Pastoring a Rural Church Isn’t a “Lesser” Ministry
I’ve spent most of my life in rural churches. I was raised in one and serve as the pastor of one now. But my family and I have also been members of a mega-church, and we attended a healthy suburban church in which God introduced me to expositional preaching, church membership, and biblical leadership in elders and deacons.
Along my “church journey” I’ve met many wonderful brothers and sisters who serve in urban contexts. We’ve been able to share encouraging testimonies together and pray for one another. Here’s one thing I’ve noticed: while there are differences in our contexts—rural, urban, suburban—I cannot help but see the striking similarities. In fact, I think we’re all more alike than we realize.
Jesus’ ministry transcended Galilee and pushed to Jerusalem—from a poor agro-town to a bustling city. As he was traveling, he preached one gospel, pointing people to himself—no matter the location.
This is vital to understanding ministry. Whether we’re called to Farmington, Missouri or Washington, D.C, our goal is to help people do two things: understand the Bible and follow Jesus. And while we’re commanded in Scripture to give ourselves to a gospel-believing local church, we must never forget that we’re also a part of something massive—the universal church.
In the new heavens and the new earth, people from all over the world will finally be with God; the universal church will finally gather. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God’” (Rev. 21:3). All of God’s redeemed people will be “one people,” sinless and fully living in his presence. Because of this, we must never forget that God is doing marvelous work all over the world—through rural churches, urban churches, suburban churches, and churches all across the world.
We should be encouraged that no matter our context, we’re in step with something God has already been doing. God is saving people, sanctifying people, and ultimately glorifying people for his name’s sake. We simply get to be a part of it. That means that no matter where we’re located, and no matter how well-known (or obscure) we are throughout the world, we can take heart because we’re laboring for the King of Kings and he sees our struggles and sweat, our triumph and tears. Take heart. There’s no such thing as a “lesser” ministry.
Romans helps us understand humanity. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). The whole world is full of sin through Adam; therefore, the whole world needs to be saved through Jesus. Now, many pastors already know that all sinners need salvation through the person and work of Christ, but many may not feel the weight of the need. When pastors do not focus on the “need” first, then they tend to drift into a kind of consumeristic ministry.
Consumeristic ministry is a tricky thing to describe. Sometimes, though not always, pastors may find themselves choosing places of ministry solely based on their felt needs. Sometimes it’s because of proximity to family or financial security or the nearby school system; the list goes on and on. Of course, these needs are legitimate and important to consider, but sometimes these perks can cloud our view when seeking a place of ministry. Just as pastors try to teach their members about avoiding consumerism in the church, they can just as easily find themselves approaching the ministry this way—and this kind of thinking can leave rural towns overlooked and underfed.
Let’s illustrate this. In any location, from a city to a “one stop-light” town, there are certain things necessary for community living—things like police officers, fire departments, a city hall, grocery stores, and so on. People need to be policed because crimes happen in every community. Fire departments need to be ready because fires happen in every community. Every society has needs and the difference between societies determines the different fulfillment of those needs. Depending on the location, fires may only happen a few times a year, so fire fighters may be full-time or part-time—but be sure, sooner or later a fire will ignite and they’ll be needed.
The same application can be made for churches. No matter the context, people need salvation. They need the gospel. They need faithful preachers to proclaim to them: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt 3:2).
Remember, this gospel was first preached in the small, poor, agricultural Galilee. God can—and does—do remarkable things in unremarkable places.
One of the most fascinating things about the church is the fact that every Sunday many Christians gather into buildings and hear from the same God by reading the same Bible. For 2,000 years, the church has been built and edified through the preaching and reading of God’s Word. Faith comes through hearing Scripture (Rom. 10:17). When pastors stand behind the pulpit, their main objective is to open the pages of Scripture, preach Christ, and help people see their need to follow him. So even in remote places, even when it may seem like nothing powerful is taking place, if Christ is being preached, if God’s Word is being explained, then the Holy Spirit is at work. God always accomplishes his purposes through his Word (Isa. 55:11).
Scripture also plays a role in the everyday life of the church as it guides God’s people through worship and conduct. For example, every church must look to God’s Word to find the responsibilities and obligations of its members. Church membership and discipline—the keys of the kingdom from Matthew 16 and 18—are given to us by Christ. We find this authority in the Word of God.
The Bible is not a book for “some Christians.” Sometimes, rural churches have a reputation for being “non-theological,” as if God’s truth and biblical doctrine don’t matter to rural congregations. Well, that can be true—just like it can be true anywhere. But there are many rural churches that hunger and thirst for sound doctrine.
Here’s the point: If you’re a pastor in a rural setting, or a pastor-to-be contemplating rural ministry, you need to understand that God has placed these churches in line with the rest of his church throughout history. These churches are built and edified by the power of God’s Word. The faithful pastor keeps the Word at the fore. That’s no small task.
The U.S. military is an amazing group of men and women. Troops are located all over the world—in populated and desolate places. Some are “Active Duty” and some are “Reserves.” But, no matter the location or the service, all military personnel ultimately serve under one office: the Commander-In-Chief, the President of the United States.
This analogy helps us understand the church. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Similarly, Paul said, “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col 1:18). In other words, the Pope isn’t the head of the church, pastors aren’t the heads of the church, certain members aren’t the heads of the church—Jesus and Jesus alone is the head of his church, and he shares his position with no one.
What’s more, Jesus isn’t only the head of special churches only. He’s not just the head of hip church plant or well-known mega-churches. Jesus is the head of every gospel-preaching local church on the globe.
Celebrity status is a major temptation for many pastors, and it really shouldn’t be. Of course, pastors would be fools to say they don’t want anybody listening to their sermons, but problems arise when pastors desire for their kingdom to grow more than others. All our ministry is under the headship of Christ. The church is his and his alone.
In Revelation 5:13, we see this in vivid color: “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” On that last day, every creature will look to Jesus. He is Lord. So, look not at your so-called “small” ministry, and seek not to make a name for yourself. Seek Jesus and his glory instead because everything eventually funnels into his glory anyway.
Though it’s true that rural and urban churches have many differences, it’s important not to overstate the case. We must stop classifying ourselves to pieces and realize we are all a part of a body that transcends time, space, and geography. As I heard Mark Dever say once, “The most important things about your church are what it shares with every other true church in history.”
Amazingly, even small, rural churches inherit the powerful kingdom of God through the blood of his Son.