How do you pastor a small-town church? I’ve read books about ministering in the city or among the poor. But what about the middle-class rural communities where many pastors serve? Where’s the wisdom for pastoring those churches?
I’ve pastored a small village church in England for almost seven years. I still have so much to learn. But by God’s grace and the example of faithful members in our church, I’ve learned much about pastoring in communities like ours.
Here are eight bits of wisdom I’d like to pass along to others in a similar context.
1. Live there.
When we first arrived, we didn’t live in the village. But moving into town made building relationships natural. We talked to neighbors over the fence. We chatted with locals on our family walks. We met parents when we dropped off our kids at school. These relationships were vital to us being part of the community.
2. Host events.
Books about ministry tell you to go to where the people are. But in urban places, the people are scattered across locations and events. Some city pastors may ask, “Why start a playgroup when there are 10 other playgroups to meet people?”
But in our small community, if anything happens, it’s at our church. Our playgroup is the only one. Our seniors’ lunch is the only one. As a British church, when we celebrated the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, our event was the only one. People will come to things we host because we’re the only ones doing so.
3. Relational beats professional.
City centers value professionalism. We don’t aim to be unprofessional, but we must be realistic about what we can achieve.
Small towns are about relationships. Most folks won’t judge a church based on its music or sharp website. Instead, they ask,
- “Are you kind to my kids?”
- “Do you care for retired women?”
- “Will you do the funeral for my dad?”
- “Are you willing to answer questions I have about Jesus?”
In tight-knit communities, relational capital carries more weight than production value.
4. Live like people are watching (because they are).
It’s easy to be anonymous in a city. Transient populations provide a cover for scandal—many people in the know will be gone in a few years anyway. Village populations, meanwhile, are more static. I once met an elderly woman at a nearby fair who attended our church as a child. The reputation of a church lasts. Pastors are observed and remembered; church members too. Christians need to live like people are watching, because they are.
In his book Small Town Jesus, Donnie Griggs gives the example of speeding. Local people shake their heads every time an outsider goes 40 in a 30 zone. What a bad witness if that car then turns into the church parking lot! Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16). Static populations with long-term memories make Jesus’s words even more pertinent for the small-town church.
5. Talk to strangers.
In big cities, talking to strangers can be awkward. In our community, it would be awkward not to say hello to someone passing by on the street. Over time, your friendliness will have an effect. Imagine a thought process:
- “My neighbor is friendly to me.”
- “I wonder what makes him so nice?”
- “He’s just invited me to a church event. Is that because he’s a Christian?”
The simple act of being friendly may remove one barrier to Jesus.
6. Be realistic.
No village church has a huge congregation; megachurch principles will not apply. It’s important to be realistic about what you can do. Use the gifts your members have, not ones you wish they had.
Use the gifts your members have, not ones you wish they had.
Here’s an example. Our church has a few budding artists who created calendars with their artwork and gave them as gifts to people in our neighborhood, with an invitation to a carol service. We had many positive comments and some joined us at Christmastime.
Pastors of large churches seem to publish all the books, which means much of the advice won’t help you. What’s the best resource for pastors in small churches in rural communities? Networking!
Get to know good pastors in similar areas. Share struggles and successes. Find out where they’re getting traction. Co-laboring with like-minded brothers in similar contexts provides vital support and a sounding board for what biblical strategies might work in your own church.
Our church has been here since 1704. This is a blessing. Again, some locals have known the church since childhood. Realize the work you do now may take a couple of years to bear fruit. Don’t miss the joy of the harvest by leaving too soon!
Of course, the most important things for a small-town church are important for any church. Persevere in evangelism, biblical preaching, prayer, and genuine love. There’s no reason to envy the church in the big city. Instead, learn to communicate the unchanging gospel in the community into which God, with infinite wisdom and love, has placed you.