Why you should study the rural church

When Phillip Blackburn began as the director of the University of the Ozarks’ Thriving in Rural Ministry Program, he expected to serve small, dying churches. Instead, he has found livelihood and wisdom.

Photo by Matthew Hacker on Unsplash

There is a certain homogeneity to the American suburb. Chain restaurants and big box stores cluster around sprawling neighborhoods; an SUV tucked in every drive. It feels more and more that to see one suburb is to see them all. When I began studying the rural church for as director of the Thriving in Rural Ministry Program at the University of the Ozarks, I expected something similar. I anticipated aged congregations in aged buildings, struggling to grapple with the passing of time. I learned something very different. To see one rural church is to see one rural church. There are some fascinating things happening in rural Presbyterian Christianity if we have the eyes to see.

Rural congregations are rarely blessed with abundant human and financial resources. They can’t pretend to be all things to all people. What they can do, however, is recognize the strengths of their members and build ministries around them. Let me tell you about Miss Vicky. Vicky drove the school bus in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas and knew many of the kids in a town of 2,700 people. When her small, Presbyterian congregation would host its monthly children’s events or VBS, she knew which kids needed to be there. A congregation with a worship attendance of 25 had over a dozen children at its activities.

What they can do, however, is recognize the strengths of their members and build ministries around them.

If any of us have been in the church for any period, we’ve known a Vicky. But as models of church change and evolve and we consider how we are going to be Presbyterian in this modern world, stories like hers give us fresh eyes for our work. The practice of identifying a congregation’s assets and then tailoring its ministry around those assets has become standard. Many rural congregations already know, intuitively, how to do this. Those of us who minister in larger communities can learn from their resourcefulness. How have they managed to identify gifts and skills? In what ways have they engaged with their community? How have they overcome a shortage of resources to be Christ’s hands and feet to their community? How do they tell their story?

Needless to say, not all rural congregations are thriving in this way. Like many urban and suburban congregations, their ability to identify strengths varies. But a thoughtful look at rural congregations within your presbytery will inevitably reveal vibrant, vital ministries which can serve as inspiration and instruction to any congregation of any size. Further, helping rural congregations tell their stories and integrating them into the broader narrative of our denomination’s work opens the door for potential collaborations, ministries and stories to emerge.

I have been inspired by rural congregations led by passionate and faithful pastors. There is a church in Malvern, Arkansas — when their multi-generational congregation had a small baby boom, they realized that Malvern needs more childcare, so they are exploring opening a daycare. There is a church in Mena, Arkansas — following the hearts of their members, they practice service as a form of worship every fifth Sunday. I could go on, but I encourage you to dig around a little bit. What stories of ministry are happening in your region? You will find the same thing I have, and you will have an opportunity to learn anew how congregations creatively engage their community.

As I enter my third year of work at the University of Ozarks it is simply staggering how my perception of rural congregations and their leaders has changed. We have formed cohorts to ministers of Word and Sacrament, commissioned ruling elders, and ruling elders to encourage and equip them for thriving rural leadership but also to continue learning. I am excited to learn what else the rural church has to teach me. What wisdom has been accrued in places I would have overlooked? How are rural churches here in Arkansas serving Jesus in innovative, dynamic and faithful ways?