Those of us whose ministry is in smaller and rural churches have been blessed over the past five years by the publication of several very helpful books. Collectively, they assist in understanding the culture, processes and context of this set of churches. They also provide ideas for improved ministry and offer hope for the future. Listed here are, to my mind, some of the best.
The most recent is Indispensable Guide to the Smaller Church, by David Ray. Ray, who has pastored and written about rural churches for more than 30 years, recounts a 2001 trip across the country with visits in nearly a score of smaller churches in a variety of settings. He notes their strengths and provides wonderful suggestions for effective worship and ministry.
Carl Dudley has updated his classic book on smaller churches under the title, Effective Small Churches in the 21st Century. One helpful feature is his weaving into the text findings that relate to smaller churches from the recent national study of churches, FAITH. This study was done by Hartford Seminary, Dudley’s home base.
I have ordered copies of Shepherding the Small Church by Glen Daman to give to pastors in our Baptist association. The book provides very practical and understandable “nuts and bolts” information about how to lead a small Baptist church. Glen pastors two small churches, along with teaching on this subject at the Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Portland.
Richard Lescher, professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, writes autobiographically about his first pastorate. He was a city raised man with a doctorate from Oxford University when he arrived there. The church was a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation in rural Illinois. I found Open Secrets to be moving and insightful.
For many years Tony Pappas has published The Five Stones, a journal for pastors of smaller congregations. Recently, he published a collection of 30 of the best articles to appear in the journal as Inside the Small Church. The articles are collected under four headings–leading, loving, building capacity and mission for the small church. For a newcomer to rural and/or small church ministry, this book will be a way to catch up on the literature.
Speaking of mission, Craig Van Gelder is one of several younger missiologists who are thinking and writing about mission in North America. I find his The Essence of the Church to provide a strong statement of ecclesiology that is compatible with the Baptist view and applicable to small church life. Here and elsewhere he and his colleagues stress the importance of a church being missional in its outlook.
In Dynamics of Small Town Ministry Lawrence Farris draws upon his personal experience and heavily upon the material developed at Texas A & M University. He has since transferred to North Dakota State University’s Rural Social Science Education. (Much of the material in RSSE is now available on line. Use your search engine.) The strength of this book is its introduction to the contextual dynamics of small-town ministry. One can profit from reading along with Farris the fictional Mitford series by Jan Karon and the Harmony series by Phillip Gulley. Together, they provide an interesting look into church and community life in small towns.
Rural Ministry, edited by Shannon Jung, also draws upon the RSSE material. It is strong on the history of rural community and church life. It identifies current issues of rural life. And it formulates goals for rural public policy. Several seminaries now use this as the text in rural ministry courses.
In Small, Strong, Congregations Kennon Callahan applies what he has learned about effective churches from several decades of consultations to smaller congregations. While the book may not be applicable to a host of “family chapel” churches, it should prove to be valuable to smaller churches with 75 or more attendees.
I am glad that I did not overlook Gary Gunderson’s Deeply Woven Roots in my reading of rural and small church material. Gary attends a small, innovative metropolitan church. He focuses upon the church being a spiritual community and identifies seven strengths he has found there. These are to accompany, convene, connect, tell stories, give sanctuary, bless and pray. As I reflected on these it seemed to me that they are descriptive of the better rural and small churches that I know.
While rural and small town churches have a common biblical base with urban and suburban churches, there are significant differences related to culture, context, relationships, focus, and future. It is good that there is a cadre of persons thinking and writing about such. Often they are swimming against the stream of contemporary leadership and church growth materials.
While most Americans do not worship in the churches to which these writers are giving attention, most of the local congregations are to be found in small towns, villages and at country crossroads. They are an integral part of the Kingdom. They serve. They need to be served.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.