Meaningful Membership in a Small, Rural Area
One recent Saturday afternoon while walking through the park with my family, we came across a juggler tossing three balls through the air in rhythm. He juggled with ease, so much so that you’d think anyone could do it. But if you have three tennis balls in your garage, why don’t you try and see how easy it actually is? What seemed simple is, in reality, quite difficult.
One might think practicing meaningful membership in a rural area is easy. After all, churches litter the landscape, and everyone knows the gospel, right? Not so fast. Pastors in rural areas must take into account certain challenges while leading Christ’s bride to experience the joy of meaningful membership. Some of these challenges, when combined, create a kind of perfect storm that may capsize a pastor if he doesn’t act with patience and wisdom.
CHRISTIANITY IN THE RURAL SOUTH
Simply put, many faithful believers in rural areas have unconsciously married the form of the church they’ve grown up with to the gospel itself. After years of seeing membership offered immediately after altar calls, they’ve become superstitious about the forms themselves (walking the aisle, altar calls, immediate acceptance). In some cases, this superstition has developed into a kind of sacrament in which grace is imparted through the forms.
This formula has led to an unfortunate merger of membership and conversion. Unknowingly, churches have assumed that altar calls, sinner’s prayers, and immediate assurance guarantees an appearance of God’s grace brought about by personal decision. This is why many Christians in rural churches wrongly assume that removing or changing these forms alters the very gospel itself. This is why those pastoring in a such areas must not underestimate how strange meaningful membership will sound, like you’re teaching another religion altogether.
LEARN TO LOVE THE RELATIONSHIP WEB
When I came to town, I simply underestimated how different my hometown (Orlando, FL) is than my current city. While there were deep relationships in such a large metropolitan area, it cannot compare to the rural town and its tightly knit community.
I didn’t realize that the web of relationships here is much tighter and stronger than other places I’d lived. Here’s what it’s like: I can’t visit a gas station, restaurant, or sporting event without meeting someone who is at least related to a member of my church. This tightly spun web of relationships means that any form of correction toward meaningful membership will vibrate along the network of relationships further and faster into the community. Every decision will affect someone’s son, granddaughter, cousin, or best friend.
I became acutely aware of this reality after a much-needed members meeting that led to some potential corrective decisions. The next morning, I encountered one of my neighbors (who was not a member) and he began to question the previous night’s meeting. As pastors, we must not only be aware of this. We must also learn how it intersects with your membership so that you won’t enter conversations unprepared.
At the same time, this obstacle can also become an opportunity. This tightly woven web of relationships can be leveraged for your benefit if you diligently learn those connection points and love the people whom they represent, whether current or prospective members. In other words, don’t underestimate the value of having conversations with the gentleman at the gas station or talking with the grandmother at the grocery store. These everyday interactions may soften hearts and bring clarity amid transitions in your church.
Pastors can be prepared to wisely shepherd churches in rural areas. If that’s you, let me offer some suggestions to prepare you as you seek to implement meaningful membership:
1. Don’t move too fast.
Take it from a guy who did. What takes 3-5 years in an urban context might take 7-10 years in rural areas.
2. Don’t die on the wrong hill.
When you arrive, you will see so many things that concern you, and you’ll want to change it all immediately, especially those elements that add to a confusion of conversion and the gospel. Prayerfully and patiently discern the right hills.
Before you do, here are some examples of the wrong hills to die on:
Be careful that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Call for a response while trying to prevent faulty forms of assurance. Begin to teach your people faithfully the beauty of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It will take more than one sermon or one sermon series; it will take years of teaching.
Slowly start to change the wording of things in an effort to promote a clearer understanding of covenantal membership. Begin to use covenants and statements of faith from the past that still have excellent qualities.
3. Get to know other local pastors.
You can’t see a community change if only your church is moving toward meaningful membership, so built a relationship with other nearby churches and pastors. How do you do this? A few ideas:
Go to the meetings of your local association. Do lots of listening so that when you speak, it means something. Other pastors likely struggle with similar things, and you can help provide answers to their questions.
Hand-deliver membership requests
Take the extra time to hand-deliver letters of transfer to other pastors. They’re a captive audience during these times, so use it to promote and encourage meaningful membership and meaningful fellowship.
4. Begin praying for thick skin.
Working prayerfully as a pastor in a small rural area means you’ll be talked about often. That sounds easy to deal with, but many comments will hurt you (and possibly your family) in ways you cannot imagine. It will even come from those whom you thought understood your direction. Be prepared to stay the course while trusting in the mercy of God and the power of his Word.