Maybe it’s because I’m getting ready to do a workshop on storytelling this weekend, but I’ve been thinking about the parables of Jesus. The Nazarene had a way of incorporating the stuff of the world around him into his messages. Farmers and seeds, shepherds and sheep, tenants and landowners—these were things Jesus’ listeners knew about. And by using these elements in his stories, Jesus was investing the world around them with meaning. You didn’t have to go off to Jerusalem to find God. God was everywhere.
So what does that imply for country churches?
One of the mistakes rural churches make is to believe that if they could just import the programs and practices of thriving, large churches in suburban and urban areas they could be that, too—thriving and large. But the environment has meaning and the church on the Eastern Shore of Virginia OUGHT to look different than one in northern Virginia.
When churches want to build a community rather than an imagined idol of success, they get to know the place where they are. Who are our neighbors? What do they do? What are their deepest hopes and needs? It takes hours in face-to-face listening and caring observation to know the answers to these questions.
A rural church thrives by doing that work and taking stock of its assets—the gifts and resources that can be offered. It asks how those assets can be used to embody Christ in this particular place and to these particular people. And what it comes up with might not be the pub theology of a college town but a new twist on the old ice cream social or prayer walks around the village.
Last year I wrote about how a lay speaker in Missouri, Margie Briggs, worked with two small United Methodist churches to begin a new day of ministry for congregations that thought they were dying. What struck me is that none of the things the congregations did was a grand, expensive program. They were small steps like refreshing the sanctuary, doing luncheons for new teachers, and reaching out to prisoners. And they were local.
As church leaders, we have the opportunity every day to tell a story. It’s a story that doesn’t have to be told with the characters and elements of urban life. It can be a story about how God works through small towns and rural landscapes. It can be about trusting that God can use us yet because God is present still.