Practicing Community Development in Rural Places
As the Church thinks about how to adapt to our rapidly changing world, community development will become more important to our evangelical practices. Our Wesleyan theology and history sets us up with ample resources to do this well, and to think deeply about how to do this in theologically responsible ways.
More than that, I firmly believe that our rural churches are particularly well suited to lead in this type of evangelism. Rural churches stand in a unique spot in our denomination, with unique challenges. Because of that, rural churches can both be strengthened by practices of community development and be a witness to other churches hoping to embody the same.
Because of space, I won’t be spending a lot of time on the theological side of this. I’ll revisit that in later posts. Today, I want to emphasize the importance of our rural churches in community development, and to share some beginning steps that churches can take now.
Why Rural Churches?
The small, rural church occupies a hallowed spot in our Methodist DNA. In North Carolina, many of these parishes are linked back to the beginning days of our denomination. Some even predate the Methodist church. I was pleased to learn as I moved into my own rural appointment that Francis Asbury mentions my church twice in his journals. He arrived the first time to add us to the connexion, and returned a decade later to preach again.
Our rural churches are not immune to the increasing secularization of our society. Nor are they immune from the ways that the Church has become entangled in our wider culture, in which church and faith is less about discipleship, and more about adhering to a cultural standard. At times, they can be even more steeped in those ethos.
As the Christian church declines in the US, it might seem obvious to write off the death of rural churches as a foregone conclusion. In truth, many of our contemporary practices assume this. One only needs to see which churches are being closed each year at any Annual Conference. It seems logical to assume that as churches in general decline, rural churches will be the first pruning.
But while rural churches are not immune from the larger cultural challenges, they do face a different set of challenges, the largest around demographics. Rural churches are often declining not because their communities are less religious — in fact, they are often more religious — but because there are just less people in those places. They are in decline, often, because there are simply less people. Here in eastern North Carolina, we have at least one district comprised entirely of counties that have declining populations.
More than that, these churches sit in some of our most vulnerable communities. Here in North Carolina, all of our Tier 1 counties are rural. Rural jobs, particularly manufacturing, are at a high risk of becoming obsolete over the next two decades.
So How Is Any of This Hopeful?
For starters, rural churches have the potential to fill a massive leadership void. As I’ve written elsewhere, rural churches don’t have the luxury of pessimism. The church can practice an evangelism and leadership that not only points to hope, but practices hope in all seasons.
Second, rural churches can use this opportunity to create a “new thing.” It’s no secret that churches in general are changing. Smaller congregations can often become stuck in the past. But their small size allows them, with the right leadership, ability to adapt quickly. Small rural churches can leverage their assets into creative new ventures. These efforts can have tremendous and powerful effects on their communities. When rural churches take seriously that evangelism isn’t just about church growth and embrace their natural gifts, they can hold vibrant and community changing ministries.
Finally, rural churches can help the broader United Methodist Church reconnect with our Wesleyan roots. Our Wesleyan theology has always called us into the community. The 19th Century Holiness Movement had tremendous impact, and not just on the local community. Those efforts rippled outwards, and impacted our nation as a whole. Rural congregations can serve as a vibrant reminder that our faith call us out into the community.
Taking Small Steps
When I’ve worked with congregations in the past, I’ve found that its often overwhelming both for me and for them to try to gauge all of their assets. Even in my own congregation, trying to list all of our gifts turns into a complicated and messy conversation. Because of that, I began focusing on four specific areas, which should be explored over time with intentionality.
Place: There’s a great one-liner that gets tossed around in rural community development: “If you’ve seen one rural county, you’ve seen one rural county.” The truth is, rural communities are radically different from one another in their culture, diversity, and economic makeup. In some places, where eco-tourism and low property values combine, retirees will flock in droves, providing a healthy tax base and plenty of volunteer power. In others, agricultural or manufacturing might dominate the job market. Still others have large commuting populations, increasing their connection and dependency on an urban core. Each of these has different challenges and different strengths.
Church leaders can better understand their place in two ways. First, take stock of the data about your community. Analyze census data and profiles to better understand the demographics and economics of your community.
But data doesn’t tell the whole story. Take time to listen to the people in the community, and take notice of the way they speak about their history. Notice the themes that recur in their stories, and what challenges stand out to them.
People: The biggest gift of the rural church is the dedicated group, however large or small, that gathers each week to be a community. In my own congregation, we have two scientists, a small business owner, several nurses, an accountant, and more. There are very few places where gatherings of all of these people can occur naturally.
In order to draw upon those talents, my congregation did a simple skills inventory, which was inserted in their bulletin. Church members were invited to fill out a check list with which skills they had, and they could drop in the offering plate. I discovered people who liked to dance, people gifted at fundraising, and people I never imagined who loved public speaking. which they dropped in the offering plate. As challenges and needs arise, we match those skills to create new ministry opportunities.
One of the ways our churches will need to adapt in the future is by developing faithful disciples. In small churches, this actually might be an easier task. Beginning to get a sense of what people are passionate about is a great start to that. And, equally as important, it helps to get a wider view of what areas people aren’t skilled or passionate about. If you discover that no one can cook, but lots of people can teach, it seems silly to envision a ministry that requires a lot of cooking.
Property: I once walked into a small church in an area ripe for ministry and renewal. A small subdivision was being built nearby, and a school was just a few miles down the road. The last few years had been hard on that congregation. As we started talking about their plans, one of the members told me that they really didn’t have any resources to use. Most rural churches, after all, don’t have large programming budgets, and the pastor can be the single largest expense.
The church sat on a large plot of land that backed up to the nearby subdivision. They owned a church bus, and had ample classroom space. All of these are assets. At times, our property might seem like it’s our only asset. Yet, as we prove each Sunday, our property where people can gather. It is its own testament to our faith. That we would gather in these places, week after week, already shows the world something of our faith. Our property is already used for community. It’s not a far leap at all to imagine that role being expanded.
Partners: I spent my first year of ministry in Raleigh, working for a non-profit focused on rural community development. In one of my early meetings, a colleague at a different organization said rather bluntly, “You know, you don’t have to recreate this. We’ve already started it.” As churches have moved away from community development, non-profits have taken up that work. When we move back into that space, it’s helpful to sit down and create a map of all the organizations at work in the area.
This last summer, my church had a mission’s fellow, whose task it was to create an asset map of all the organizations involved in ending food insecurity. Her job was to help our church think of ways we might expand our own ministries past the simple food distribution that we were doing. At the end of the summer, we looked at the map together.
“Listen,” she began, “there are a lot of organizations, and they’re doing this work better than we could.”
“So what should we do?” I asked.
“Keep doing what you’re doing, and find another issue to tackle. You’d be spinning your wheels on this one.”
Taking stock of the available partners helped me understand that we were serving in the way that was most beneficial to our community. At times, partners might jump at the chance to leverage your assets. They might need your space, or your members might fill a particular skills void. At other times, the best service you can do might be to support what’s already happening, and plug into the network that already exists.
We started our summer food distribution when a nearby food bank asked for our gym. They provide the food that we give away, and we provide the space and the volunteers. As we got into the work, we realized that if we wanted to expand, the most helpful thing to do would be to offer school supplies and lightly used clothes. I won’t be surprised if that ministry continues to build on itself in the coming years as we continue to connect with more partners.
As leaders in the church, one of our central tasks is to help people be able to see the Kingdom of God around them. It’s easy to get to stuck in that mindset of scarcity and failure. But before we can preach hope to others, we have to be able to see it ourselves.
As rural churches begin to embark in more community development work, we need to be able to draw out our assets even when none seem available. That’s difficult. When people seem caught up on the cemetery instead of missions, we should be able to name the love and respect for tradition and place. When we have a low Sunday, we should celebrate the dedication of those who come week after week. When it seems like no one wants to volunteer, we should learn to rejoice that somehow, things still get done. If we embody this hope, if we embody this dedication, to our community, then others will begin to live and see it, too.
Community development is a long and arduous process. Yet, it is an evangelical practice that can profoundly reshape the future of our church. In the future, I’ll expand on theology and practices. But for now, I think it’s enough to say simply: what a gift we rural pastors have that we can lead in our spaces and places, offering renewal not just to our communities, but to the whole Church.