Launching the Rural Church Renewal Project

August 2020 will be recognized and remembered as the month that Guido Ministries launched the Rural Church Renewal Project. In honor of this project, we are providing two articles that describe the nature and necessity of this project. The first written by Dr. Cheryl
Conley, a member of the Guido Ministries Board of Trustees, clearly describes the demands and delights of serving the Lord in a small church. The second article, written by Rev. Bobby Braswell, Director of Missions for a group of rural churches, describes the need for this new ministry to strengthen and encourage rural churches. Critical to the success of this program is the introduction of the revised curriculum of Guido Bible College. When the new semester begins this month, we will offer our new degree program designed to meet the specific needs of rural churches: The Bachelor of Arts Degree in Rural Church Ministry. This two-year program of instruction contains 16 classes to prepare students for ministry in and through churches in rural America.

What It’s Like Being a Member of a Little Country Church
by Dr. Cheryl Conley

As a current (and life-long) member of a very small, rural, community
church, I have experienced the ups and downs, the struggles,
the joy and heartache that rural churches often go through. I would
like to share some of the unique “opportunities” that rural churches
may encounter.

Rural churches are often filled with “family” members. This is a
tremendous blessing but offers its own challenges. Parents feel the
need for their children to have ‘someone else’ as their Sunday School
teacher rather than themselves. Often times, finding that ‘someone
else’ is very difficult. These children get the same spiritual training
on Sunday morning that they get all during the week. (This is not
necessarily a bad thing, but I know from experience that my own
children respond differently to others.) Teenagers are often related
to their Sunday School teacher and may not feel comfortable sharing
things that they really need to talk about. Our young people need to
have someone with whom they can confide without fear that their
discussion will be shared with other family members.

Rural churches usually have smaller congregations which require
church members to take on multiple responsibilities and wear
‘many hats’. This can be seen as positive and negative. If you want
to ‘get lost in the crowd and just attend church’, it is hard to do in a
small, rural church. If you have someone ineffective in a position, it
can be difficult to replace them because no one wants to take on the
additional responsibility.

Rural churches often have only one pianist, one Sunday School
teacher for a class, and basically ‘one of everything’. When our pianist
is absent, the service is most often conducted without any music.
If a Sunday School teacher has to be absent and can’t find a substitute
teacher (ie: wakes up sick on Sunday Morning), classes are either
combined at the last minute or the teacher contacts the class members
and lets them know that he/she will not be there.

Rural churches have smaller congregations which result in fewer
children. Too often there are not enough children of a specific
‘age-span’ to make up a class. You either have multiple ‘age-spans’
in a classroom or classes of 2 or 3 children. Children/youth generally
want to attend Sunday School and Church Services with their
friends. Rural churches can offer fun activities and have great turnouts,
but on Sunday mornings, they go back to their ‘home church’.
Rural churches are often far from town, and the distance can
pose a problem. Parents living in the community will often drop
their children off at Sunday School, and the children will ride home
with a family member after service. Children living in town, a greater
distance away, are often dropped off at churches closer to their homes. 
Eventually, the children and parents may attend regularly - often the church
closer home. Parents within the community may
drop their children off for Sunday School and join them for the worship
service. Unless the parents live close-by, they don’t have enough
time to drop children off, go back home, get dressed, and come back
to church within the hour.

Living and worshiping in a small, rural community is much different
than worshiping in a larger town or city. Although all churches,
both large and small, have their own set of “opportunities”, I find
that the benefits of the small, rural church outweigh any issues we
may have. Some benefits include:

1. Very close-knit group of people - a true family.
2. People moving into the community soon become ‘family’
even though they were not born into the family.
3. If someone is in trouble or has a need, everyone prays and
helps out.
4. Food, prayers, transportation, etc., is provided for the sick,
shut-in, and needy.
5. When one ‘hurts’, we all hurt; when one ‘rejoices’, we all rejoice.
6. There are no ‘splintered groups’ within the church. Everyone
is part of the larger group. The ladies may do things together
or the men, etc., but they do not have multiple ladies’
groups or men’s groups.
I, personally, love being a member of God’s Little Country
Church. We may have challenges but we are blessed beyond measure.
There is nothing that we need that God can’t provide.

What makes rural ministry unique?

Pastoring a church is not a “one size fits all” proposition.

There are different needs for different congregations, which means
church ministry has to be customized to and for the communities
that are served. Note, the ministry is different, depending on the
size of the congregation, not the message. The eternal message of
God’s saving grace remains unchanged.

Sadly, the rural church ministry is the one that is most often
overlooked as ministerial training courses and degrees of study
focus their programs on the larger congregations in the bigger
communities. To help pastors as they serve rural churches across
America, Guido Bible College has introduced the Bachelor of Arts
degree in Rural Church Ministries.

The Bachelors program concentrates on rural communities,
the unique needs of individuals, families and churches, and how
these needs can be met through the rural church. The program
of instruction will not only provide an in-depth knowledge and
understanding of the history and culture of rural communities but
also the skills and practical ways to meet these needs. At this time,
GBC is the only college that is offering a degree that focuses on
rural church ministry.

In addition to college classes, GBC is developing and planning
a series of workshops to educate and train pastors and lay-leaders
that are now serving in rural churches. GBC will present four
workshops, each designed to meet the needs of the rural churches.
These workshops will discuss the importance of each rural church
having and developing a unique vision for what God has called
them to do, what they need to do to accomplish their vision and
then working with pastors and leaders to teach them the skills to
effectively achieve their vision. This program will launch on August
15 at Hamstra Worship Center on the Guido Campus.
Bobby Braswell, associational missionary for the Middle Baptist
Association, a network of congregations in Effingham, Jenkins
and Screven Counties in Georgia, has his own view on what
makes rural ministry a unique challenge.

“Approximately 60 million Americans, or about 19.3% of the
U.S. population, live in rural areas,” he said. “These communities
are mainly served by smaller member congregations. This is what
writer Mark Clifton calls the ‘normative church’ in his book Reclaiming
Glory. The Hartford Institute of Religion Research puts
the estimated number of Protestant Congregations in the United
States at about 314,000. Of those congregations over 59% (177,000)
average less than 100 people in worship. Of the approximately 56
million people who attend worship in America in these Protestant
churches each week, nearly 9 million of them will worship in a
rural church. Yet in my experience as a pastor and denominational
servant since 1992, much of the leadership support through conferences,
writing and denominational programming and support
is not provided with this reality in mind. Often pastors struggle to
find content that helps them deal with the realities that they are
faced with in their small town context.”

Those challenges, Braswell explained, include the culture of
the rural congregation, including its slower, less hurried pace.
“The unhurried pace has to be factored into shepherding. On the
other hand, because of the closeness of the relationships, disruption
is experienced with elevated intensity. Whether the leader is
working through adaptive change or handling relational crises,
the energy ripples quickly through the tight-knit church family.

Additionally, influence is categorized differently in smaller member churches.
In my first church even though I was the pastor, I wasn’t really the pastor. I
was the preacher. But the church had experienced a lot of turnover and the 
actual pastor was the deacon chairman. Thankfully he was godly and
gifted in shepherding.”

“Smaller member churches have unique struggles,” he continued.
“Many rural towns are faced with difficult economic realities.
Many rural churches are bi-vocational or multi-vocational. Either
the pastor has to find an additional income stream or his wife has
to work outside the home to make ends meet. Maybe they are both
working. Because rural America by definition is going to provide
limited bi-vocational opportunity, many smaller member churches
are in big time crisis mode any time there is pastor transition.”

“This speaks to some significant issues. First, this means that
maintaining congregational harmony is extremely important
(Psalm 133:1). If a congregation develops a reputation for being
contentious in a declining or static population growth area, that
is very difficult to recover from. It is worth the effort involved to
learn how to disagree agreeably. Again, because the relationships
are so close and longstanding, often congregations are hesitant to
correct behavior in members that is aberrant and unhelpful. But
the alternative is to lose an aspect of community that is indispensable
to vitality.”

“Again, if it is true that any transition in a bivocational church
is a significant crisis because of supply and demand, developing a
healthy congregational life is a critical component in this. Smaller
member churches often are looking for young leaders who can
energize the ministry. Sometimes the church leaders think that
he will grow the church by osmosis by virtue of the fact that he
has a young family. But if he meets with obstruction each time he
tries to advance innovation, of course he will eventually hit the
wall. His frustration will cause him to look for greener pastures.
If the crisis in transition for smaller member churches is not well
managed, the church will probably eventually trade off something
it shouldn’t in their desperation to find a pastor. They will trade off
the character qualities that the Bible assigns to a pastoral leader.
They will turn to someone unqualified to serve as a pastor. They
will trade off their missionary identity.”

“These are just a few of the challenges of ministry in rural
churches across America,” Braswell said. “There are many other
concerns that could be explored. It’s one reason I am thankful that
Dr. Larry Guido and the Guido Bible College in Metter, GA have
reached out to us at the Middle Baptist Association about partnering
to discover solutions in assisting rural churches. There is
much to be gained in a partnership like this and we are praying
and listening to God about what this opportunity might eventually

Rev. Bobby Braswell

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