By Glenn C. Daman
The farm that I was raised on was five miles from the nearest small village. The town itself had a population of ninety people, with two gas stations, two bars, two sawmills, a small mom-and-pop grocery store, and one church.
The bars and gas stations have since closed, the sawmills have been swallowed up by large mills, and the grocery store struggles to exist as a small mini-mart. But the church remains.
Within the surrounding community and farmland, there were two other churches, a Free Methodist church connected to a local church camp and the Catholic Church started by Father Pieree-Jean De Smet. The next closest church was twenty miles away in another valley.
The church was more than a church for the forty to sixty people who met each week. It was regarded by many to be “their church” even though they never attended. As is often the case in rural communities, people are religious and will identify with a church in the community even though they may never attend. For them, the presence of the church is a part of the community identity.
As Aaron Morrow writes, “Small towns tend to be loaded with religious non-Christians. They may not go to church very often, but they generally believe that God exists and the Bible probably has something to say about him.” In many rural communities, there will be a specific denomination or “faith family” that dominates the area.
Within the rural church on any given Sunday, there may be two or three different generations present. Those who do not have grandparents near may often be “adopted” by older couples whose children have moved away.
It is through this intergenerational worship that values and faith are passed down from one generation to another. As a result, rural parents are involved in the church community, and that involvement is matched by their children. There is a natural progression from generation to generation.
Every Sunday morning and evening, my parents would pack all four of us children into the car and head to church. The only time we did not attend was when we were ill—and you better have a doctor’s note confirming it!
It was so ingrained within us that even when we were teenagers and our parents were away on a trip, we still went, never even thinking that attendance was optional. Our parents never forced us to go to church. We just never realized it was an option.
But it was there that we learned about the Bible and saw it lived out in the lives of the people who attended, people who cared about us and were as much a part of my life as any blood relative.
When I go back, I do not see a white building located between a small town and a wheat field. I see people, each of whom left their imprint on my life. Understanding the rural church requires us to look beyond the building and see the people.
In rural communities, the church plays a more important role than just offering a meeting place for the local congregation. It brings stability and supports the whole community.
In many small communities, especially those isolated from large urban areas, the church plays an important role in providing help and assistance for people.
In rural communities, the church functions not only as a religious center, but also as a social center. In times when a tragedy strikes the community, people will look to the church and the local pastor to provide support and a sense of community, even though they may never attend the church.
Because of the lack of social services, many times people will look to the church to fill the gap in food and clothing. Thus, in rural communities, the civil and social well-being of the community is interwoven with the vitality of the local church.
GLENN C. DAMAN is the author of Leading the Small Church, Shepherding the Small Church, Developing Leaders for the Small Church, and When Shepherds Weep. Since 1991, Daman has served as the pastor of River Christian Church in Stevenson, Washington.
Taken from The Forgotten Church: Why Rural Ministry Matters for Every Church in America by Glenn Daman (©2018). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.