I am currently taking part in an online discussion forum. The subject that I am dealing with is The Small Church: Urban & Rural. There are many other topics but that is the one that they asked me to lead. The discussion is run by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada with the purpose of setting the agenda for a conference to be held this October in partnership with the Lausanne Committee in Canada.
At Small Church Connections I am committed to working with all small churches but I have struggled with the differences between urban and rural churches. In many ways they are the same. A small church, wherever it might be located, is built around relationships. That is simply the heart of a small church. Everyone knows everyone else who is part of the church family and that is important to the people who make up that family.
All small churches, wherever they are located, are shaped to a certain degree by a lack of resources. They don’t have enough of whatever is needed to do whatever they might like to do. The questions always need to be asked. Do we have sufficient funds? Are there enough people to make this happen? We would like to make this change but do we have the enough people with the needed gifts to put it into practice? A scarcity of resources always needs to be taken into account.
There are other common characteristics that are true of all small churches but I want to focus on one characteristic that is different in small town and rural communities. This seems so basic that I am almost embarrassed to admit that I had not thought about it before but I hadn’t until I read it in one of the entries in the discussion. I have been thinking about this ever since I saw it yesterday and I thought that I would share it with you.
Long term relationships
I grew up in a small town church in Northern Ontario. I actually lived on a farm outside of town. My dad was the rural mailman, the township clerk and the local auctioneer which meant that he knew almost everyone in a ten mile radius of the town. By the time that I was a teenager I knew most of them too. I didn’t have to build relationships with people. The relationships were just part of living in a rural setting.
I pastored small churches on the edge of Toronto for thirteen years. It was so different from my childhood. Unless we were in a church related event together, I didn’t see any of the church members between Sundays. Apart from my immediate neighbours I didn’t know anyone in the community around me. I would walk from my house to the church office, a distance of several miles, and not see anyone whom I knew. If I were going to have any relationships outside of the church, I would have to take the initiative to form them.
Long-term relationships are found only in a small town setting. I am not saying that people in the city have no such relationships but it seemed to me as a child that my parents knew everyone in the town and in the townships that surrounded it. Those long-term relationships were just a normal part of life.
What difference does it make?
The people in a rural church know most of the people living around their building. On the other hand those same people know the church. I don’t mean that they know about the church which may be true in a city. They know the church. They know who attends there and who has attended there in the past. They not only know the pastor but all the pastors for the past twenty-five years.
They also know the times when the church stepped in to help someone in the town who had a need. They know which of the church members are involved in town events. They know the church with its strengths and weaknesses. Some of them may even have been a part of the church and left at some point in the past.
I know that for the small, rural church those long-term relationships are important. When planning anything it would seem to me that those relationships need to be considered. I am not, however, sure just what difference they should make.
If you are in a rural setting, those relationships could be a negative element that could cause problems for the church. In most churches I am thinking that they are probably a neutral influence that isn’t taken into consideration at all. The challenge for all rural churches is to figure out how they can be turned into an asset which will positively impact the life of the church.
The relationships are there. That is a reality for rural churches. Wouldn’t it be great if they could be used in such a way as to give the church a greater impact in the community in which God has planted it?