Jeremy Sarver was a mama’s boy, so when he was 14 and his mother left his father—and didn’t take him with her—he was devastated.

“My dad was concerned about me and began to take me to counselors,” he said. “I did not in any way enjoy that.”

He was hard on the counselors, and his dad “became desperate.”

“We didn’t go to church, but he remembered when I played baseball a few years ago, there was an assistant coach who was also a pastor,” Sarver said. “He got a hold of this pastor, who began to meet with me, and unfolded the gospel. That was the Lord’s timing, and things clicked.”

Sarver received Christ and “immediately attached” himself to the church and the pastor, Allen Sparks, who became a surrogate father to him.

Their church—Liberty Chapel—was 15 minutes outside of Crawfordsville, Indiana, an hour northwest of Indianapolis. Founded in a log cabin in 1835, the little congregation worked for decades to keep the doors open—merging with a nearby struggling Methodist church in 1947, becoming a nondenominational community church in 1967, and finally asking Village Missions for help in 1983.

Village Missions said yes, because Liberty Church is exactly the type of place it was created to support. The organization was founded in 1948 to help small rural churches that don’t have enough people—and therefore not enough money in the offering plate—to keep a pastor. And without a pastor, people like Sarver remain unreached.

As rural areas empty out, that need is growing. “Annual population losses [in nonmetro areas] averaged 43,000 per year between 2011 and 2015,” according to the Department of Agriculture. Just 46 million Americans—out of more than 320 million—still live in those counties, “14 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area.”

The percent of rural congregations shrunk from 43 percent in 1998 to 32 percent in 2012, according to the National Congregations Study. At the same time, rural attendees dropped from 23 percent to 15 percent.

Chart by the Association of Religion Data Archives
Chart by the Association of Religion Data Archives

As seats empty, those left are looking for help to keep the doors open. Some denominations are turning back to circuit riders, while others are experimenting with multisite options.

Still others are turning to Village Missions, which provides the pastor, pays his salary, and supports his work.

“Each year we put out $1.2 million in salary support alone” for 200 missionary couples in the United States and another 35 in Canada, executive director Brian Wechsler said. And he’s looking for more: “There is a big need for more missionaries. We have 20 open places—our challenge has been recruiting.”

Village Missions

Village Missions was founded in 1948 by an Irish Presbyterian pastor from Portland, Oregon. Walter Duff Jr. had watched America’s industrialization pull people into the cities—by the turn of the century, 30 percent of the population lived in cities; by 1920, it was more than 50 percent. (In 2010, it topped 80 percent.)

Dismayed by the lack of pastors for the shrinking rural church, and encouraged by his father and his older sisters, he took on leadership of the brand-new Village Missions, soon fielding “scores of letters asking for help securing a pastor.” Five years in, Duff Jr. had to quit pastoring to head Village Missions full-time. By the time he retired, he’d sent out more than 600 missionary pastors.

Village Missions prefers the terms “missionary” to “pastor” for several reasons—the language includes the wives, who are also sent; emphasizes the focus of outreach and evangelism; and helps the couple remember the culture they’re in is increasingly ignorant about or antagonistic to Christianity, Wechsler writes.

One of Duff’s missionaries was Sparks, who eventually built a thriving church. But it didn’t come easy. Breaking into a small rural community takes a tremendous amount of courage and perseverance.

Breaking In

It’s not that there isn’t community; it’s that there is already so much community.

“For the first seven to eight years at Liberty Chapel, Allen and I would go home on Sundays and take turns crying,” Sparks’s wife, Diane, told a local reporter. “Nothing we tried seemed to be working, at least from our perspective.”

Until it did. Attendance rose from 18 to nearly 100. Youth-focused Bible studies and mission trips began to pick up. The church became self-supporting, and bought a parsonage. In the late 1990s, Liberty Chapel added an extension to the sanctuary, a fellowship hall, a kitchen, and classrooms.

The success was welcome, but not all Village Missions churches do, or are expected to, pay their own way. The largest, which started as a “small, struggling work,” now has about 900 attendees, but it’s an anomaly. Median Sunday morning attendance is 45.

“Our two main criteria are whether the church is the only gospel witness in the area, and whether they are willing to develop a community-wide outreach,” Wechsler said.

Recognizing that economics may change in a rural area, “we’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “We aren’t the typical church plant, where you have to be a certain size or be self-funded by a certain time.”

That doesn’t mean a Village Missionary is free. The congregation has to supply housing and pay utilities. They also agree to pay 10 percent of their general fund offering to Village Missions, which in turn covers a base salary of $1,800 a month and health insurance.

As the church grows, it is expected to take on more of the financial responsibility, first picking up health insurance, then salary. And most do. In 2016, 62 percent of Village Missions churches were self-sufficient.

For those that can’t, Village Missions raises money from churches and individuals with a heart for rural missions. Their retired missionaries (who can live in Village Missions-purchased retirement homes) also give.

But even with housing, insurance, utilities, and a base salary, the lack of money makes recruitment difficult.

Jeremy and Mindi Sarver with twins Belle and Noah
Jeremy and Mindi Sarver with twins Belle and Noah

Student Loans

The average annual tuition rate at a four-year private college skyrocketed from 1970 ($1,500) to 1980 ($9,500) to 2010 ($22,000), rising far faster than both inflation and family income.

The graduates of the class of 2016 paid an average of $37,172 each for their higher education, which translates to about $285 a month stretched over 20 years. Even at Moody Bible Institute, which covers tuition through a combination of federal grants and private donations, the cost for room and board, insurance, and fees adds up to around $6,500 a semester.

In order to pay back those loans, you need an offering plate that gets handed around to lots of people, Wechsler said.

About 20 years ago, Village Missions developed their own free training courses, and in 2014 they put the two-year program—now called Contenders Discipleship Initiative—online. The goal is to develop pastors from within their own congregations, but without the student debt.

“That’s a huge transformation—to enable a lot of churches to use the material, not just to raise up Village Missionaries but also for intensive spiritual training for [laypeople],” Wechsler said. He figures about 500 students are taking classes.

If Village Missions can negate the money problem, it should attract a lot of millennials.

“Younger people are interested in community, and relationship building, and the opportunity to live out their Christian faith on a very real level,” Wechsler said. “That is appealing.  And we don’t micromanage them by any means—they can be entrepreneurial and develop their own ministry while we support them.” (One young Village Missionary even wrote a song extolling the organization’s mission.)

“I love the small-town atmosphere of community, and I think that’s harder to achieve in a very populated area,” Mindi said. “In a small church you get to know people, and you get to do life alongside them in a way that’s not available in huge churches. You also get the opportunity to serve—there is a great need for everybody to be active for the church to function well.”

Everyone’s Watching—And That’s Okay

When a DARE officer at Wechsler’s son’s school warned the students against drinking and driving, Wechsler’s son raised his hand.

“My dad drinks and drives,” he told the officer.

The town was 50 miles from a Walmart and had 400 residents; the main street was a gravel road. So “of course the guy knew me,” Wechsler said. He was “taken aback” until Wechsler’s son ratted him out for holding a Coke while steering.

“Nothing is secret,” Wechsler said. But “not many complain about that. . . . It’s a great opportunity to manifest whether your walk with Christ is real or not. You can have a lot of ministry in a rural area just walking down the street with your wife.”

Sparks did just that.

“I saw him love people and be with people,” Sarver said. “Being a pastor wasn’t a profession. It was about riding in combines and helping people tear off roofs and put on shingles. I watched him be with people and I thought, Man, that’s really attracting me.”

Sarver went to Moody Bible Institute, a school in the heart of Chicago that did a “wonderful job preparing for rural ministries.” He married Sparks’s daughter Mindi, and they settled down in their own Village Missions church in Volga, Iowa, an isolated farm community of about 200.

How to Revive a Dying Country Church

There are four churches in Volga—a Catholic church, a Lutheran church, a Methodist church, and Calvary Bible Community Church. When Sarver arrived, Calvary had about 12 members. None of the other churches had a full-time pastor.

“Village Missions is almost entirely a revitalization ministry,” said Wechsler, who grew up in Long Island, New York, before attending a Village Missions church in Idaho. They don’t need to plant new churches, because there’s almost always an existing building with the remnants of a congregation.

“Usually the criteria is that we go to places where there is only one gospel witness,” he said. “If that church closed, there’d be no other gospel witness.”

Village Missions asks the prospective church to sever ties with its denomination, which isn’t as hard as it sounds. “Quite often the denominations are abandoning the rural churches, so they’ve already told the church—which may be down to 10 people or so—that they aren’t able to send them any more pastors,” Wechsler said.

Village Missions doesn’t want to control the church, but to change the focus, and sometimes even the name, to include “community.”

“A lot of times these churches are inner-focused,” Wechsler said. “We’re trying to get them to see the entire area as a mission field.”

Village Missions isn’t kidding. Its missionaries are asked to spend about 20 hours a week with people. That could look like a Bible study, but more often it looks like coaching a kids’ soccer team, volunteering with the fire department, or running a few miles with a neighbor.

Those meaningful relationships aren’t just with churchgoers. In rural areas, “pastors have more opportunity to meet and interact with people on neutral ground,” Wechsler said. From the football field to the coffee shop, pastors can dig into relationships with unchurched people in a natural way.

It isn’t long before the entire community becomes the church, whether they ever enter the doors or not.

“People will say, ‘He’s my pastor,’ even if they’ve never been to church before,” Wechsler said. And when times of crisis come, the Village Missionary is the one they call. “Increasingly, you have real dysfunctional social collapse, and lot of the burden falls on the church in rural areas.”

“People assume rural life is kind of exempt from the difficulties of urban living, but it’s all the same stuff—just on a different scale,” Mindi said.

In fact, studies have found that rural youth are more at risk for drug addiction or alcohol abuse than their urban counterparts are. 

“I could put up office hours all day long in rural America, and nobody’s coming,” Sarver said. “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.”

Village Missionary Doug Johnson (right) talks with a farmer.
Village Missionary Doug Johnson (right) talks with a farmer.

Making it Stick

The amount of time and energy it takes to counsel an entire community—many of them unchurched—is eased by the tight-knit nature of rural life and the small size of the congregation.

Even if the church doubles in number, the lack of people in a rural area means there’s a limit to how much it can grow. Wechsler pastored for six years in an Iowa town of 57. By the end, he was drawing about 130—more than half from the surrounding area—but that’s on the high end of Village Mission churches.

When Sarver’s Iowan church more than doubled in size, it went from 12 to 30. When Village Missions asked him to move to Ohio to pastor a church of 90, he was turned off by the size. “I’m not a megachurch pastor,” he said, laughing. “I’m not comfortable with that.”

He did make the move, but changing churches is not something Wechsler likes.

“It takes five to seven years at any church for people to develop trust,” he said. That’s especially true in rural churches, which pastors routinely use as stepping stones to “moving up the ministry ladder.”

“If you can stay, and convince them that you love them, that makes a big difference in your ministry,” Wechsler said. “Some of our guys will plant a fruit tree in their yard, and that thrills people. They say, ‘Oh, boy, you must be planning on staying.’”

Best-case scenario, Village Missionaries would serve just a few congregations their entire career, Wechsler said. Right now, the average Village Missionary stays put for eight to nine years, and “that includes new people who haven’t been able to be anywhere for eight years.”

Sparks spent more than 30 years at Liberty Chapel. Sarver hopes he retires from his current congregation in Ohio.

He and Mindi have been there three years now, and haven’t really broken into the community.They’re patient, though, remembering those early days in Iowa.

Locals would gather daily at a booth in the town’s only gas station for coffee and catching up.

“I’d go there once or twice a week and I would sit there,” eating a Snickers and drinking coffee, Sarver said. The first day, “I could see on their faces they had no interest in including me. It took three years—I would greet them, sit by them, try to squeeze into the conversation.”

That cold reaction isn’t mean, Mindi said. It’s protective. “That’s totally legitimate because pastors tend to start in a small church and then feel like it’s not important enough to stay. So that hesitance of people to trust is legitimate and warranted.”

Mindi’s a small-town girl herself, so she knew what to do. She made herself visible and accessible by walking everywhere she needed to go. Then she joined the library committee.

The couple baked cookies for neighbors, then tried to bring up sports or music to see if they could connect. Sarver walked the cemeteries, learning family names and tragedies. He served on the park board and cleaned the campground bathrooms. When he noticed one man drank Mountain Dew during the daily gatherings at the gas station, he brought one over when the man was out mowing his yard. (“He likes to say, ‘Jeremy conned me into coming to church with a Mountain Dew,’” Sarver said.)

The Sarvers lived by a park (“That was God-ordained”), so Jeremy shot hoops with the kids, and met three 12-year-old boys. “They pretty much lived with us,” he said. “When Village Missions called and asked us to move, my first response was tears, because what happens to the boys?”

He needn’t have worried.                                                                                                           

The boys are 22 now, and like Sarver before them, they’re helping to lead the local church.

Optimism

Village Missionaries saw 459 salvation decisions, 179 adult baptisms, and 127 child baptisms in 2016.

“In some of the most hopeless places, it’s amazing what can happen,” said Wechsler, who has seen people come to Christ and churches come to life. In the Village Mission church he attended before becoming a missionary himself, the church led 11 different Bible studies—in a town of 200.

He doesn’t see rural ministry as less-than. (Neither does Tim Keller.) “A person can only interact meaningfully with so many people,” he said. In some ways, a rural pastor has more meaningful interactions—with both churched and unchurched people—than those in a bigger church or more populated area, he said.

As the population continues to shrink and society continues to change, “ministry in general will become more challenging,” Wechsler said. “But as the darkness gets greater, the light shines brighter. I’m optimistic that people will see the bankruptcy of life without Christ and want to turn to him. We’re to be faithful witnesses, but it’s God who changes the heart, so we can rest assured in that.”