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.