Gemeinschaft), and urban communities, which were based upon means-end orientations where relationships were impersonal and indirect and not carried out face to face (Gesellschaft). Since his introduction of these differences, many would agree that his characterization of urban culture largely missed the sense of community often existing within urban settings. However, he did provide us with a framework by which we can understand rural community. Rural people maintain a strong sense of community through their involvement and volunteerism. Relationships are built within and between the different associations and activities as the same people interact within the church, school, local government, businesses and county services. Because of this interconnectedness, people develop a sense of mutual responsibility where supporting one another is both honored and expected.

Community means more than geographic and relational proximity. It refers to a specific place and location where a group of people interact. It includes the existing social systems such as the schools, churches, government and businesses. Lastly, it describes the sense of identity held by a group of people. In the past, all these elements of community existed in one place, as rural people lived, worked, worshiped, shopped, sent their children to school and socialized in the same place in which they shared the same values and identity. As society became more mobile, the community was broadened as people shopped and conducted business outside their immediate area. Even in rural communities, people no longer shared the same sense of identity as their needs were no longer met within a specific location. However, even as the realm of community was broadened, there remained a strong sense of local community as people shared the same social capital—natural, cultural, human, social and other resources that can be utilized to meet local needs—providing the basis for a healthy and vibrant community.

Within many rural societies, sharp disagreements over local and national politics sometimes take place, but the people still share a sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of the community and members within it. If a family is unable to harvest their grain because of a sudden illness or accident, the surrounding neighbors will leave their fields unharvested and first harvest their neighbor’s field. When a house catches on fire, even before the firemen put the fire out, people will already be mobilizing to meet the immediate needs of the family. If a medical emergency happens, the community will have a change jar in the local store and a fundraising dinner to help with the medical costs. Community in the rural areas stems not only from the sense of personal responsibility for others, but from the relationships that interconnect people. For many in rural communities, the family network, neighbors, work and church all overlap. You see the same people at church or at a neighborhood barbecue that you see when you go to a basketball game or a fundraiser for the local museum, which creates a “high density of acquaintanceship” where “daily life is carried out among a cast of familiars rather than among strangers in an anonymous city.” As a result, there is a mutual expectation that in a time of crisis, people will be there to offer aid. Consequently, in rural areas, people more often look inward to the community to meet the needs of the community. The church and pastor are expected to do more than just provide spiritual instruction and support. They are an integral part of the social capital (we will expand upon this in later chapters). If they fail to be a part of the community, they will be ignored by the community.

The downside of this strong sense of community identity is that often newcomers are viewed suspiciously, making it difficult for them to become part of the community relationship. Even within the church, a new member must pay his or her “dues” before they will be fully accepted and given leadership positions. Likewise, community decisions are heavily influenced by power structures governed by longtime or lifelong residents. Decisions are often informally discussed and made at the local café rather than at government meetings where “the hidden agenda of such interactions constitutes the working out of subtle consensus building about town issues.” This can be equally true in the church, where longtime members become powerbrokers and decisions are made over a dining room table and only confirmed at a congregational meeting. If a pastor tries to usurp or dismantle the structures, he will soon find himself looking for another church. Thus, the challenge for pastors and denominational leaders is to work within the power structure of the local church, recognizing their place within the church, yet also confronting those structures that become exclusive and controlling. For the pastor and denominational leaders to effectively work with local leadership, they need to develop leaders who understand that leadership is not about control and authority, but service.

RURAL PEOPLE AND RURAL VALUES

Many of the values shaping my life and those I sought to instill within my children stemmed from my own childhood, imparted to me by my parents and reinforced by the community. Unlike many urban areas where pluralistic values result in conflicting value systems, rural communities often maintain a uniform value structure passed on from one generation to another. The smaller, more stable nature of rural communities exerts pressure on people to conform to the local culture and moral ethos. As Aaron Morrow points out,

“For a variety of reasons, people in small towns are not typically open to change in comparison to people who live in larger cities. . . . The lack of change in small towns often leads to a high degree of conformity. For better or worse, there is a relatively narrow range of acceptable behaviors, choices and ideas that people are generally expected to adhere to in a small town. And the smaller a town is, the narrower the range!” (Small Town Mission, 2016)

The values that my parents sought to instill within me were also the same values shared by the rest of the community. In rural areas, you can be different, but only if you conform to the rest of the community!

We were taught the value of self-reliance. Whether you were out in the field fixing a broken piece of equipment or providing for your family, it was expected that you would take care of it yourself. You performed your work without complaint because it had to be done, no matter how unpleasant the task. There was no point in complaining about the heat while putting hay in the peak of the barn on a hot summer day. No matter how hot it was, the barn had to be filled for the winter. We were taught the importance of hard work and were judged by our willingness to “get our hands dirty.” A person with manicured fingernails and hands without callouses was considered soft and “citified.” The Pledge of Allegiance was recited at the start of school, followed by the reading of a chapter from the Bible. While the Bible is no longer read, the conservativism and respect for religion remains. Recent surveys reveal what rural people knew all along: Rural people are more conservative and hold to traditional moral values in stark contrast to the secularization and moral liberalism of those in more populated areas. Soon after the election of Donald Trump as president, Matthew Spandler-Davison identified the frustration felt by rural people towards elite Americans who they perceived to have abandoned small town views of faith and individual freedoms. Spandler-Davidson summarizes, “Their pro-guns position is presented as sinister. Pro-life values are portrayed as being anti-women, the desire to run a business in line with their religious convictions is reported as bigotry. [The overall message, they perceived,] was like, ‘We’re progressive, you’re regressive, we’re moving forward and leaving you behind.’ Small town America said ‘no.’ ”

Those who dwell in rural America are expected to conform to these values. As Jung and Agria point out,

“All these factors—geography, economics, demographics, values and lifestyle issues—suggest an inherent tension in rural life, a tension that influences the capacity or resistance of the rural community or church to respond to the enormous problems facing it. Economic and other factors in many rural communities are urging change. At the same time, the people who advocate such change are often considered suspect. If the impetus for change is internal, it can be perceived as disloyalty; if external, as an outright threat.” (Rural Congregational Studies, 1997)

When a person, or even a pastor, does not uphold these traditional values, they typically are branded an outsider and will find it difficult to gain acceptance. This conformity is grounded in the close interpersonal relationships existing within the community, where people know not only you but also everyone else. This connects people to the community and pressures them to conform to community standards. When coming into the community, the pastor should recognize that he serves not just the church but the whole community. Gaining respect of those in the church and community at large begins with the pastor valuing both the relationships of people and the culture of the community. This is equally true of denominations and urban churches that desire to get involved in assisting rural communities. Effective ministry in rural areas is built upon trust, and trust comes when we accept and value people within the context of their culture rather than seek to impose our own cultural views upon them.

RURAL PEOPLE AND THE CHURCH

The farm that I was raised on was five miles from the nearest small village. The town itself had a population of ninety people, with two gas stations, two bars, two sawmills, a small mom-and-pop grocery store and one church. The bars and gas stations have since closed, the sawmills have been swallowed up by large mills and the grocery store struggles to exist as a small mini-mart. But the church remains. Within the surrounding community and farmland, there were two other churches, a Free Methodist church connected to a local church camp and the Catholic church started by Father Pieree-Jean De Smet. The next closest church was twenty miles away in another valley. The church was more than a church for the forty to sixty people who met each week. It was regarded by many to be “their church” even though they never attended. As is often the case in rural communities, people are religious and will identify with a church in the community even though they may never attend. For them, the presence of the church is a part of the community identity. As Aaron Morrow writes, “Small towns tend to be loaded with religious non-Christians. They may not go to church very often, but they generally believe that God exists and the Bible probably has something to say about him.” In many rural communities, there will be a specific denomination or “faith family” that dominates the area.

Within the rural church on any given Sunday, there may be two or three different generations present. Those who do not have grandparents near may often be “adopted” by older couples whose children have moved away. It is through this intergenerational worship that values and faith are passed down from one generation to another. As a result, rural parents are involved in the church community, and that involvement is matched by their children. There is a natural progression from generation to generation. Every Sunday morning and evening, my parents would pack all four of us children into the car and head to church. The only time we did not attend was when we were ill—and you better have a doctor’s note confirming it! It was so ingrained within us that even when we were teenagers and our parents were away on a trip, we still went, never even thinking that attendance was optional. Our parents never forced us to go to church. We just never realized it was an option. But it was there that we learned about the Bible and saw it lived out in the lives of the people who attended, people who cared about us and were as much a part of my life as any blood relative. When I go back, I do not see a white building located between a small town and a wheat field. I see people, each of whom left their imprint on my life. Understanding the rural church requires us to look beyond the building and see the people.

In rural communities, the church plays a more important role than just offering a meeting place for the local congregation. It brings stability and supports the whole community. In many small communities, especially those isolated from large urban areas, the church plays an important role in providing help and assistance for people. In rural communities, the church functions not only as a religious center, but also as a social center. In times when a tragedy strikes the community, people will look to the church and the local pastor to provide support and a sense of community, even though they may never attend the church. Because of the lack of social services, many times people will look to the church to fill the gap in food and clothing. Thus, in rural communities, the civil and social well-being of the community is interwoven with the vitality of the local church.

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Taken from The Forgotten Church: Why Rural Ministry Matters for Every Church in America by Glenn Daman(©2018). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

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