I live in the land of lakes, Lutherans, Catholics, and hotdishes. If you are unsure what I mean, think Garrison Keilor and Lake Wobegon Days. Our town has a population of 1100, seven churches, one bar, and three gas stations within the city limits. If you do the math, if every person in town attended one of the seven churches and everyone was evenly divided, each church would have a max attendance of 157 regular attendees.
This math isn’t perfect. It does not account for the people who live outside of town and commute to church. It also leaves out the country churches that are still holding services with 10-15 regulars. While the math isn’t perfect, it does illustrate that there is a very real capacity for church growth in our community.
At times I walk into our church and I wonder ‘will the doors still be open when my daughter gets married?’ Heck ‘Will the doors still be open when our oldest gets confirmed in two years?’ And some weeks I think ‘Will the doors still be open next year? With these questions lingering in the back of our minds, doing ministry in a rural setting can be discouraging. Questions of our purpose and significance as a church abound with fewer and fewer people in the pews.
In rural places, the church was, at one time, the place to get together with other people, and make decisions for the community. There was a time when ‘everyone’ went to church. While these nostalgic pieces linger in many of our midwestern rural churches, times have changed and are changing. Church is no longer where public opinion is formed or where everyone gathers.
What kind of growth will we ever see with seven churches in our city limits, 1100 people, and seven Pastors? Why even bother to lead Bible Studies, book clubs, host VBS, and teach Sunday School? We will not see exponential growth in our membership. I do not say these things about growth to be pessimistic. I want to be realistic about who we are and what our purpose is. We are watching our congregations die as memberships dwindle. If by chance a young family walks through our doors we begin begging them to stay.
The question we need to ask is based less on numbers and more on the fundamentals of who we are and what our purpose is as those gathered together in the name of Jesus. Regardless of whether our churches are located in a thriving metropolis or in a small farming town, when we define our identity, our worth, and our purpose solely on numbers, we are defining ourselves by the wrong thing. The question that needs to be asked is more fundamental: ‘What is the purpose of the church and our congregation?’
I recently learned something new about the book of Colossians (thanks to Daniel Emery Price and Erick Sorensen from 30 minutes in the New Testament). Paul wrote the letter to a group of people who were small, perhaps even insignificant. The city was not connected to any major ports. It was difficult to locate the ruins of the city because of its small size and limited influence.
Our purpose is the same as every church regardless of location, region, demographics, significance, or number of stoplights
Just like Colossae, the town I live in will probably suffer this same fate one day; it will be forgotten. We are not on any major interstates. The number of people is so small that stoplights are unnecessary. This is true not only for our town but for the entire county. The railroad does run through our town and we are the country seat which means our town is home to a historic brick courthouse; perhaps these details will lead archeologists to discover this place.
Yet despite it’s lack of influence and potential and it’s isolation, to those in that small, insignificant place called Colossae, Paul writes:
“Continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Col 1:23, 28)
“Let no one disquality you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” (Col 2:18-19)
In his letter to those of the Church in Colossae, Paul does speak of growth. Yet he does not speak of growth in the way that so many of us are accustomed to speaking of it. Instead, he writes about growing in terms of dependence and understanding of Christ.
What then, is the purpose of the rural church?
Our purpose is the same as every church regardless of location, region, demographics, significance, or number of stoplights. Our purpose is not to be a social gathering palace even if at one time we were. Our purpose is not to host VBS in the summer even if we have in the past. Our purpose is not to look a certain way or do certain things because we have always done them that way.
Our purpose is to be held fast by Christ and to grow in the grace and knowledge of his love by gathering together no matter our numbers. Together, we will hear of the work of Christ for us and the forgiveness of sins. Perhaps this will mean we are growing in number of people in the pews, but it will most certainly mean people are growing in their dependence on Christ.
Being the group of people who are held fast by Christ may look different in different places. What will remain the same is the proclamation of the work of Christ for us and the forgiveness of sins.