Can anything good come out of Nashville: Reflections on a Conference for Church Planters
by: Victor Schreffler
From the earliest days of my own ministry training and down through the years I was taught that the church needs to focus on the cities. “Paul the Apostle did cities.” “The rural areas are already adequately churched and the future of culture, power, and decision making is determined by the metropolitan areas.” “The city is where it’s at and the rural areas will do fine on their own.”
The recent American election with its hidden rural votes has challenged these widely held assumptions. Rural is taking center stage while people from all levels of American culture are scrambling to rediscover this forgotten world. And what they are discovering is that all is not well along the country roads.
Rural areas have extremely urgent needs in the areas of social services, food pantries, mental health care, childcare and their training—all things the church is good at providing. And contrary to long-held beliefs, not everyone goes to church. Current research is revealing that the rural population is about as unchurched as the metropolitan areas. The church may not be as bitterly scorned as in urban areas, but neither is it well attended.
This knowledge provides one very important takeaway for me: Rural North America (for there were Canadians present at the conference as well as Americans) desperately needs the church—the Person of Jesus embodied in loving congregations willing to live out the gospel in forgotten places where the social infrastructure has been crumbling for decades.
A second critical take away for me has to do with the metrics of success and its impact on those brave enough to plant churches. Perhaps shaped by the assumptions of capitalism, much of church planting culture has valued the ‘bigger is better’ definition of success. Thus in a rural setting a pastor who has taken four years to build his or her congregation to a membership of 40 feels shamed standing beside the pastor who launched with 200. In rural areas both the scale and pace of church planting will necessarily be different, often slower and smaller than its “big city” counterpart. Building relationships, developing trust and gathering resources take longer. Many planters will have to be bi-vocational for years, and may never be fully funded.
Yet in their rural setting church planters can become—often need to become—community leaders active not only in the salvation of souls but in the redemption of communities which have been shattered by poverty, family dysfunction and devastating drug addiction, among other difficulties.
However most rural clergy “feel like they are second class leaders serving second class citizens” (Bryan Jarrett). Sadly, the metrics of size and speed have obscured the heroic sacrifice of the church planter who works third shift at the furniture factory so that he can do “church stuff” during the day…all the while struggling to make sure his own children don’t forget what he looks like. Or the bi-vocational planter who gets a noonday call from a parishioner whose father is dying but can’t attend to the emergency until 4:05 pm when his teaching job (that pays the bills) lets out for the day. The agony of the tension and sense of inadequacy hammers away at an already bruised sense of purpose and accomplishment.
“Moving forward, always forward,” will have to mean redefining what it means to be a successful pastor, planter, clergy person. It will also require making real investments in the long neglected mission field of rural North America. But perhaps prerequisite to all the rest will be recovering the innate value of the rural context—like a dusty town in northern Palestine called Nazareth where some wondered, “Can anything come from there?”