While over eighty percent of Canada’s population live in urban centers, 90% of our diverse landscape is ministered to by rural pastors and their church families. Often misunderstood and definitely underappreciated, rural churches go about their ministries faithfully serving their regions without notice nor fanfare. While many may reduce rural churches to small, second class and behind the times, nothing could be further from the flourishing truth!
Throughout the country, the pulse of rural ministry is infused with both joy and challenge! The extent to which they can celebrate and navigate through life and shifting economic realities and cultural expressions finds within the fabric of their faith an ability to flourish. So what does a flourishing rural church actually look and feel like?
The metrics used to ‘measure’ this experience in rural life however are not the traditional ones used across the board by denominations. The standards of ‘butts, bucks, and buildings’ don’t apply to this unique sphere of ministry. Rather, more qualitative expressions are those within which expressions of flourishing rural churches can be found.
Understanding context is primary in understanding the essence of rural life and ministry. Church families experience the living and ever-changing backdrop of nature through which they sense the ongoing presence of the God they worship. Be it the majestic mountains, the rolling prairies, the glistening lakes or fragrant forests, flourishing rural ministry is tethered to the land in which believers share their lives and experience their faith together.
Relationships are the primary vehicle through which rural churches flourish. Congregations thrive to the extent they care for each other and share true biblical fellowship and discipleship. Due to the smaller size of their communities, their need for relational interconnectedness is vital. Churches that flourish display ongoing signs of congregational life that goes far beyond surface relationships into the fabric of a shared life and faith experience. Such relationships represent the vital lifeline that allows church families to bond and flourish together.
Some may say this is true of all churches, and I have no problem in agreeing. However understanding the interconnected nature of rural life makes the ability to living in relational harmony more challenging. Rural folk ‘live together’ for good or bad, through thick and thin. They share life with each other continually throughout the week – at the gas station, the coffee shop, the school and grocery store. Their experience of church isn’t what happened the previous Sunday in the sanctuary. Rather, it is found in the down to earth experience of living collectively within the context of their faith in communities that are driven by the demands and rhythms of the land upon which they live.
Life experience in a flourishing rural church proceeds at a slower pace of life and living compared to the ‘rat race’ of urban reality and it isn’t because rural residents don’t have a lot to do. People make time for each other to talk life and family, not just business. Because church life is shared holistically, and experienced inter-generationally, priority on the ‘family’ is central to all of church life. This is seen in people looking out for each other’s kids, and where teens are trained to be strong church leaders with the expectation of using their gifts and talents as a part of their worshipping community.
Finally, a flourishing rural church looks past their lack of resources and creates a God honouring expression of ‘church life’ by putting to use the full extent of spiritual gifts and physical talents present within the body of Christ. The level of investment in a flourishing church is therefore very high, not only because of the need to get involved because of lack of numbers, but as an expression of a living faith in which God has called them into ministry and service for the common good of the community. This means every flourishing rural church is quite unique in and of itself depending on the mix of people who not only fill the pews, but who also share their lives together.