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Confessions of a small-town pastor

March 2000 | by Eric Wright

Small is beautiful, whether it be a tiny diamond on a fiancĂ©e’s finger, a newborn baby in its bassinet, or a few dozen saints belting out Amazing Grace in a small-town church. Especially when the small town is surrounded by rolling countryside under a big, big sky of drifting cumulus.

Let me tell you why small-town churches and their pastors are so special. Such pastors have the opportunity to develop deeper relationships with people. Since their congregations are smaller, the task of remembering names, weeping with them in sorrow, and rejoicing in their triumphs, is not as difficult.

It is impossible for the pastor of a big church to know many members well, since they often commute great distances to work and church. The small-town pastor, however, may meet them at the local hardware store, in the coffee shop, or at Aunt Hattie’s anniversary party. And with more opportunity to visit them, he has a better chance of gauging their spiritual growth.

Participation

Furthermore, he can more easily integrate into the community in which he lives. His home is not an anonymous number on an anonymous street in another anonymous suburb. He may know his banker personally. When he goes for coffee at Tim Hortons, both the waitress and the couple next in line greet him by name. The committee for the Canada Day BBQ might ask him to lead in prayer. The men’s club or the local police may seek his help as a chaplain. Opportunities to witness develop naturally as people get to know him over a period of time.

Of course, every week Joe Small-Town Pastor will be juggling responsibilities using a much smaller pool of volunteers. This, however, has its positive side. Since everyone knows everyone else in the small church, absences are glaringly obvious. It’s hard to be anonymous in a small church. This, in turn, tends to create more commitment.

Necessity forces more people in a small church to participate. This helps them develop spiritual gifts that might lie dormant for years in a larger church. People who would never lead a Bible study or pray in public in a large church, find the courage to do so in a smaller one. Sometimes the quality is not high — but the spiritual growth that results from active involvement is accelerated.

Interaction

I’ve often pondered the proportionately higher percentage of missionaries and pastors that come from small churches. Probably, it is the result of growing in an environment where needs cry out for volunteers. What small churches miss in programs and panache, they more than make up for in opportunities.

This brings up the whole subject of interaction. While small-town churches are often committed to traditional services, they can still create opportunities for spontaneity and interaction. I have found that opening up meetings to testimonies, prayer requests, and questions is easier in a smaller church. Believers react positively when given the freedom to discuss actual texts and ask questions about difficult passages.

Discussion on subjects such as marriage and divorce, the Second Coming, the Christian and Sunday, angels, heaven and hell, law and grace, church and state, and euthanasia, all create interest. When people have a chance to interact, they often come more frequently.

This same environment accelerates pastoral development. Joe Small-Church Pastor must learn quickly to do many things besides preaching — from watering the lawn, preparing the bulletins, leading the singing, visiting the sick, to maybe even painting the church hall.

He can’t be a specialist like the pastor in a multiple-staff situation. But if he tries his best, in a humble friendly way, the people love him. And they tolerate his imperfections. If he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he can admit it and promise to find it for them later. The people realise they can’t compete with bigger churches for the apostle Paul or even Timothy.

Conservative

But you may ask, what about the notoriously conservative nature of small-town churches? Well, that may not be a bad thing. With new ministry bandwagons coming down the pike every year, many of God’s people are tired of fads.

They long for solid Bible teaching and meaty hymns of the faith in place of a high calorie diet of modern choruses. Joe Small-Town Pastor has to respect the heritage that has been handed down through generations, and not go in with his latest church-growth manual in hand to slash and burn.

That doesn’t mean he is not willing to change things. The pastor is to introduce godly change where necessary. He is called of God to rescue the saints from ruts just as much as from fads.

Whether in city or country settings, most people resist change. Small churches require pastors who can introduce change gradually. After all, God is not in a hurry, so why should we be? And it has been my experience that if you introduce change over time, with careful biblical justification and explanation, most believers will embrace a fresh approach. Indeed, with a smaller constituency to convince, Joe may be able to lead his flock more easily — if he does it in the right way.

For example, since most people already know each other and phone back and forth, the introduction of a ‘caring structure’ could be almost seamless as long as it is careful to leave no one out. Similarly, the introduction of a periodic fellowship Sunday, with a soup and sandwich meal, will probably meet with applause.

Since Sunday school teachers probably struggle to cope, using occasional videos by well-known teachers to enhance existing programs might be met with relief. Since missionaries are finding it harder and harder to get into large churches, small churches may be able to plan effective missionary conferences.

Countryside

What about the countryside environment that surrounds most small-town churches? A magazine cover story heralds a growing trend: ‘Thousands of Canadians are downshifting out of the fast lane, choosing to live a simpler life’. As the ‘baby boomers’ age, the desire intensifies to escape the noise, the traffic, the pollution, and the crime of the big cities.

Many are seeking a more peaceful lifestyle in parts of the country where the life is slower and the vistas more congenial. If small-town churches respond to it, this trend could greatly strengthen their position in the next decade or two.

Jack Lessinger has done a statistical study of 443 backwater rural counties throughout the United States. ‘Declining for decades [they have] become the nation’s leading region of growth’, he reports. Rural areas have lost people to the cities and the suburbs for several generations, but now even the remotest regions are growing.

Lessinger goes on to say: ‘A new vision of the good life is creating the city [lifestyle] of the 21st century. Recycled from nostalgic old towns distant from major metropolitan areas, it thrives among pine-covered hills and peaceful neighbourhoods. A simpler less materialistic life beckons. We drink in the sweet air, listen to the birdsong, and know that this is where our future hangs more golden than anywhere else’.

Yes, throughout North America, and in Europe as well, people are rediscovering rural environments. Now is not the time to close down small-town churches. It is time for the small town pastor to seize the day, preparing a solid foundation for the evangelisation of the new wave of migration predicted by demographers.

Small world

Whether or not this trend materialises, God treasures small-town pastors. In the last century Daniel Roberts pastored a rural church in Brandon, Vermont. Six years before his death he wrote, ‘I remain a country parson, known only within my own small world’.

Not really. In 1876, to commemorate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he wrote some verses which were chosen as the official hymn. Not only Americans, but all of us still treasure its words.

God of our Fathers, whose almighty hand

Leads forth in beauty all the starry band

Of shining worlds in splendour through the skies,

Our grateful songs before thy throne arise.

Thy love divine hath led us in the past;

In this free land by thee our lot is cast;

Be thou our ruler, guardian, guide, and stay,

Thy Word our law, thy paths our chosen way.

In this era of mega-everything, small is beautiful. There is no telling what God can do through some little-known country pastor