I recently attended my high school class reunion. It was a backyard barbecue with a couple dozen in attendance. As I’m sure most reunions go, the time was spent reminiscing of the glory football days and Saturday night shenanigans. Not a lot has changed, but we are all different. The majority of my class was born and raised in that tiny town (population: 1,500), so being back together just felt like home. We took turns trying to remember each other’s home phone numbers and joked about landlines, party-lines, and how quickly news could travel. There is a unique camaraderie among us. Something that only develops from small town living.
It’s because of this upbringing that I know I’m wired for rural ministry. A little over a decade ago, I felt the Lord’s prompting to plant a church in western Nebraska. We didn’t have a ‘sending’ church that we could pull volunteers from to partner with us. It was just me, my wife, and our two small children. We raised our own financial support through family and friends. I went to a “Church Planters Intensive” bootcamp where the Holy Spirit began to download a clear vision into my heart for the community.
I knew it would be a lot of hard work, but there was a fire in my belly and excitement in my bones! I was going to turn this town upside down for Christ! My vision was clear and my mission was established.
I noticed that the majority of churches in our area had stayed the same over the decades. Nothing had changed within the four walls. I determined that we would be different! We established our Sunday morning service routine that did not include Sunday School. As the congregation grew, so did the argument to start up Sunday School classes. But I dug my heels in. Absolutely not! I was not going to get caught in the same old rut and nobody was going to convince me.
Well, through some difficult conversations, and many dark nights of the soul, I learned that I had to adjust my strategy to see my grand vision come alive. Nothing seemed to be working, so it was time for a different approach. What I realized was: CULTURE TRUMPS VISION.
We all desired the same thing: adult discipleship classes. But getting there without things blowing up was the issue. I had to flow with the culture, not buck against it, in order for my vision to flourish.
So I listened. We negotiated.
I agreed that they could meet before church, and they agreed to not call it “Sunday School.” We all agreed that at the end of the semester, someone else would teach the class on a different day.
Out of that agreement, Sunday School died and Community Groups were born. Had I continued to push my agenda, people would have found another church that offered Sunday School. Because I listened and negotiated, not only was God honored, but leaders were released. They felt valued, accepted, and part of the team advancing the kingdom.
It doesn’t matter how grand and holy your vision is if it doesn’t flow with the culture of your community. Here are some common Rural Culture Markers to be mindful of:
COMMITMENT. One of the first things I made sure to communicate from the pulpit was that I planned on being buried in the cemetery that was located two blocks from the church. When they realized that I wasn’t treating them like a ‘stepping stone’ to bigger and better things, they responded with love and support. They needed to know that I was there for the long haul.
COMMUNITY. Being involved in community activities builds a lot of trust. Just showing up to the pancake fundraisers, high school sporting events, or the county fair speaks volumes that you are making an investment in their lives. They want to know you love the community.
RELATIONSHIP. There’s an old cliché: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This really sums up a Midwest mindset. If you’re willing to jump on the combine with them and pray over their harvest, put on your boots to help with cattle branding, or answer your phone at 2 a.m. when all hell has broken loose in their marriage, they will recognize the value.
Time and time again, I’ve seen big city pastors try to make it in rural towns and they just seem to get eaten alive because they don’t adapt to the culture. It takes more than an entertaining sermon and fancy lights. It can’t be done from the hours of 9-5. It isn’t built overnight.
To truly make an impact, it’s a lifetime of sacrifice. It’s a calling from God. And it’s worth it.