By Patrick Bowler
Valley Life Church (Lebanon, OR)
A cultural bias…
Now, I am assuming that it is not necessary that I go to any great lengths to establish that the Gospel is meant for both rural and city dwellers alike. Nothing I read in scripture leads me to believe that there is a demographic segment that God favors over the rest. So, I cannot imagine pushback on the topic intellectually. However, what the church is communicating in praxis compels me to address the issue. Let’s face it; there is a cultural bias towards metropolitan church planting today. Now let me be clear; I am not against urban/metropolitan planting. It is not my wish that we crank the wheel the other direction only to end up in the other ditch. My contention is that we must do a better job of including rural communities in our planting strategies—our plans must do more than assume inclusion.
There is this tendency to view rural church planting in one of two ways. The first is to treat it like our athletic “farm teams” (no pun intended). Pastors serving in these communities are either young guys cutting their teeth in ministry waiting to be called up to the majors or they’re old guys who are past their “prime” and/or just nominally gifted. That view is far too simplistic at best. The second mistaken view is that rural communities are already saturated with the Gospel. Because there are more churches per capita in nonmetropolitan communities than in metropolitan ones, rural communities are labeled “reached” and sites are then set on the “unreached.” However, a high concentration of churches does not equate high Gospel saturation. Shannon O’Dell, in his book, Transforming Church in Rural America, rightly said, “Rural America is one of the most over-churched, unreached people groups in the world.” O’Dell identifies seven of what he calls, “The Unwritten Rural Rules.” They are as follows:
1. Successful churches grow in thriving urban or sprawling suburban areas.
2. Sparsely populated rural communities are behind the times and not worth our time.
3. Cities are strategic. The country is inconsequential.
4. The best, most visionary pastors are hired by growing visionary congregations.
5. Rural churches can only afford the leftovers from the leadership pool.
6. If you want to be a “successful” pastor, go to the cities.
7. If you want to drive a minivan with 200,000 miles on it, go to the sticks.
A deficient Gospel vision for small town America…
These “unwritten rules” expose a deficient Gospel vision for small town America. Sure, we wouldn’t say these things out loud, but behind closed doors thoughts like the ones O’Dell identifies permeate our church planting strategies. Unfortunately, all we have traditionally offered our rural pastors and planters over the last few decades are a nod, a smile and a “good for you,” but sadly, not much more than that.
There is a desperate need for “successful” churches in smaller towns. Countryside communities are not inconsequential; and the churches in them or the ones to be planted need visionary pastors in order to become visionary congregations. There are great men living in these towns—so much more than “leftovers.”