I must confess that I would have probably had some significant differences in my perspective just two or three years ago, before I had spent some time pastoring a church in a rural area. Some of the statements referenced in the article have been said to me, or things which I have had to work out when the inevitable frustrations of leading a rural church come about. Let me say at the outset that while I think it is problematic for the church to label small, rural congregations as "less-thans" ipso facto, so also is it wrong to condemn the struggle of pastors who wrestle with the call to such areas without deeper consideration. There are difficulties which arise in every pastorate - small, large, urban, rural - most which come from the confrontation of expectation and reality.
"Don't go. You're too creative for that." This is the famous line from the article, spoken to a promising seminarian by his professor when considering the move to a rural congregation. Yes, on the surface it is a striking and pitiful comment. But I contend there is some truth in the statement, if we allow ourselves to look deeper into these decisions. (And I contend that the bulk of the problem here is found in shallow decision making.) Creativity is often as narrowly defined as the perception of small rural churches. We have convinced ourselves that true creativity in church life is found in trendy worship bands, trendier worship movements, and the ability to produce flashy mass media productions to connect our folks to the gospel. Since virtually none of this is important to most rural churches, we think that they are not 'creative' and therefore will kill those who are.
But there most certainly is a creativity among rural congregations. I, like many others, have had to work very hard and suffer through many frustrations to begin this discovery. Priorities among those who are largely farmers are different than those who work in the city. This is neither good nor bad - it is life. Finding out which aspects of life and faith are most valued in a rural setting not only requires a truly creative mind, but so does the orientation of the congregational life to these values. Sometimes this is easy, other times it is challenging. But no more or less than any other church.
"A town without a Starbucks scares them." The numbers which are given in this article point to the problematic fusion of the high cost of seminary training coupled with the majority of students now coming from urban areas. If these are the determining factors, then there really isn't much else to say for the state of the pastorate in modern evangelicalism. We hold in high esteem those who relinquish Western lifestyle comforts to go to foreign countries as foreign missionaries, yet regard those who serve in small rural churches as the 'less-thans.' We are already faced with a culture that devalues the importance of pastoral calling and the reverence of the office, and this appears to be an outworking of that perspective. Is there any good reason why a calling to a small rural congregation would not be seen as a vital spiritual endeavor?
On par with this issue is one which this article does not raise, but deserves mentioning here. Having worked in a small rural church I have noticed the intentional divide which is still being defined between many who are in larger and urban situations. Upon taking my current position I mentioned to my wife, "I will forever be labelled as a small church guy, and will find it difficult to get out from under that." She thought that I was being overly pessimistic and defeatist, but having been turned away from opportunities simply because my church staff wasn't big enough . . . I think she gets my drift. What I am saying is this: there is a perception within the body of Christ that some churches are better off and more successful than others. Consequently, those who are in small rural churches are broken or simply not-very-good.
"Yet the believers don't give up." This line from the article makes a significant theological statement, far beyond what the author intended or probably understands. But it is a very true statement, not only for small rural congregations or their pastors, but for all committed Christians. Not only do churches in these situations not give up, but neither do those who are dedicated to the spread of the gospel and the work of God's kingdom. This really begs the question, What is to be said of those who encourage others to give up on these communities?
In sum: In my life I have worked in a number of congregations, sometimes within the leadership, sometimes from the pew, twice from within the pastorate. My first full-time position was at a large semi-urban church. Now I am a part of a small rural congregation. The two are different denominations, for the first was so riddled with politics and backbiting that I left thinking that I would never be able to embrace church again. One week ago I was ordained an elder via the small church that many others had written off as insignificant.
I do not claim that life here has been easy, nor has my struggle to understand this community and make my gifts contribute to the growth of the body. And there are still days when I wish that I was not here. There always will be, no matter where I am . . . so long as the church is comprised of people. But I have come to appreciate the situation in a new way, thankful to God for his faithfulness and continued blessing upon me and my family. But I am drawn to a statement T. Fretheim: "God works through those who have no obvious power."