The Shame of Rural America: The Heartlands Interview with Robert Wuthnow Concludes, 3 of 3

In the last part of my interview with Princeton sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, we talked about rural churches.  In this segment we pull back the lens and look at shame, among other things…

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Photo by Jim Reardan on Unsplash

You say in the book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, that part of your effort is to explain to other liberal elites that rural America is not crazy; why are we not crazy?

Well, what I have argued and what I found from people I talked to is that there’s a tremendous amount of pragmatic realism in rural America, just as there is elsewhere in suburban and urban America. So, everything is so politicized these days, (I mean how can we not help to say that on today of all days [the day of the Kavanaugh hearings]?), and then that impression of rural America is reinforced, and has been since the 2016 election, by, on the one hand, polls. (We’ve had less than 10% difference in voting in political alignment and make a huge deal out of it and say, “Well, rural America votes this way and urban America votes the other way,” which is only true relatively speaking.)

Then, on the other hand, it’s also reinforced by journalists. The best journalists, the best newspapers, venture out there to Iowa or Mississippi or wherever it might be and talk to people. They give a human dimension to the story, but it’s all about the politics still. So the impression any reader comes away with is that people just spend all their time thinking about politics, which, of course, is not the case for any of us. Sure, politics is important and, since we have campaigns that seem to start as soon as the last election is over, it’s hard not to focus on politics and then it just filters down into divisions within the church.

But on a day-to-day basis, people in rural America are thinking about their jobs, their families, whether their kids are getting a good education or not, whether someone is getting medical care that needs it or not, whether, if they’re in an agricultural area, the crop prices are good or not and what the yields are going to be—all these practical issues.

On top of that, (and this is my argument about moral communities which you captured well in your book review), is the reality that community matters too. People in rural America aren’t just totally self-interested, self-serving narcissists by any means. It matters to them how the community is faring.

So even if they happen to be doing ok individually, if the community’s struggling, if the grocery store that’s been there for years is going out of business, and if the people are having to travel 30 miles to get to work or their job at Walmart or whatever, and then, especially, if the school is closing or the school is doing bad and the kids aren’t able to get as good an education as they want, or the church that has been there for generations and they’ve supported it and their ancestors are buried in the cemetery and all of a sudden the church doesn’t stay open anymore, that bothers people.

That’s not necessarily, in a lot of cases, because of anything going on politically, and it’s usually not something that can be rectified politically, but it does make people angry. And if they feel that politics are making things worse, or politicians are supposed to be doing some things that would help and aren’t, or if they feel that politics is entirely governed by people in  big cities who don’t care about them and understand them, then it’s easy for them to vent political frustration on the politicians that they don’t like.

Right. I think you also captured really well in the book how often that it’s sometimes turned on themselves. You talk about teen pregnancy and saying that, far from being moral wags, a lot of folks will blame themselves for not shielding their children from the culture outside or for not raising them the right way. I don’t think the word comes up too much in the book, but is shame a part of this story, too?

Shame is used, and guilt is, and those are exacerbated by living in a small town where everybody is visible to everybody else, or at least they feel that way. So if it’s their son or daughter who’s gotten into trouble because of sex or alcohol or drugs or whatever they feel that everybody knows and everybody’s talking about it. In larger research we certainly found examples of people who quit going to church because they felt that the church was going to make them feel embarrassed and ashamed and either they quit going to church entirely or they started going to church 50 miles away so they didn’t have to face the family that they thought were critical of them.

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Robert Wuthnow

That’s an indication on the one hand of the moral responsibility that people feel. They want their kids to grow up and to be good citizens and, if they’re Christians, to be good Christians, do the right thing, be honest, take care of their families. But they know it’s difficult and sometimes that’s a reason why they want to stay in a small town because they feel the temptations are actually quite a bit less there than would be the case in bigger cities. In other instances they know that there are all of those temptations, especially drugs or pornography or whatever it may be, in small towns, too. That worries them and they sometimes try to shore up their own sense of what is right by then talking about the problems that they see in the wider culture because of the internet and television and all those things.

What About the Methodists?: Robert Wuthnow talks churches, 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of America’s premier sociologists, we talked about the current face of the Heartland. Wuthnow’s book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, talks about the changing dynamics of many rural institutions, including churches.  I enlisted him to help me think about churches in small towns and, of course, we ended up talking about Adam Hamilton…

You have the story in the book about the pastor who was discouraged. She said she had given up the family farm in order to pursue ministry and felt she was going to be part of some great awakening but instead felt like she was just keeping her finger in the dike. Obviously, one of the challenges churches face is population decline in these communities, but how do you interpret that kind of frustration? Did you encounter a whole lot of disillusionment as part of your research with churches in particular? 

Well, among the clergy, that example would be illustrative of some of that disillusionment. I would say though that, overall, (and in every single town we tried to talk to at least one clergy person in that town), there’s a lot of pragmatic realism—a real effort, I’d have to say a gospel-based effort, to bring hope to the community and to keep hope as alive as it can be. 

They would talk, not so much about the grand vision that wasn’t being realized, but just the frustrations—that people in the congregation were busy. It was hard, especially in smaller congregations, to get enough people out for a meeting or events, hard to schedule things, just because the complicated schedules that everybody, rural and urban, lives. It was difficult sometimes to cultivate lay leadership because, again, people were busy or people felt that the pastors should be doing all of that and they shouldn’t or because they felt they didn’t have the right kind of education or the right kind of leadership skills that they felt would be important to be an elder or deacon or trustee.

The flip side of that, which I think is really worth emphasizing, too, is that one of the things that small communities have going for them is that people who do have things going well for them in terms of having better jobs and maybe better education or better income, whatever it might be, are very willing, by and large, to pitch in.  The statistics show that that happens much more in small towns, by and large, than it does in cities. 

People feel a responsibility to help out with the church or the hospital board or the library committee or be involved in Rotary, Kiwanis, Masons, or whatever it might be. Again [this happens] because they’re visible and it’s just part of the culture to feel that, in addition to whatever work you may be doing as a teacher or doctor or nurse or whatever it might be, [you should] also be involved in the community. So if the community’s a town of any size, 5,000 and above, 10,000 and above–even better, then that’s going be a real benefit to the community. The pastors we talked to certainly recognized that as one of the resources they can draw on.

Have you been able to quantify that? That, in comparison to an urban area, there’s a larger percentage of people involved in civic and other activities?

In the longer book I wrote, Small Town America, there’s a bunch of stats. There’s a whole chapter on faith in that book and some discussion of leadership and civic engagement. Just broadly speaking, you can divide the US population who have responded to a survey into people living in small rural towns, people who live in suburbs, and people living in cities. Then you can take out the differences in education or whatever it might be and that does come through. 

On some of the measures, it’s not a huge difference in suburbs. Suburbs do pretty well. It kind of depends on what volunteer activity you ask about. Suburbs have more families with small kids than the rural areas do and they’re one of the biggest drivers of voluntary participation—having kids and getting involved in school activities and sports and that kind of thing

In the section on homosexuality, where you’re talking about how that gets talked about or doesn’t get talked about in rural areas, you credit the mainline denominations with provoking the conversation. You said that, in a sense, there were folks who might appreciate the fact that they were being offered this space to have conversations about something that they might not talk about otherwise and yet at the same time they felt the same sort of resentment that they feel about Washington—that it’s requiring them to do something that they really don’t want to do. If one of the long-term trends is the retreat of mainline denominations in rural areas, is there any other institution that is going to pick up the slack? What does that portend for rural communities?

It depends on what part of the country. Being from the Midwest, I have a little bit of a better sense of changes there. I’ve written a book about Kansas. I’ve written a book about Texas so those are the ones that I can point to the best. So, what’s filled the gap, as mainline churches in a lot of areas have declined, have been fundamentalist churches or evangelical churches or Pentecostal churches.

Or cowboy churches in Texas, right?

Yeah. It’s not necessarily a real recent development. It kind of depended on population shifts. For instance, in Kansas this was a shift that started shortly after World War Two, because of the aircraft industry–Boeing being in Wichita. You suddenly had jobs there. So you had a big influx of population from Oklahoma and Arkansas and southern Missouri. You had a lot of Southern Baptists in Kansas that you never had before. You also had a lot of new churches, like Assemblies of God or Pentecostal churches.

Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow

Historically, Kansas had been overwhelmingly dominated by Methodists and Catholics. Now you had an influx of people who weren’t Methodist and Catholic. So that started changing the local composition of a lot of towns where those new churches were growing.

That’s happening in some other places. The broader trend is that people who used to go to church locally in a town of 5-10,000 are now traveling 30 or 40 miles to a larger town and maybe, if there is one, to a megachurch, or something that’s close to a megachurch. 

Why are they doing that? Well, for good reason. If they have kids and their kids are the only kids in the Sunday school locally, well, sure, they want to go to a larger place where there are some other kids for their kids to hang out. Secondly, it may be that the school has closed and the kids are already going to a consolidated district school some place else and so if there’s church over there then their kids can hang out with kids from school. 

If they’re young adults, especially if they’re single young adults, they’re not going to find anybody to date or to marry at the local church that doesn’t have anybody else their age. They’re going to gravitate away as well.

That is something that certainly doesn’t affect a lot of small towns because they’re just too far away. One Methodist example that I’ve looked at closely and written about some, (again it happens to be in Kansas), is Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City. It is a megachurch and every time I’ve gone there it’s gotten bigger and it’s put up an even bigger building. Even though they’re located in Johnson County, which has about 500,000 people, they draw people you know from maybe 50 miles away from some of the smaller towns. 

That changes the dynamic, which is certainly something which small town pastors worry about a lot. Sometimes you kind of regret it, in the same way people sometimes regret the fact that there’s a Walmart that’s drawing away business. But I do think it’s one of the realities that you have to attract people with young families, single people, some empty-nesters. 

At the same time the megachurch is never going to replace the boutique church that’s just one that people feel really committed to and like it because it is small. They know people. They’ve been there for a long time and they’re comfortable there. Those churches are likely to be around, I think, for quite a long time.

The Heartlands interview with Robert Wuthnow concludes here.

Bears and Birds and Cooperative Ministry

Loneliness is a bear.

No one wants to feel unsupported, unheard, or unloved. You would think, in a world of so many new ways to connect, that loneliness would not be a problem.  

But Instagram, it turns out, is no answer to the human condition.

Churches—especially churches in rural communities—often experience their own kind of loneliness crisis.  Remembering days gone by, watching bright-eyed young people go off to new futures “across the bay,” faced with the challenges of reorienting old buildings for new ministries, it’s easy to feel the same sense of being disconnected and unsupported.

That’s why the recent Cooperative Parish Day of Discernment held in Richmond was such an inspiring opportunity to say, “Maybe we don’t have to be alone.”  Cooperative parishes are a unique structure within United Methodism—bringing together churches in new relationships that allow them to envision a new common ministry.

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The Rev. Woody Woodin at the Upper Sand Mountain CP Ministry Center

What does that look like? We saw a lot of models at last Saturday’s event.  On the Eastern Shore, five churches on the Accomack Cooperative Parish are beginning with worship and exploring cross-cultural ministry.  A Danville area teaching parish is pairing a seasoned elder with other ministers who are new to the process.  And on the top of a mountain in Alabama, 9 small churches are continuing a nearly 50-year-old ministry of service and outreach in the Upper Sand Mountain Cooperative Parish.

The Rev. Beth Crissman, a DS in the Western North Carolina Conference appearing by video, said that the most important question any new effort must ask is the WHY question.  To answer that she suggests asking:

“Would forming a cooperative parish here OPTIMIZE our calling and capacity to make disciples of Jesus Christ in our communities SO THAT we become instruments of compassion and justice in our communities?”  

I hope more congregations will begin to ask that question as they look around at their field of service and see that, although they may feel alone, there are other churches out there with the same desire to be about the mission of God.  And what might they do together?  

Because loneliness is a bear, but unity is a singing bird of a thing.

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Small Churches Can Plan for a Healthy Future

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I like my doctor.  Even with all the needles and probes, I trust that she’s using the information she gleans through my brief discomforts to tell me something I need to hear. But I don’t always pay attention.

For several years we had a little ritual over one persistent health issue:

“Your cholesterol is high.”

“Still?”

She gives me a wry smile.  “Yes, still. I think we ought to look at a treatment plan.”

“Didn’t you suggest that last year?”

“Yes, and we decided you would try controlling it through diet.”

“Because you wanted to put me on pills and I don’t like the idea of taking pills every day.”

“Right. But maybe you’d like to try them to see if it makes a difference. This is a long-term condition for you and it could be dangerous if you don’t lower your bad cholesterol levels.”

“Thanks, Doc, but I think I’ll try diet again.”

One year (and frequent slips involving BBQ beef brisket) later, we’d have the same conversation.  Until finally I realized that my doctor was trying to tell me something important.  I started on the pills.

Kay Kotan and Phil Schroeder, both directors of Congregational Development for United Methodist annual conferences, know the interplay we have with our doctors.  The ways we appreciate their knowledge and yet resist making the changes they recommend.  The ways we often come around when they can get us to face the facts.  That’s why Kotan and Schroeder use a medical metaphor to diagnose options in their new book Small Church Checkup: Assessing Your Church’s Health and Creating a Treatment Plan [Discipleship Resources, 2018].

Sometimes your doctor needs to shock you into recognition that there is a problem, and that’s where the authors of this book start on the first page.  Quoting Charita Goshay, they say, “an estimated 80 percent of churches are flat or declining; 5,600 close every year.” (15)  That’s the future for churches that believe that they can just get by on the way they’ve always done it before (weaknesses for BBQ brisket be damned!).  But Kotan and Schroeder want to offer a way forward:

“We can choose our story.  We do not have to allow our story to unfold without our intervention, intentionality, faithfulness, and prayer.  We can choose.” (15)

What follows over the course of the next brisk ten chapters is a practical guide to diagnosing your congregation’s condition and choosing a course towards a different future.

Kotan and Schroeder believe that most small churches (fewer than 100 in attendance) fall into one of three types:

  1. Not Yet Big Churches that are vital and growing and may move to becoming medium-sized or large churches.
  2. Stable Small Churches that have found a way to stay vital and to serve the community despite not growing numerically.
  3. and Smaller Churches, which are declining in numbers and face serious questions about their ongoing viability.

The authors provide “Lab and Test Results,” encouraging small church leaders to look at a number of measures to determine their congregation’s health.  For instance, mapping the membership of the church can indicate how well the congregation is connecting to its surrounding community.  What’s the state of the church reserves compared to five years ago? How much of the building is being used and who’s using it?

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Along with this, the authors advise having some field trips to other churches and crucial conversations as a church to acknowledge that ‘business as usual’ is not an option.  After doing this work, congregations should be able to identify their condition and review the appropriate treatment plans available in three chapters related to the three types of small churches.

The treatment plans are not easy. Some involve major reorganization of a congregation to focus on priority items.  For instance, one recommendation for ‘Not Yet Big Churches’ is to develop a signature ministry and to empty the church’s calendar to plan for it.  Using ‘zero-based calendaring’ the congregation should ask: “If we were to do nothing that we have ever done before, what is the one thing we must put on the calendar?” (86-7)

For other churches, the hard part is emotional.  When a congregation has determined that it’s future is discontinuance, there can be a range of options from denial (and continuing until the resources run out) to a planned closure (with acknowledged grief work and a legacy gift to other ministry) to death and rebirth as a new congregation.

A book alone cannot make the difference for a small church.  Kotan and Schroeder seem to recognize this when they conclude by saying, “If you are struggling to choose a treatment plan, please reach out.  Sometimes this road is just too hard to journey alone.” (121) My own experience is that churches need the prompt and coaching of outside help to navigate a real examination of their mission.

admin-ajax-cfp-120x120On the Eastern Shore District, where I serve, we have developed a Church Transformation Team with the help of Plowpoint Ministries that initiates a “health assessment” in churches through a 2-hour Bible Study and crucial conversation, inviting teams of church leaders into a more extended study that incorporates much of what Small Church Checkup recommends.  Our team uses an excellent resource by Beth Crissman and Nancy Rankin, Choosing the Faithful Path: A Bible Study for Discerning a Faithful Future

The unusual period that began after World War II and extended until about the turn of the millennium, obscured the reality that refocusing on mission is a perennial task of the church.  When the culture was supporting church life and financial resources were plentiful, most of the mainline churches coasted on that wave.  We are in a new day now and there are still opportunities for growth in small churches.  But we will need to remember why we’re here and heed the advice of those who care for our health.

By the way, I went back to the doctor last month for my annual physical.  Two years in to my treatment plan, she called my cholesterol level ‘excellent.’ Now about this weight thing…

Han Solo and the Myth of the Heroic Leader

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There’s no doubt that a charismatic leader can have a big impact on the size of a congregation.  It’s what most churches ask for when I go around doing consultations about the missional needs of the congregation as they prepare for a new pastoral appointment.  “If we had somebody who would knock on doors and preach dynamic sermons and inspire us with their boundless energy, things would change around here.”  Oh, and young with 30 years of experience, too.

But there’s a limit, and solo artists hit it sooner or later.

In this occasional series, I’ve been returning to a book by Jacob Armstrong, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, to see what lessons rural churches might learn about adaptation.  Armstrong points to the lies that emerge when congregations get fearful about the future, and one of the pressures they place on pastors is the untruth that “you have to do it on your own.”  Even Moses didn’t have to do that, Armstrong says.  God gave him elders within the people of Israel to help carry the load.  

“The example of Moses is that we need each other to effectively lead and live into God’s vision for our community,” Armstrong says.  “But, unfortunately, the example of Moses wore off a long time ago.” (65)

I’ve seen the effects of the myth of the solo, heroic leader. It takes its toll in an overinflated sense of capacity when things are going right and an even more destructive denigration of our capabilities when they aren’t.

So what’s a pastor to do?

Armstrong talks about the power of teams that are focused on the vision.  Teams that own a vision larger than the pastor’s skill set help congregations become living, breathing agents, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  They also energize the members of the team to discover and use their own gifts.  Effective teams, Armstrong says, “love, learn, and lead together.” (69)

For most small churches, the team cannot be built on a staff structure.  The team IS the congregation.  A wise pastor will not see the Church Council as a body of workers to whom assignments can be delegated nor as a demanding supervisor adding more tasks to an already overwhelming to-do list.  The Church Council is a gift—a group with the potential for loving, learning, and leading WITH the pastor.

Especially with so many churches experimenting with what a smaller council structure could look like, why not try some new experiments in how that structure could operate?  Couldn’t each gathering include a time of learning together? Worshipping together? Reconnecting with one another and the vision?

Instead of disconcerting obstacles, these ‘team gatherings’ could be the beginning of new life.  In fact, as in the early church, Armstrong notes, the future of our churches lies in “small groups of people who then start other small groups.” (71)

Recently, I saw the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story.  It featured a familiar American type—Han Solo likes to think of himself as a talented loner who gets by on his charisma and skills.  The movie celebrated his charms, but you can’t help but notice – Solo is rarely solo.  He’s at his best as part of a team.

6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here! – Part 2

In Part One of Ben Rigsby’s post on reviving a church in a small town he talked about life-changing worship and reaching new people.  In this post he discusses 4 more steps to growing a rural church…

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Ben Rigsby (2nd from right) gathers with a small group at Murn’s Cafe in Archer City, TX

  1. It takes critical mass to launch a church, it takes the same to revive

This is a tough one to look in the face. Unfortunately, I’ve learned this lesson a couple times. When a new person visits your church, it needs to look like something is happening. The energy of worship must be present as soon as they enter the doors. You wouldn’t go back to a restaurant that never had cars in the parking lot and maybe one other couple in the whole building. Especially if that place only had mediocre food.

But a place that has a full parking lot and a buzz of energy as soon as the doors open tells you something is happening here. You’ll even put up with lower quality food if everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. Why should church be any different?

If your congregation isn’t big enough to fill your sanctuary to this level of energy, maybe you need more small groups. Small groups are an entry way into the church. Once, you’ve got enough people attending those, then put them together for worship. Why should Methodists be afraid of Small Groups? It’s what started this whole thing anyway! Small groups also give the church sustainability that will endure whoever the person sitting in the pastor’s office might be.

  1. Take an Honest look at WHO you’re trying to reach
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First United Methodist, Archer City

I’ve seen too many of our peers set off to reach their community of low income Hispanic families with a bunch of wealthy, white-haired, old ladies. The results are mostly the same. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but is it a battle you really want to fight?

If you’re in a traditional, rural, older town that loves piano and organ music, do not cram guitars and drop-down screens down their throats because you read about it in a magazine! It’s much easier to start an additional worship service than to dilute the one they love. Take a serious inventory of what you honestly have, and who you would honestly like to reach. Remember the first 200 people will determine what the next 200 look and act like.

  1. Find a mentor or coach

As much as we know after seminary, we all have a few weak spots. I needed a coach to encourage me and challenge me. This doesn’t have to be a paid relationship either. Henry Cloud wrote The Power of the Other, and in it I learned how all great leaders have a person who challenges them to go beyond their limits. Find a person who can do that for you. Then, be that person for your church leaders. You should be their greatest cheerleader.

In between sessions with your coach there are millions of coaches available to you through books. I enjoy Audible.com audiobooks because rural pastors spend a lot of time on the road—might as well make it count! I try to read as much as I can.

  1. “Pray like everything depends on God, and work like everything depends on you”

IMG_6724I don’t know where I picked up that saying, but if fits…it fits. Do not neglect the Spirit. Never neglect your own soul in the process. I know that pastors are told this at every conference we ever go to, but the ability to pray and meditate is not only necessary but establishes a good example for your congregation. Also, be open in sharing your spiritual practices with your congregation. Many of them don’t have a spiritual practice because they have never seen it demonstrated and wouldn’t know the first thing about meditating. They want to be taught.

Start Creating Your Slice of Heaven

There are plenty of reasons why you can’t build a church in a rural community. There are lists of problems, from money to facilities. There are people who will tell you the best you can do is to hold their hand while they (the church) dies. I don’t think Jesus would have ever said those words. I seem to remember him to say something more like, “Lazarus, come out!” and he did, and Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Now, it’s time for us to get to it!

fumc-headshots-archer-city-uvrphotography-2-240x300Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist Pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

 

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6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here!: Guest Blogger Ben Rigsby

Anybody who’s spent more than a minute with me since last summer has heard me yammer on about the people l met in Archer City, Texas on my leave. One of those folks is the dynamic pastor of First UMC, the Rev. Ben RIgsby.  You don’t often find church planters on the rural frontier but Ben proved to me that the things he learned about church planting in the big city can work in the countryside, too. Ben blogs over on Leaving the Herd and he agreed to share a little of what he’s learned. (By the way, I second his recommendation of El Diablo at Murn’s!) – Alex

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Ben Rigsby mid-baptism at First UMC, Archer City, TX

For the last two years I’ve been in heaven. Well, it’s a little slice of Texas that feels like heaven. The town is outside of Wichita Falls and has big skies and more mesquite trees than Dallas has people. The town has two water towers for a skyline, and except for a couple movie appearances and a famous book store, there’s not much reason you’d “just stop by.” But this town is full of life and passionate about their task of transforming the world.

The rural church ministry of Archer City, TX is alive and growing. That’s right, I said growing. And I don’t mean in some southern charm, “the people are only growing in their faith” kind of way. I mean double the number of people in worship in under 2 years.  Along with double-digit professions of faith and more baptisms than I can count. (I’m sure the office manager could give me a number if I asked.)

In the meantime, they have led the community in fundraising for “missions” (though we wouldn’t call them that). They have raised more money in two year’s time than they are able to pay the preacher full time.

It all happened because they began to see their little old church as a new church start. 

Here’s how they applied New Church Start tactics to a “declining congregation” and reaped the benefits:

  1. fullsizeoutput_1874Ask yourself if your church REALLY has something “life changing” to offer in worship.

Would a new person experience God there on any given Sunday? How sure are we? Is there a dynamic and passionate sermon delivered every Sunday? Can we count on the choir (which has tripled at First UMC, Archer City) to bring a volume to the music that’s inspiring?

I once heard it said, “To change a person’s life, you’ve got to first change their day.” Sunday is the day we will change their lives, every Sunday. After all, it could be the last worship service they ever make it to. (No, we do not do weekly Altar Calls and ask if they know where they are going when they die!) The congregation comes with the expectation they will receive a warm welcome, a good message that engages their minds and hearts, and inspirational music.

Is each worship service built around the gospel message? Does your service come with good news or is it full of “you should do…”? How does it relate to the average person?

Additionally, as Pastor, I make a point of stepping out of the pulpit and handing it over at least once a quarter. However, I am confident the guest speakers (even on Youth Sunday) will deliver a sermon as good or better than I could. I look for speakers who can deliver and they are told “we need a phenomenal sermon, so bring your best.”

  1. “Reaching new people is a contact sport” – Jim Griffith

In The Misfit Mission, Scott Crostek talks about putting a handful of pennies in his pocket and moving one over to the other side each time he talks to someone about the church. If he hadn’t moved all the pennies, he wasn’t done for the day. While I never went that far, it certainly is necessary that you are highly visible. Your whole congregation must be in the community & talking about your church. Both parts must be there. It’s not enough to just be in the community or to just be talking about your church in your office.

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Ben with El Diablo at Murn’s

There is a little café called Murn’s here in Archer City. Almost the whole town shows up every day for lunch. (If you’re ever there, you MUST try the El Diablo. Preachers eating The Devil just makes me chuckle!) I try to be there as much as possible. Before long the entire waitstaff was going to the church on Sunday, unless they had to work. Even then, they wanted to know what they missed! In the process, I’ve had more than a few conversations with other people about coming to the church. Make the time to get out of the office and be with people, there is NOTHING more important.

Jim Griffith of New Church Leadership Institute says, “Most Methodist ministers rarely encounter 100 people outside the church. Ministers give excuses like, ‘all my friends are church people’.”

Jim replies, “That’s pathetic. You need to make new friends.” We have a fantastic opportunity to model our expectations for our members with the way we reach the community.

89% of new church members attended church on the arm of a friend. Will you be that friend?

In the next post, Ben talks about 4 more steps to reviving a church in a small town

Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

Chicken Houses and Change

animal-avian-beak-891223The old saw that says rural churches have a hard time with change may be getting tired.  All you have to do is look around those churches to see that a lot of things are already changing.  Maybe the question isn’t whether we will change, but how.

It seems like every other day now I see a new field being cleared here on the Shore to construct new houses.  No, it’s not a residential boom.  Much as we need some attention to our housing market, the new residents are of the feathered variety.  That’s new revenue for the county, but as I look at all these long, new buildings, each of which can probably house 20,000 birds, I wonder what the change will mean.  How will we manage the byproducts of such barns?  What’s the impact of having that many chickens in one place?

Change causes us to ask big questions and, even in the country, there are changes afoot.  When churches confront the questions change presents head-on, they may find an exciting new chapter ahead.

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Jacob Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, is built around the idea that churches thrive when they adapt to new conditions.  I’ve been returning to this book over the last few months and looking at it through the lens of rural churches.  I appreciate that Armstrong, who began a new church in the Nashville suburbs, recognizes that every group of people being asked to go somewhere new is going to have a “Back to Egypt Committee.”

“There are three things that the Back to Egypt Committee will say to you.  Be ready for them.

We won’t have all we need.

It was better back in Egypt.

You have to do it on your own.” (54)

As it turns out, each of these is a lie.  A good understanding of how God works will show that God will provide, that slavery to the past is not better than the journey to something new, and that God will give us partners for the journey.  What we need, Armstrong says, is to hear the same promise that God gave Joshua—be strong and courageous.

I appreciate the way that Armstrong recognizes the potentially helpful role of conflict in moving forward.  “Healthy conflict is actually a time saver,” he notes.  “As we take the courage to engage in healthy conflict we are actually more honest and open with our people and can more quickly move towards where God wants us to go.” (60)  For the many leaders who are averse to conflict, (and I count myself as one of them), it helps to realize this reality.

Ultimately, as with all things related to the church, it comes down to the mission.  If we are committed to being what God calls us to be and to doing what Christ called his Church to do, we will let that guide how we think about change.  Is our current practice hindering us from seeing what God is doing in the world? Can we cultivate meaningful relationships doing something new?

Can we handle change?  We will.  The question is how?

Lay Minister Expels Ghosts, Sees Two Rural Churches Turnaround

IMG_5424“I look around my church and all I see are ghosts.”  It was time for a pastoral change and I was meeting with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee in my role as the District Superintendent, preparing the church and myself as we looked toward the appointment of a new pastor.  The woman speaking was a longtime member and she was having a hard time being hopeful about the future.  Too many good memories in the past.  Too many people she had known lost to death and moves.  Too many ghosts.

The small churches of Calhoun and Drake’s Chapel in rural Missouri were feeling haunted, too, when their District Superintendent (DS) asked a lay speaker named Margie Briggs to step in for a time.  The beloved pastor of the church, facing who knows what demons in his own life, had committed suicide at his home on a Sunday morning.  Margie stepped in for a few months to serve the two small churches, whose average combined worship attendance was about 14.

When another local pastor was assigned, he served a few months but then left under a cloud after absconding with the Salvation Army kettle and a consequent visit from the local police.  The DS called Margie again.  “Can you just get them through until Christmas?” he asked.  Over ten years later, she’s still there.

51pCNACoaPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Given the sad history of her predecessors and the sparse numbers in the pews, the revival of these two rural churches under Margie’s leadership seems miraculous.  But as Briggs describes it in her new book, Can You Just Get Them Through Until Christmas?: The Turnaround Story of One Lay Minister and Two Small, Rural Churches [Cass Community Publishing House, 2017], the building blocks to recovery were simple and fairly traditional—an openness to God, outreach to the needs of the community, and leadership that was determined “to greet new and different people.”(x)

Lay ministers like Margie Briggs have always been a part of the Methodist leadership pool, but they are taking on a growing role in rural areas where churches are struggling to support credentialed clergy.  Many of them are part-time and bi-vocational, but most are extremely dedicated to the churches they serve, offering them a chance to create new chapters in ministry.  Some lay ministers are seeing growth and new relevance for congregations that thought their best times were in the past.

“Small churches don’t need to create a system of small groups to help people fit in,” Briggs says in her introduction, “they are natural places of intimacy.”(x)  They can use this natural gift to make a difference in their communities in making disciples.

Over the course of 23 short chapters, Briggs tells episodes in the story of the Calhoun & Drake’s Chapel turnaround.  She describes physical improvements to make the church spaces lighter and more welcoming.  But the churches not only upgraded the inside of the church, they moved outside for ice cream socials in the parking lot and put floats in the Calhoun Colt Show parade.  When they planned a one-day Vacation Bible School and only one child showed up, they jumped in the car, drove around the neighborhood, and collected children.  They exchanged youth mission teams with a church in downtown Detroit, did luncheons for public school teachers, and began a prison outreach ministry.

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Margie Briggs

“It is so easy to be consumed by what a small-membership church cannot do,” Briggs says (75).  But she describes how each of these ministries began with a small, manageable step and grew on the enthusiasm and compassion of those who participated.  It also helped that Briggs herself seems to have a contagious spirit and a commitment to excellence.

“Unless we are going to give up on every town or village across the country with under 2,500 people,” Bishop Robert Farr says in an epilogue to the book, “we need to figure out how to create, encourage and renew compelling and competent small churches, engaged in ministry that is dedicated to reaching new people and doing whatever it takes.” (100)  He notes two key components in this renewal—lay leaders “who are in love with Jesus, people and their mission field” and a willingness on the part of the congregation to change. (100)

Briggs encouraging book, (which includes a study guide), makes the daunting task of helping small, rural churches thrive seem possible and even, dare I say, fun.  At the very least she makes it clear that we don’t have to live with the ghosts of what’s gone before.  We can trust that God will do a new thing even in old places.