Fifty years ago most rural Baptist churches were very different from what they are today. Most shared a preacher with one or more other congregations. Most did not have worship services every Sunday. Most met in a one-room building. Most drew their membership from the immediate neighborhood. This has changed, as even a casual observer will notice.
Again, delve into the old records of rural Baptist churches in the antebellum era, and a very different picture of church life emerges. Worship one weekend per month, close attention to dealing with moral lapses within the church membership, no Sunday school and bi-racial membership are among the most obvious differences.
So, for example, when Mineral Springs Baptist Church in McShan, Ala. celebrates its 150th anniversary next month it will be in its third manifestation and seeking to morph into a fourth.
The point is that every couple of generations, due to changes in the cultural and social environment, rural churches have had to re-invent themselves. Typically, there have been some who have resisted the process of re-invention. Many that have resisted successfully have since died.
Rural churches dealing with the need to re-invent themselves here early in the 21st century will need to examine the following opinions. Some of them are mutually exclusive, and some will not be applicable due to the diversity in rural communities today. But they must all be examined:
–Redefine the “church field.” Most rural churches were founded to serve a field that extended about three miles in each direction. Today a field of 30 miles is more appropriate. It is now more “centered” than “bounded.” Often several congregations will be drawing from and serving the same territory.
–Do not necessarily seek to be a “general store.” Discover a “niche” ministry that God has gifted your church to do. Become the church within the 30-mile community that does that ministry well. Draw persons who need it and ones called to perform it.
–Be a “remnant” people. Be faithful as long as your church can continue. Then let it “die with dignity.” This choice would, of course, preclude the other options.
–Consolidate. Merge with one or more other Baptist churches in the area. Or become a union church. For some, this will be only a return to its origin a century earlier.
–Be reborn. Die as an Anglo church and become a new church, Hispanic or African-American, for example. Change from being a church for farmers to one for “lake people.”
–Grow the family. Since many rural churches are really “family chapels,” one can expand the family. This can be accomplished either naturally, or by adoption.
–Become bivocational again. Many churches became “full-time” in the 1950s when there were lots of children in the community. This was appropriate then, but may not be today.
–Become “yoked.” Several churches in declining rural communities could covenant together to share a set of pastors with diverse skills. This staff would function as circuit riders among the several congregations in the yoked covenant.
–Be served by a lay pastor from within the congregation. This was common among Baptists in the days when “the West was won.” It worked then. It can again.
–Return to being a community Sunday school, but one that gathers with similar groups once a month or quarter for celebration and sharing, perhaps in the trade town of the region.
The truth is that congregations need to re-invent themselves again and again. There are many forms that this process can take. There is no one “best way” for a church to be lead. Each small rural church must seek to know the specific will that God has for it.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.