Monday, July 15, 2013

You Might Be a Small Church Pastor if...

Funny bits from The Unappreciated Pastor.

 You Might Be a Small Church Pastor if...

1) You open each service with “These are my deacons, I am who they say I am, I can do what they say I can do…”
2) At least three times a week someone says to you “I noticed your car was at your house.”
3) The phrase “But we’re a loving church” is the church’s unofficial motto.
4) When someone in your church has their picture in the paper it will be pinned to the bulletin board. 
5) You have two revivals a year. The Pastor gets to pick the speaker for one and the deacons get to pick the speaker for the other.
6) You have more deacons than widows.
7) You have more deacons than windows.
8) The budget committee just whites out the dates on last years budget and runs off copies for the new year.
9) There is a woman in the church that you are deathly afraid of.
10) You have two people you consider friends at the church. One of them is in the third grade.
11) When the phone rings you’re just praying you don’t hear the words “Preacher I need to get in the church.” 
12) You have a church van…YOU have a church van.
13) You have to plan your vacation around VBS.
14) You are regularly volunteered by a specific person in your church without being asked first.
15) There is a man in the church that once said to you “Preacher, do you know how much money I give to this church?”
16) Most of the charter members seats are marked with small blankets in the sanctuary.
17) A couple of times a year someone wants to sing a country music song as a special.
18) The congregation appears to double in size when the choir comes down.
19) Your wife strategically plans her grocery store trips so she doesn’t run into as many church members.
20) There is a weekly spot in your bulletin that reads “The flowers in the sanctuary were given in memory of…”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Church Growth in the Small Town

by Ron Klassen, RHMA Executive Director.

Our English language is full of oxymorons, like: found missing, resident alien, same difference, definite maybe, sanitary landfill, and working vacation. To some, “small-town church growth” sounds like an oxymoron. With only one stoplight and precious few residents, can the small-town church actually grow? It can, and it has in many contexts. Perhaps what follows will trigger something that might be implemented in your small-town church.

Church growth methods that are effective in the city might not be effective, workable, or even appropriate, in town and country settings. For instance: To be able to maintain a seeker service week in and week out, there must be a considerable population to draw from. A service targeting seekers in a town of 2,000 isn’t likely to have many attendees. Plus, the ability to be anonymous is considered a crucial component—an impossibility in town and country areas.

Offering a contemporary service in hopes of attracting people may actually lead to church decline. There just aren’t enough people in many towns and churches to maintain a contemporary service—or a traditional service, for that matter. This is quite a contrast to urban areas, where offering separate services for different music tastes might contribute to church growth. Furthermore, the rural culture may not be as responsive to a contemporary worship style, or the church may not have the resources (finances or people) to pull it off. Try to put together a worship team, and it may consist of two who are sharp, two flat, and one undecided!

So, when it comes to small-town church growth, one must be cautious about applying the  conventional wisdom found in many books and conferences.

I’m no church growth expert, but for the past 12 years I have been an observer as I’ve traveled all across the country. I’d like to share characteristics of effective evangelistic town and country churches that I’ve observed.

A sense of urgency. In many communities, rural people tend to think most everyone is a Christian. Or, if not, they think the church has been in the community long enough, and if people want to be saved they know the church is there—they’re welcome to attend any time. They don’t feel a sense of urgency to become proactive in evangelism.

What can be done to help overcome this lack of urgency? One suggestion is to compile statistics to show the need. Do a little homework to find how many are unchurched in your community. Don’t just quote generic statistics for the country. If you do, your church people will inevitably think their community is an exception.

One of the advantages of small-town intimacy is that you know most everyone who goes to church and who doesn’t, who’s likely a believer and who isn’t. Unlike in a city like Chicago, in a small town you can go through the phone book and highlight people who are unchurched or in churches that do not proclaim a clear gospel. Then, add up this list and determine what percentage in your community are likely unsaved. I can virtually guarantee that your congregation will be shocked.

The unsaved are out there! This will open your congregation’s eyes. It will help give them a sense of urgency for evangelism in your community.

Credibility. In urban areas, one could potentially be effective in evangelism without having a credible life. You could steal from your employer during the day, but lead someone to Christ through your church’s Evangelism Explosion program that night. You could cuss out your fellow worker on the job, but be a youth leader who is effectively reaching teens. You could have a shabby reputation with your next-door neighbors, but be a counselor at a big evangelistic crusade.

Why? Because you are evangelizing people you don’t know or aren’t with all week long. They have no idea how you live your life. Contrast this to the small-town environment, where it’s almost impossible to lead a double life. I know of a megachurch pastor whose marriage was in shambles for years, but the congregation didn’t know it. In fact, his wife almost never attended church and they didn’t know it. Yet, he is one of the most successful evangelistic pastors I know. This could never happen in a small town. If my wife missed church even once, scads of people asked where she was!

Without credibility, it isn’t too likely that one can be effective at evangelism in a small town. Two kinds of credibility are needed: personal and corporate.

You can’t cheat your neighbor, not pay your bills, share juicy gossip over a cup of coffee, or tell off-color jokes to someone on the street, and then be successful in sharing the Lord with those same people later in the week as you work cattle with them. Personal credibility is essential.

Among rural people, one’s entire personal history is known: conduct, values, past sins (going all the way back to one’s teen years!), marriage relationship, family life, financial dealings—it’s all an open book. And if one’s book doesn’t make for the kind of reading that enhances credibility, then one’s ability to be successful at evangelism is in question. Life in the small town is lived in a fishbowl. Nothing gets past anyone. There are few dark corners in which one can hide. To be an effective evangelist in a rural community, one must meet the strictest test of accountability.

What is true for individuals is also true for the church. The most effective evangelistic church will be a healthy church—health being what makes a church credible. No evangelism endeavors in a rural community will likely be effective if the church is not healthy. Again, this is because of social
intimacy. If one is talking to someone about Christ and they’re thinking, You attend First Church down the street. I’ve heard all about the kinds of things that happen in that church., they’ll likely conclude that they want no part of it!

How can this hindrance be overcome? I can hear a small-town resident saying: “What hope is there for me? When I was in sixth grade, I stole candy from the local store. I got caught and the newspaper put it on the front page. Even though I was 12 when it happened and I’m 36 now, everyone in town remembers what I did. I want to be used of God to reach people for Christ, but how can I?”

Or someone might say, “I blew it back during those tough years on the farm. I was going bankrupt and hid some assets from my creditor so that I’d have something to start over with. I got caught and everyone knows it. My reputation is shot. I can never live it down. I want to be successful in evangelism, but how can I?”

Or, “What you’re telling me I have to do is absolutely impossible. No matter how hard I try, sooner or later I’m going to sin. A bad word is going to slip out of my mouth, or I’m going to laugh at an off-color joke, or I’m going to say a cross word to my wife in public.”

Sooner or later, it seems that every person and every church takes their turn at messing up. And, in a small town, everyone knows it. If not messing up is a prerequisite for effective evangelism, then no one in town and country areas will be able to do it. How can one maintain credibility in a small town?
One suggestion: Regularly lead your church in individual and corporate repentance. This is a long-forgotten ministry in many local churches.

Start with a prayer time on Sunday morning. Follow the example of many of the prayers of the Bible, many of which consist of the spiritual leader bringing the sins of the people before God. The whole Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 centered around corporate confession. Many leaders, like Daniel and Nehemiah, led their people in prayers of confession.

Many Sundays, during prayer time, as pastor I confessed the sins of the people before God. Not private sins that I learned from counseling appointments, but general sins that I knew our people had committed. (Be careful—if you’ve done marriage counseling that week, don’t confess their sins on Sunday!) I would say things like, “Since last week some of us have yelled at our children when we shouldn’t have, cheated on a test in school, hidden income from the IRS, read magazines or looked at television programs that are an affront to You, gossiped against our neighbor…” Pray thoughtfully and with great care. Don’t say, “In the cafe we have gossiped,” because this might be a slam against the cafe owners.

I would confess these sins corporately before God. Then, if anything happened in the nation during the week, I confessed that: “Lord, Congress passed an abortion law this week that must grieve you terribly…”

Leading your congregation in corporate repentance is not only a regular reminder to them of the importance of confession and repentance, it also has a cleansing benefit. Confessing sins has a way of encouraging your people not to commit the same sins next week. Often I would say this as part of
my confession prayer: “Lord, we acknowledge this is wrong. Help us not to repeat these sins this week.”

My experience has been that corporate confession not only helped the church become healthy, it also provided a model for individual confession. It showed the need for making things right with God and with people.

Maybe it was someone’s comments that caused a congregational meeting to blow up. All it takes is one nasty congregational meeting and, when word gets out into the community, the church’s witness can be damaged for years. But, if dealt with properly, the community will hear about that too. They will say, “People aren’t perfect at First Church, but when wrong things happen there they deal with them.”

Just because we have sinned—as individuals or as a church—doesn’t mean our credibility is lost forever. What we need to understand is that humble repentance is a powerful witness. It’s the kind of news that gets around town too! It restores credibility.

Multi-faceted. It is my observation that churches which are effective at evangelism take a multi-faceted approach. They don’t look for one formula, one program, or one method as their solution. They don’t put all their eggs in one basket. They approach it from a number of angles—sometimes dozens of them.

They look for obstacles that need to be removed which are making evangelism difficult. An example: a church constitution that requires a form of decision making that creates a lot of open conflict and harms the church’s reputation.

They look for building improvements that are needed that will make the church more attractive for newcomers: painting that needs to be done, creating a pleasant foyer, remodeling the nursery, upgrading the sound system, installing new bathroom fixtures.

They look for church ministries that need improving—the music, the children’s programs.

They create lots of opportunities for their people to be involved in evangelism: show movies on Main Street, host a children’s rodeo, a Vacation Bible School, a Thanksgiving dinner, etc.

They repeatedly suggest many ways that their congregation can be involved with evangelism on a personal level: make it a point to go hunting with an unbeliever, invite neighbors into your home, head up a Welcome Wagon program for newcomers, volunteer in the public school, etc.

As the small-town church becomes more intentional about growth, the pastor has many important hats to wear.

Cheerleader. Encourage, share success stories, and affirm effective evangelism endeavors. Write about them in the church newsletter, congratulate in the church bulletin, talk about them from the pulpit.

Equipper. Train for evangelism. Don’t assume your people know how to evangelize or communicate the gospel.

Mentor. Show by example. It’s hard to imagine church people developing relationships with unbelievers if their pastor isn’t. Invite neighbors over. Work cattle with ranchers. Hop on a combine with farmers. Go to auctions. Go hunting. Become a volunteer ambulance driver. Spend time in
the cafe. Attend ball games…and sit with unbelievers.

Orchestrator. Provide multiple evangelism opportunities: a released time class at the local grade school, a concert in the park, a Valentine’s banquet, etc.

Nudger. Keep nudging (not shoving!) your people to do it.

Pray-er. Pray about evangelism endeavors in the pulpit. Pray in other contexts.

Informer. Remind your people about how many newcomers move into town. When I was pastoring in a town of 500, the local city utilities man attended our church. He once told me he had hooked up about a dozen electric meters for newcomers in our town in the past three months. I was shocked. I
passed the news on to our evangelism committee. They didn’t believe me, until I produced real names. Our committee went to work with a plan for welcoming newcomers to town and befriending them. A number of them became a part of our church.

Evaluator. Always look for ways to improve the things you are presently doing to encourage church growth and for new ways to help the church grow.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Four Core Values of Small Town Ministry

The following article was written by Ron Klassen, RHMA Executive Director.


In every ministry, there are times of question: Should I keep doing what I'm doing or do something completely different with my life? Should I keep doing the same thing, but in a different setting?

It's possible to evaluate these questions to another level: Does God want me to keep doing what I'm doing? is there something different I could do, or a different place I could do it, that would have greater impact for Him?

When these kinds of questions surface (which they do about twice a week in small town ministry), a few core values might make a difference.

Value #1: Individuals Are Important to God
Christ's parable of the lost sheep communicates this value loud and clear. To what great length the Shepherd went to find that one lost sheep!

God doesn't view this world in terms of masses; He views this world one person at a time. The God of the universe cares about that one lost person out in the middle of nowhere, whether "nowhere" is a tribal village in Irian Jaya or a small town in our own country---the "remotest part of the earth" of Acts 1:8. The Navigators' slogan, "Reaching the world one person at a time," should not be lost in our day of emphasis on the masses.

The well-known missionary martyr, Jim Elliot, devoted his life---and eventually gave his life---to reaching the approximately 300 people in the Auca Indian tribe in Ecuador. Statistically they were an insignificant number, especially when measured against the millions of people in the cities of Ecuador. But they were important to Jim Elliot, because they were important to God.

Confident that people in small population areas matter to God just as much as the urban masses, those who serve in such places can do so unapologetically, and be content to reach people one at a time.

Value #2: Isolated Contexts Are Not Limiting to God
Sometimes we are prone to think God's hands are pretty well tied in lower population areas---that size limits what God can do. But even in small places, large numbers can be reached. It depends not so much on numbers, but on God's sovereignty.

In Matthew 9:35-36, we read that when Christ taught in towns and villages, "crowds" gathered. Similarly, though John the Baptist's pulpit was out in the wilderness, multitudes flocked to hear him.

Time and time again it has been proven that good-sized churches can be found in isolated contexts. One church, in Oshoto, Wyoming, grew to an average attendance of 70, though only 131 people lived within a ten-mile radius of the church!

The "Religion Report"1 told of a city in Russia that missionaries went to. They worked hard, but with little response. An elderly woman in a nearby village invited the missionaries to come and preach in her town. The entire village of eighty showed up, and at the end of the service all eighty responded to the invitation!

Value #3: Sphere of Influence is More important Than Population
Living in a larger context does not guarantee larger influence. A million people living in close proximity does not mean a million people will be influenced for Christ. All of us are limited in how many we can influence. What's the difference, then, if we touch one thousand lives in a city of a million or on thousand lives in a smaller town of, say, two thousand?

Furthermore, it could be argues that because a small town is a more personal setting, the pastor or missionary in that town---known by everyone in town---will have more influence among the thousand lives he touches than he would among a thousand lives in a larger context. In a small town, when the pastor is in the local cafe, he is having influence, while in a large city no one in the cafe likely even knows him or knows he's a pastor. One may actually touch more lives, and have a greater influence in the small town than in the city.

Value #4: The Ability to See Potential is a Key to Success
Looking though God's eyes, it is possible to see potential where many can see none. One pastor might look over a community and see no potential there. Another might look at the same community and be excited about what he sees could happen in that place.

Sam Walton is an example of someone who saw potential when most could see none. He wrote, "Our key strategy...was simply to stores into little one-horse towns which everybody else was ignoring...In those days, K-mart wasn't going to towns below 50,000...We knew our formula was working even in towns small than 5,000 people, and there were plenty of those towns out there for us to expand into. When people want to simplify the Wal-Mart story, that's usually how they sum up the secret of our success: 'Oh, they went into small towns when nobody else would'...While the big guys were leap-frogging from large city to large city...they left huge pockets of business out there for us."2

If Sam Walton could see potential for Wal-Mart in small towns, then can we not see potential for the churches we pastor in small towns?

1. "National & International Religion Report," February 20, 1995.

2. Sam Walton, "Made in America---My Story," pp. 109-110.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Something For Everyone

Not too many years ago there was an extremely limited selection of breakfast cereals: corn flakes, oatmeal, cream of wheat, and maybe a couple of others. Today in most grocery stores both sides of a full aisle are devoted to cereal options. We have become accustomed to having something for everyone.

This "having something for everyone" creates a dilemma for the church-especially the smaller church. The first dilemma is theological: The church is a family (1 Tim. 3: 15; 5: 1-2). Families are healthiest when they inter-mix and inter-relate with each other, rather than each member living a separate life that caters to his/her desires and interests.

The second dilemma is practical: It is impossible for the smaller church to have a specialized ministry for everyone. How can it have a youth "group" when there are only two teens? Or a "singles ministry" when there is only one single over age 25?Or a ministry for divorcees? Or alcoholics? Or offer both a contemporary and traditional service (not to mention a seeker service!) when there aren't enough people for multiple services? How, in the smaller church, are we to offer "something for everyone" to a world that has grown accustomed to an aisle-full of cereals?

Perhaps we should consider the advantages of churches that are too small for specialized ministries.

At a recent funeral service for a senior saint who had lived to be 88, I listened as RHMA's Harold Longenecker remarked about the wisdom the deceased had imparted to younger people during the latter years of his life. But in the same breath he lamented the fact that church life today is so segmented and compartmentalized that different ages don't benefit from each other's stories and experiences nearly as much as they could. 

Picture the family arriving on Sunday morning in the larger church. The kids run to different Sunday School classes. One goes to the nursery. After Sunday School one goes to children's church, another to junior church, the third remains in the nursery, and Dad and Mom go to the adult worship service. When the morning is over, they get back together in their van and head home.

With everyone having their own "subchurch" one has to wonder: When did anyone in this church last have a small-town cafe. "Do you get much rain out here?" he asked. conversation with someone 20 years younger or older than he? 

But now picture Sunday morning in the The family goes their separate ways for Sunday School but then, because there is no children's or junior church, they are together for the worship service.

Can you see some advantage to the smaller church? True, there are also advantages to the compartmentalizing that happens in larger churches. (This article is not meant to be an argument for one over the other. Both have their advantages.) But because there are also advantages to mixing ages, smaller churches don't have to view their inter-generationalism as being something for which they must apologize. Rather they should accentuate the strengths of different ages mixing together.

Consider Wednesday night. There is no kids' programa negative, right? In some ways yes. But in others not. The kids and adults interact with each other during Bible Study. This isn't all bad! And what better way for kids to learn to pray? And adults, who sometimes strive to use lofty, "spiritual-sounding" words in their praying, benefit from listening to the simple, but beautiful, prayers of children.

There is great advantage when people of all ages mix together in church. And this doesn't apply to just the formal services but to times when the church plays volleyball together (the smaller church needs every age person to make two teams!), goes caroling, or enjoys a time of fellowship in someone's home.

One youth pastor who has served in both smaller and bigger churches noted, "Teenagers who experience only the youth group and never bond with others in the church are almost guaranteed to drop out [of church] after high school. If it's only the youth group that drew them, then only the youth group can hold them. No more youth group, no more kids. That's why I worked so hard to get our mega-church kids interacting with the rest of the church. But it was nigh unto impossible. Large churches tend to have an age-division paradigm that controls everything." 1 

There is great benefit when all ages mix together in church. There is benefit to separating ages too, but if that is not a possibility in your church, don't look at it as all bad. The small-town church is one of the few places left in American society where inter-generational relationships still exist. The advantages to this are so great that the pastor need not apologize when a visiting family asks whether the church has a teen ministry. Instead he can share the advantages of functioning like a family.

A Place for Everyone

A pastor was asked a number of questions by an out-of-towner who was curious about
his church:
"How many ministries does your church have? Do you have a singles ministry?"
"Yes, we do."
"How about a ministry to the handicapped?"
"Single parents?"
"College age?"
"Wow! How big is your church?"

In most every smaller church you'll find couples and divorcees and singles and handicapped and alcoholics all inter-mixing with each other, benefitting from each other's unique situations and experiences. 

In the smaller church everyone is ministered to by including them with everyone else.
There is no handicapped class, or singles' class, or widows' classthey're all just part of the fellowship, treated like everyone else.

When you think about it, who do seniors need to be around to stay healthy? Just other seniors? It is kids that put a spark in their eyes, not to mention the fact that seniors have a lot to offer kids!

Who should singles be with? They are healthiest and happiest when mixing with couples and families. I recently visited a small-town church which has a single lady in her forties who is an integral part of every aspect of church life. She is frequently invited to church people's homes, and she invites them to hers. No way does she consider her church inferior to a bigger church with a singles ministry! There is a good big-church option just down the road a few miles in a neighboring city, but she is not even tempted.

How about alcoholics? Some time ago I talked with a young alcoholic who had made a deliberate choice to attend a smaller church where she wasn't expected to be a part of a class for alcoholics. She believed that the best way to overcome her addiction was to interact with healthy non- alcoholics.

A few months ago I visited a smaller church which had a handicapped girl in attendance.
It warmed my heart to see how she was treated as one of the bunch. Kids played with her as if she was just like them. Adults interacted with her. If she needed special help navigating her wheelchair, there were plenty of hands anxious to offer assistance. I couldn't help but wonder what advantage there could be for this girl in a church with a specialized ministry for handicapped children. I noted that these advantages extended to the non-handicapped as well, who had learned valuable lessons about people: Everyone is accepted. Everyone is included. Everyone is treated like everyone else.

A husband and wife with six children told a pastor-friend of mine that they were thinking
of moving out of their small town of 500 because they wondered if their children were missing out on benefits that might be available elsewhere. In reality, the most benefits for their children might be had right where they were! The next time someone asks what programs your church has for teens, don't apologize. Instead say, "We have church!"

1 Dave McClellan, "The Small-Church
Advantage," Group (Jan-Feb 1999), p. 34.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Obstacle

We're continuing our look at the challenges of rural ministry. Reprinted with permission from RHMA.


During the years I worked as a consultant, I was invited to assess the capability of a very small congregation to reach out to new people who were moving into their parish. The pastor was especially discouraged. He described his church as a "stubborn bunch," unwilling to change, and not at all open to new people, especially as leaders.

During the interviews I conducted with the 34 members of this church, a pattern quickly emerged; more than half the people had the same surname. In fact, I discovered that 30 of the 34 resident active members were a "Smith" by blood or marriage. Late in the afternoon I interviewed the patriarch, J. Catfish Smith. When I asked Mr. Smith whether what I had discovered about the composition of the congregation was accurate, he responded with classic understatement: "Yes, we do have some influence in this church."

The next day I met with the pastor and district committee to share my findings. When I talked about the dominance of the Smiths, the pastor quickly agreed. "He's the problem," the pastor said. "If you want to get anything done, you have to figure a way to go around him. But that's hard to do because no one will cross him."


Listening to this pastor's analysis, I understood why his efforts to introduce changes into the life of that small church were continually frustrated. He could not accept the fact that any significant changes in the life of this congregation would be established only with the patriarch's approval.

In truth, it would be foolish to suggest that a pastor could or should push aside a powerful, traditional leader like Mr. Smith. I found myself bringing this unwelcome news to the district committee gathered to help that 34-member congregation "get on with being a church." Those who prove to be effective pastors in small-town congregations dominated by traditional leaders (and there is at least one in nearly every small-town congregation with which I am familiar) rarely try to go around them. One cannot circumvent them successfully---not without great cost.

I am aware my viewpoint is contrary to the counsel usually offered: Traditional leaders from the past who stand in the way of changes are charaterized as the "old guard." They should be gently but firmly encouraged to step aside.

There are congregations with whom this approach is appropriate. I recommended it myself on many occassions when I worked as a church consultant---like for a new suburban church which had grown from 50 to 850 in 4 1/2 years. I moderated heated debates about the size to which the congregation should be permitted to grow. When I met a seminary classmate at a conference several years ago, I asked how he had managed to lead his suburban congregation effectively for so many years. "Actually," he replied, "I've been in the same place for 16 years, but I've served four congregations!" I believe congregations like these need to develop new programs and include new leaders.

People whose lives are marked by constant change are served well by congregations and leaders which are able to refocus their program. But, methods developed by leaders who serve churches in rapidly changing contexts are not directly transferable to small-town churches.


Small-town congregations are rarely situated in rapidly changing social contexts. Small-town congregations are composed mostly of the original families. Many small congregations in rural communities have lost population. Thus they are made up of people who have not experienced positive change. Members of churches in these contexts are far more skeptical about the benefits of change.

Thus, traditional leaders see that resisting change is an essential role. They protect their church against the harmful changes facilitated by cultural "outsiders" who don't see or appreciate the needs and interests of their small-town church. Even when church members find leaders like Mr. Smith difficult to deal with, they usually still affirm him because he stands between the congregation and what they perceive as potentially harmful change. They are not likely to shift their allegiance to new leaders until it becomes clear that the changes they want will not be at their expense.


No action can displace traditional leaders in small-town churches. Displacing them from offices does not displace them as leaders. Unlike leaders in large churches, their power is not organizationally based. I sometimes refer to traditional leaders as "contextually rooted" leaders, to indicate that their power stems from roots beyond the church. Their authority in the church is derived from the position they hold in the family and community. So long as their social roots are solid, attempts to replace or circumvent them are likely to fail.

Unless contextually rooted leaders in a congregation are obviously psychologically dysfunctional, the pastor who wants to succeed in helping a small-town church become more effective will not try to circumvent or displace them. Traditional leaders hold what Roy Oswald calls "reputational power." He clarifies the critical difference between those who hold formal or official power in a congregation and those who hold informal or unofficial power. An office gives the one who holds it certain rights and privileges and, perhaps, some authority, but not necessarily a lot of power. As the pastor of that 34-member church discovered, there is a difference between what one is authorized to do and what one is able to do. By virtue of his office, the pastor was authorized to lead the congregation, but he lacked the power to effect any significant change. The patriarch, on the other hand, held no office; he had no official power. But he controlled everything in the church he wanted to control. The pastor couldn't go around him.


The patriarch held "reputational power." Traditional leaders who hold reputational power are powerful because others believe they are powerful. Participants in small churches expect those who hold reputational power to exercise that power no matter who the official leaders are. I do not mean to imply they should be the most powerful leaders, only that they usually are. A pastor who wishes to become an influential leader must contend with the reality of their power.

Even Jesus accepted this reality. After His first sermon, for example, He did not confront the reputational power in the synagogue; He slipped away by merging into the crowd (Luke 4:16-30). He confronted those with reputational power only when His own reputational power was clearly established. Among His own disciples, He did not seek to displace the obstinate and often difficult Peter from his dominant role in the group, but rather worked patiently with him to help him grow in faith and effectiveness.

Working with traditional leaders is usually the best and sometimes the only way to help a small congregation become more faithful and effective. Several years ago the small congregation where I am a member joined with several others to rehabilitate some substandard housing in our area. When the work was finished, the administrator of the rehabilitation program invited a woman who holds a great deal of power in one of the congregations to become the administrator of the completed housing project. She is a woman in her 60's from an old, established family in the community. Little in her past seemed to equip her for the job. Some of us wondered whether she was qualified.

We discovered very soon that her reputational power helped her to be qualified. Late one night, shortly after she began working in the new position, the village police called to tell her they were responding to a complaint about a loud party in one of the apartment units. A sizable fight had broken out. She said she would meet the police at the scene of the trouble. When she arrived, the police advised her not to enter the apartment. She ignored their advice. She walked into the middle of the brawl and told those involved to stop fighting immediately! They did! She told them behavior like theirs would not be tolerated and that if they provoked another incident like this one she would evict them. They believed her. She has reputation power which, in the minds of those fighting, exceeds even that of the police in our village.


With only a minimum of encouragement, those who hold reputational power can play extremely helpful roles in a small-town congregation. One secret of becoming an effective pastor lies in discovering which contextually rooted leaders to support. First impressions may be misleading. It often requires patience to discern the true nature of traditional leaders.

In 30 years of working with small churches, I have found that only a few of those who hold reputational power are genuinely disturbed individuals who use their influence in inappropriate or destructive ways. Though there are clearly situations in which traditional leaders should be challenged to step down, the widespread belief that the pastor should move quickly to seek new leaders is usually not a sound strategy. It feels to the church that the pastor is telling them to cast out their parents and grandparents who, though they may be difficult at times, are nonetheless worthy of the respect given to them.

In most small churches, members have seen pastors and programs come and go. Strong characters and the leadership they offer may not always be the best, but they persist year after year. A pastor who wants to help a small church become more effective and faithful is most likely to succeed by working with, not by trying to displace or go around, its contextually rooted, traditional leaders.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Good Advice From an Experienced Rural Church Pastor

Great insight on rural church ministry from Richard DeRuiter, an experienced rural church pastor the state of Washington.

It might surprise some that not all rural churches are made up of farmers. My church has a few dairymen, but the vast majority work in or are retired from other area industries. It's very much a blue collar church.

One thing I'd suggest for a small town church or rural church pastor is to get involved with a community agency of some kind. I joined our local volunteer fire department and have found it to be a great way to hang around with people who, while not all Christian, enjoy helping people and playing with big-boy toys. ;-) This has opened a lot of doors into the community for me, given me credibility with the unchurched, and has given our church a reputation of being with the community (not just in it - if you know what I mean).

Two big surprises for me are two ministries that I never thought would be anything but hobbies for those involved. The first is a theatre group started by a former Christian school teacher. We have an annual play, with a positive message, no foul language (etc.). It's become a ministry to actors and a way to meet more people in our community who come to see the plays. The second is a 7 1/2" guage train club. We have a few hundred feet of track and a train just the right size for giving rides to kids (of all ages). It was begun by a guy who loves trains and saw an unused area of property and asked if he could put a train there. This has become a train ministry, touching the lives of hundreds of people (when they go out to county fairs), and dozens here in our small town.

I was in another small church in Plain, WA (not CRC), who had a fishing ministry called "Family Lines." It was started by a guy who loved fishing and wanted to leverage his knowledge and experience into a ministry targetting family relationships (mostly father & son/daughter).

My point is that rural churches can do somethings urban & suburban churches can't do, but that these things are usually dependent on the interests of the folks who live there, and the willingness of the church to try something different, something that doesn't look very 'churchy.'

So another suggestion is to look at the hobbies of the folks in the church and brainstorm about ways to transform a mere hobby into a way to meet and interact with people. In a rural setting the best evangelism happens while doing something else (IMHO), letting the light of the Lord shine through in our everyday lives.

Another observation I have that distinguishes blue-collar communities from white-collar or college educated is this: college educated want to understand why it would work before trying it, blue collar folks just want to know if it will work or not, why is secondary (if not irrelevant). So, in my church, I don't need to explain social dynamics, psycho-social relationships and discuss trust-building before lauching a ministry designed primarily to interact with people. But I do need to convince them that just being a believer and living like one, while hanging around unchurched people, will make a difference in the lives of those unchurched folks, and that some of them will become believers because we've made friends with them.

It's also very helpful to create or nurture an atmosphere where it's okay to fail. One of my most helful phrases has become "Let's try it for a month and see what happens." Sometimes it doesn't work -- great! What did we learn? Sometimes it does -- great! Can we do it even better?
As far as teaching/preaching goes, in my experience and study, the NT was written by and for working-class folks, and they get it (if we don't muck it up too much with overly-subtle theological points). Don't underestimate their ability to grasp and live out the grand and glorious themes of Scripture. And when they get it, they're "all in." It's amazing.

Finally, I've found that it takes more than 10 years to be seen as part of the community, especially in small rural churches. Most pastors view a small rural church as a stepping stone in their career (I did too). So most members have learned to view their pastors as just passing through, not really invested in their church nor their community -- at least not as much as they are. Settling in for the long-haul with them is something they're not used to (usually). Some amazing things have happened here after 15 years, when my wife & I decided to buy land and build a house. "I guess you're planning to stay a while," folks said with a broad smile; and ministry has taken on a new depth. I wish I would have known earlier.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Contrasting Rural and Urban

We're continuing our look at the challenges of rural ministry. Reprinted with permission from RHMA.

A high percentage of pastors in small towns come from urban backgrounds Furthermore, in recent years many urbanites have migrated to the country. Often a collision of cultures is the result. This article explores common differences between rural and urban people. While reading through the differences that follow, it is important not to look at them as right or wrong. These differences were gleaned from three primary sources: (a) Martin Giese’s master’s thesis, “A Pastoral Training Program for Rural Churches” (Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, 1993), (b) Kent Hunter’s book, The Lord’s Harvest and the Rural Church (Beacon Hill Press: Kansas City, 1993), and (c) a doctor of ministry class taught at Bethel Seminary by Barney Wells titled “Leading the Town and Country Church” (July 1999).

 Assessing success
Because of ongoing economic hardship and other crises regularly encountered (like bad weather and crop diseases), success to
many rural people is making it another year. But for urban people, surviving is not good enough. They have been successful when this year's sales exceed the last. Urban people believe the church is successful when attendance and giving are up and the number of programs has increased.

An urban background pastor may struggle with a “survival is success” mentality in part because books on church growth put his "plateaued" church in an unfavorable category. If the church does not respond to his ideas for additional programming, he may take this as personal rejection, when the real problem is different cultural orientations.

The pastor who finds himself in a “survival is success” congregation needs to first of all affirm survival. To say, “All we’re doing is surviving,” is to not understand the rural culture. Instead he should applaud survival: “Praise God, we’ve survived! He must still have a purpose for us. Let’s move forward as He allows!”

If progress in the rural church is too slow, the pastor might consider loops of ministry that extend beyond the local context.

Small is beautiful
Small is attractive to most rural people. Large might be threatening. They fight school consolidation because they do not think bigger is better. They may have mixed feelings about growth in their church. Many urbanites, on the other hand, see a direct correlation between a church’s size and its vitality.

The pastor needs to make sure his theology is right. God does not view small as inferior, neither should he (Deut. 7:7-8, Zech. 4:10a). A smaller youth group is not inferior; fewer worshippers does not mean inferior worship. Some of the most meaningful experiences happen in intimate contexts.

Perhaps the rural pastor’s greater focus should be on church health rather than growth. Hopefully the growth will come, as it
often does, even in sparsely populated areas.

Independent, but interdependent
Rural people tend to live, work, and think independently. While they are close-knit and know what it means to be good neighbors, they are also rugged individualists, more likely to “tough it out” by themselves than seek help. They often cooperate with each other because they need to, not because they are drawn to work together.

It is helpful to understand the difference between independence and interdependence. For many farmers, interdependence is a necessary concession. There are many uneasy and temporary alliances formed between farmers, usually to accomplish a task that cannot be done alone (like cattle branding, harvesting, and helping each other out in times of crisis). This does not necessarily reflect a desire to work together as much as an unspoken understanding that “If I don’t help you build your barn, you may not help me at harvest time.” This does not mean they are antisocial, it is just their tendency to first
try to figure out how to go it alone.

It can be difficult for rural people to find consensus and pull together For instance, they’ve had a hard time agreeing on farm policy, which has made it difficult for them to unite to achieve common goals.

Urban people, by contrast, are used to living close together and working with other people. This does not mean they all get along or that they enjoy being with people more than their rural counterparts, but they are more accustomed to it.

When the pastor fails to bring a congregation to a consensus or lead in a certain direction, he might put too much blame on himself or take it as personal rejection, when in reality it is just the culture.

Planning for the future
On the farm there are constant reminders of limitations and inability to control surroundings because of unpredictability
due to factors beyond one’s control (e.g., crop failures, bad weather, and fluctuating markets). In contrast, urban people live in
controlled environments (e.g., precise manufacturing, technology that operates like clockwork, thermostats).

These two vastly different environments spawn key differences between how city and rural people might think. For instance,
with so many uncertainties, establishing vision and setting goals—the subject of numerous books and seminars—may be regarded by rural people as presumptuous, foolish, and perhaps even sinful. How can one make plans when he doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring (James 4:13-16)? But the urban pastor is likely to view goal setting as essential (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
These differing perspectives can be balanced by realizing that even agrarians set goals. They have things in mind to do for
the day, an idea of how much land they would like to eventually farm, and how big they would like their cattle herd to become.
But they tend to hold these goals loosely and somewhat privately.

Pastors in these contexts can set private goals. They can work with the leaders and congregation to set flexible goals. These goals might be informal rather than carefully scripted. And, the whole concept of vision should probably be kept low-key.

Specialization orientation
Rural people tend to be jacks-of-all-trades but masters-of-none. Their work requires that they be a welder, carpenter, plumber,
mechanic, and electrician. While perfectionists are found in rural areas just as in urban, one cannot possibly be proficient in all things. And so, rather than ask, “Can I do the job well?” rural people ask, “Can I do the job?”

Pastors from urban backgrounds might be accustomed to more specialization. City people tend to do fewer things, which means they do those fewer things pretty well, and then they hire specialists to do what they cannot do.

This could create friction. Rural people’s whole approach to ministry might be, “We’ll do the best we can.” They will likely be
satisfied with an adequate keyboard player. Church maintenance projects might be approached with the thinking: “At least we
won’t have to hire it done.”

Wise pastors will realize the rural perspective has more to applaud than condemn. A willingness to serve is better than a “Let's hire it done” mentality. Participation is usually a higher virtue than perfectionism. At the same time it is good for the pastor to, in a gentle and noncondescending manner, nudge his people in the direction of quality. One country church pastor summed up the needed balance very well: “High standards of performance have been modeled and gradually accepted. At the same time, we have honored everyone’s abilities.”

Few things are more baffling to pastors from urban backgrounds than the agrarian’s approach to finances. For one thing, an agrarian might think his pastor is better off financially than he, not because he makes more money but because he has a regular paycheck.

Urban people don’t understand the “poor-rich” farmer. While farmers may have considerable assets, their asset-to-income ratio is imbalanced. They may live at near poverty level.

The farmer’s assets are non-liquid and nonmonetary (land, machinery, livestock). When there is a money crunch at church,
the urban pastor might wonder why a rural person doesn’t sell a cow to help out. But he is reluctant to do so because the cow is his source of income.

Because life is unpredictable and income not guaranteed, rural people tend to find ways to get by and save for a “rainy day.” They do not view “excess funds” as “excess” because sooner or later they will be needed.

Rural people tend to be more practical with spending. They are more likely to fix plumbing than spend money on a computer

"Budget" might be a foreign term to a rural person. How can one budget when income is unknown? This may be viewed as

Not knowing these things, the pastor may feel personally rejected when he makes a suggestion for an expenditure that is vetoed, or think that his congregation is “unspiritual."

Outlook on life
Frequent disappointments can produce a pessimistic outlook. This is the rural person’s defense mechanism, his protection against dashed hopes. It works this way: If he expects the worst, then whatever happens isn’t so bad. Say “Good morning!” to a farmer and he might reply, “Oh, I don’t know. It looks like rain.” To which you might respond, “That’d be great for the crops.” To which he might respond, “Might drown us out.” A farmer never has a good year, never makes any money. Yet, at the same time farmers are some of the most optimistic people around, as evidenced by the fact they keep putting a crop in the ground no matter how many times they’ve been hailed out or how low the price of wheat.

The urban background pastor might tire of his rural congregation’s negative outlook, tire of a “But what if” mentality. He needs to understand why rural people tend to be more chronically pessimistic and not allow their pessimism to become his pessimism. The pastor also needs to make sure the church is an oasis in the desert of discouragement. While sensitive to the
farmer’s outlook, he should not allow it to impede the progress of the church.

Task orientation
Even if by personality rural people are time oriented, the nature of their work forces them to be task oriented: “First I’ll do chores, then run to town for repairs, then fix the baler, then go a few rounds in the field.”

This task orientation often is due to imprecise timing because of factors beyond their control. It is impossible, for instance, to
schedule the behavior of animals. Rounding up cattle may take an hour or half a day.

If the church needs a new roof, in response to the question of when, the agrarian will say, “After planting.” When is that? Answer: "When it’s done.” This can be frustrating for the urban pastor who carries a DayTimer.

A rural person might show up late to a meeting saying, “I had one more round to go in the field.” Pastors would be wise to not
make an issue of this task orientation.

Many pastors plan their work by the clock. But an agrarian is not likely to understand if he can’t see his pastor because it’s “his time to study.” The farmer might live 40 miles away and this is the time when he had to come to town, and he decides to drop in to see his pastor. 

To some degree, timeliness is cultural. With many rural people, 7:00 p.m. means “more or less around that time.”

Definition of work
A new pastor was assisting in a feed store, helping to fill sacks with corn. As he pulled his first bag off the scale and started to close it, the pastor noticed a look of concern on the face of the store owner. “When we tie sacks, we use a miller’s knot,” he said. “I don’t suppose you can do that.” He didn’t know his pastor had farmed for 10 years. When he easily tied the knot, the store owner was impressed. “You’re the first preacher I ever saw,” he told him, “who knew anything at all about working.”

A rural person might define “work” as manual labor. Desk work may not be viewed with the same respect. An urban background pastor may not understand why he is accused of not working hard. This can be a threat to his credibility. This difference in perspective can be eased if the pastor gets out of his study from time to time and does manual labor. As he earns credibility, he can back off from physical labor and devote more time to pastoral ministry.

View of each other
Rural people tend to think in terms of how they relate to each other, as opposed to functions and titles. Urbanites might say, “This is Bob. He is the chairman of our board. He is a senior partner in a law firm and also serves on the town council.” But rural people would probably say, “This is Bob, Jim and Nadine’s boy. He lives down at the old McPherson place.”

An urban pastor may think his people care about his degrees, theological expertise, and career experience, when in reality the
care most about how he relates to them. He needs to, as quickly as possible, work himself into the web of relationships by doing things like attend ball games, go to parties and celebrations, invite people over, visit widows, go to cattle sales, join the volunteer fire department, and frequent the coffee shop. Having impact in a rural community doesn’t just happen when the pastor fulfills his official duties; it will also happen through relational bonding.

Decision making
 Because they are more informal and unstructured, rural people tend to view committee and congregational meetings as an opportunity to fellowship. Dialogue will drift from the business at hand. This may not settle well with a pastor who believes meetings should have a focused discussion, motion, and vote.

Rural people are used to being involved in every decision, great or small. The pastor may be frustrated by the “petty” issues that are brought up in meetings.

Rural people’s reluctance to talk in public, usually because of their private nature and non-verbal tendencies, means they are not as likely to share their opinions at meetings. And, they don’t want to risk conflict. After all, they have to live with each other the rest of the week! Thus it is likely that some decisions will be made after the meeting through an informal but carefully worked out way of exploring how everyone feels. Often these “meetings after the meeting” convene in the church foyer, on the phone, in the cafe, or on the street corner. While rural people may give assent to formal decisionmaking processes, they don’t put a lot of stock in those processes. Any formal way of arriving at a decision can be rendered meaningless by informal discussions.

Pastors might get frustrated when their people easily approve a decision at a meeting, only to later hear them complain about it, ignore it, or reverse it. Rural pastors are wise to first talk about ideas and issues informally, letting people come to a consensus, then bring the issue to a meeting and a vote.