Reviving the Rural Churches of America: One Sheep at a Time
A lot of us want to do great things for the Lord. But great doesn’t necessarily mean big. We’re all familiar with Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, in which a man leaves his 99 sheep to find the one that is missing. But a lot of pastors today, in their understandable passion to minister to the 99, have left the one all alone. I speak of the forgotten sheep of rural America. The great missionary statesman William Carey once said, “To know the will of God, we need an open Bible and an open map.” And the open maps of today are telling us that there is a massive shift to the cities from the countryside. Operation World points out that the global share of people living in urban areas has shot up from 13 percent in 1900 to above 50 percent today. In America, the trend is even stronger. According to the USDA, overall, the country’s “non-metro” areas have lost an average of 43,000 residents every year since 2010. Job prospects in the countryside are falling, and poverty rates are rising. According to one report, deaths are now outpacing births in hundreds of rural counties. So it’s hardly surprising that urban and suburban ministry is a focus for so many. But what about the lost sheep scattered in the countryside? Well, as you might expect, their churches are shrinking and their pastors are disappearing. The National Congregations Study finds that the percentage of rural congregations has plummeted from 43 percent in 1998 to 32 percent in 2012. And what about the pastors? With so many churches struggling to keep their doors open, fewer and fewer can afford to pay a pastor, and thus many of them are going without. Well, that’s where an innovative and yet back-to-basics ministry such as Village Missions comes in. Village Missions, which was founded in 1948 by an Irish Presbyterian pastor named Walter Duff Jr., has sent out hundreds and hundreds of what it terms “missionary pastors” to the lost sheep in America’s rural areas—places like Volga, Iowa. According to a great article by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra at the Gospel Coalition entitled “Reviving the Dying Small-town Church,” Volga, a farm community of about 200 people, has four churches. Jeremy Sarver, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, was sent by Village Missions to revitalize Volga’s Calvary Bible Church, which had 12 members when he got there. Zylstra says none of the other churches had a single full-time pastor at all. Ministry in the countryside may be on a smaller scale than a lot of pastors are used to, but it allows them to really get to know their flocks. Village Missions requires its missionary pastors to invest about 20 hours a week getting to know the locals in order to become a part of these often tight-knit communities. “I could put up office hours all day long in rural America, and nobody’s coming,” Sarver says. “But if I sit in the combine with them, or go to the coffee shop, or watch a volleyball game with them—they don’t want me to use the word ‘counseling,’ but we talk through things.” After this kind of slow relationship-building, the church doubled in size—to 30 members. And each of these sheep is precious. Last year, Village Missions reported 459 salvation decisions, 179 adult baptisms, and 127 child baptisms. For more information on Village Missions, come to BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary. We’ll also link you to Sara Eekhoff Zylstra’s outstanding article.