I spent three days this last week attending the LCMS Rural & Small Town Ministries Conference in Storm Lake, Iowa. It would be inaccurate to trash the conference as a waste of time, but it would also be shortsighted to say that the conference offered all the answers either. In that respect, this article will look for what the conference did offer and what resulted from it, both here in the short term and in the long term.
The reality is that there are no easy answers. It is easy for a congregation to be told to simply preach the Word and good things will come. But, if a congregation has preached the Word faithfully for 100 years and all it sees is dwindling attendance as its core members are getting older and its younger members are moving away to the bright lights and jobs of the big city, what is the congregation to think?
It is easy for a congregation to be told to open its eyes to the mission field that now surrounds it, but while that is certainly true in many communities, in others that mission field is either not new, or it is not nearly as obvious as everyone says it is.
It is easy for a financial guy to tell you that congregations should establish an endowment fund to generate income to pay a pastor or for missions or for any number of other things, but endowment funds that produce significant annual interest are quite large, and really, how often does one of those gifts come across?
Perhaps the major bone of contention that I must argue is that the definition of what a rural and small town is, is quite simply too broad. The situation a town of 15,000 faces is going to be far different than that of a town of 1,000 faces, and even that is going to be far different than what a town of less than 500 faces, and even that is going to be different than what a church with no town faces.
And so in that respect, the job of any rural and small town ministry group is complicated immensely by the fact that no two rural or small town congregations are going to be the same. They are vastly different in their circumstances in ways that suburban and even inner city congregations are not. What characteristics rural and small town congregations do share can be capitalized on in whatever way is possible, but to apply blanket ideas or programs is doomed to failure.
Perhaps the one thing that a rural and small town group can do is the facilitation for the sharing of ideas. Gather pastors and lay leaders from congregations for a 2-3 day conference, have some main presenters to lead Bible study and ask thought provoking questions, and then step back and allow for the sharing of ideas.
There is now no need for fundraising for some big new program that is going to sweep across Synod. The reality is that those in rural and small towns are the ones who know their circumstances best, they now what has worked and what has not worked, and they know what needs to be done. No studies needed, no new videos or tracts needed at all.
Because when you come down to it, the Word preached in all its truth and purity is what works. How that Word gets out into the homes and the hearts of the people in the community is what varies from town to town, and that is where the facilitating of ideas comes in.
Because of all the presenters in Iowa, both in the large group and in small groups, three should be made special mention of:
1) Rev. Dr. Lee Hagan presented on how the work of spreading the Gospel to people in need of salvation is just as important and just as valid in rural and small towns as it is in large urban and suburban congregations. The sacraments are no less valid, the people no less faithful, the forgiveness offered no less sure and certain.
2) Dr. Luther Snow presented on Asset Mapping, and how congregations can take the positives that they have, and turn them into new ways to preach the Gospel just by doing some creative thinking.
3) Rev. Dr. Matt Harrison presented on issues that he has spoken on at the larger Synod level, but applied them directly to his own experience in rural and small towns in Iowa. He again implored pastors to improve their preaching of Law and Gospel; the reality is that some of the decline in the membership and attendance can be attributed to the failure of pastors to effectively preach Law and Gospel. How you improve preaching is still a mystery to me (although I do have my own ideas), but he did advocate the reading of Luther and others, as well as the need for continuing education. And he also again implored the practice of visitation; showing up unannounced at people’s homes and businesses and just visiting with them about their work and daily life. This also involves the pastor getting out into the community and eating at the café and going to events at the school. None of what he said is specific to rural and small towns, but both are vitally important in rural and small towns in ways that will not always show up in larger communities.
More could be said, and perhaps later more will be said. But for now, that is where it all stands.