Gospel Opportunities in Rural America
Is there a good Reformed Baptist Church in your area? If you’re reading this article, you can probably answer this question affirmatively. However, for many, the answer is a resounding “No!” In cities and towns all across America, it is increasingly difficult to find any church that is preaching the gospel of salvation by Christ alone through faith alone, much less one holding to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.
In a private conversation with G.I. Williamson, he mentioned that in America in the 1950s, you could travel to almost any city or town and find a church that was preaching Christ. These churches may not have been reformed and confessional in doctrine and worship, but Christ’s substitutionary atoning sacrifice was proclaimed there on a weekly basis. G.I. went on to say that this is no longer the case. Today, there are cities and towns where there simply is no church that we can recommend to family or friends as they travel. The need for gospel-preaching churches may be greater today than at any time in recent history.
The dearth of good churches may be felt most acutely in rural America. In what some have labeled “Fly Over Country,” it’s not unusual to find towns that have several churches that have no pastor, not to mention someone preaching the biblical gospel. In some cases, they haven’t had a pastor for several years. These towns show evidence of a history of vibrant religious activity by their many church buildings. Some of these church buildings are older and have impressive architecture. They point to a time when they were homes to a large congregation, and budgets flush with resources.
Today, it is a very different story for much of rural America. While still having some of the most intense religious interest in the country, these towns often have shrinking congregations without a pastor. Or in some cases, they have someone preaching with no training or calling to the ministry, often with terrible theology and no gospel. Often, these men are preaching because no one else is available. Whatever the reason for the lack of gospel preachers, these small towns are full of souls that need Christ.
For example, in Valley City, North Dakota, there are presently at least three congregations that have no pastor. Speaking recently with a man from one of these churches about their search for a pastor, he said they are having difficulty finding pastoral candidates. This particular congregation is a well-established church from a non-Reformed Baptist denomination. They have a very nice building with easy access to main roads and interstate highways. He said the issue was not simply a lack of qualified candidates, it is a lack of any candidates. No one from that church’s denomination is even interested. Sadly, this situation is not unique. This same scenario is present throughout much of rural America.
Many denominations and associations have little interest in these regions. The assumption is that because the congregations are small or in towns unlikely to grow, they are simply a waste of time and resources. The only church worthy of investment is a growing church or one located in a large population area. On the other hand, in some circumstances, the actual financial investment in rural congregations could be very minimal. There may be a building already paid for and an established congregation. These factors reduce the financial requirements for sending a gospel preacher to that town.
Ministers may not be interested in a rural ministry opportunity because they think that they will not be able to support their family or pay off debt from their education. Of course, this is a legitimate concern. Realistically, it can be difficult to be a pastor where the nearest like-minded minister is a plane flight away. However, this is also true for a man sent to the mission field.
In rural towns in mid-America, people religious worldview are more apt to be found and more open to someone teaching them the Word of God than their urban counterparts. Humanly speaking, in rural towns there is little competition for a pastor seriously preaching law and gospel, catechizing children, and worshipping according to God’s word.
For a group of churches that are willing to adopt a long view strategy, these rural congregations offer a significant opportunity. Some of these congregations are open to receive help. They have a building with little or no mortgage and members that need a shepherd. All they are lacking is a preacher sent out to proclaim Christ. With his living expenses covered, a man could move to such a community and work within an active congregation as a church planter. Planning to become a long-term participant in the community, he could begin opening God’s Word to people and slowly shepherding them towards reformation. Certainly, it may take longer to reform a church than to plant one. It could be years before for a rural church might considered reformed. However, in the process of reformation, many souls will hear the Gospel, some for the first time.
When a missionary is sent out, it is often to an area where there is little or no real gospel witness. In such cases, we are willing to be patient. It is understood that it may be years of sowing and watering before God causes enough growth for the constituting of a local church. We lionize men like William Carey or Adoniram Judson for their relentless fidelity to gospel proclamation while enduring many years of apparent fruitless labor. In many ways, rural America is the mission field. In some towns in North Dakota, it is possible that the gospel of Jesus Christ has never faithfully been proclaimed. The same patient and faithful labor of the cross-cultural missions may also be required to bring a rural church to reformation. Can our willing patience in cross-cultural missions be equally applied to home missions?
A rural church could be a great way to begin one’s years of ministry. Learning to communicate the gospel message in vocabulary that non-reformed people can understand is a real test of how well someone knows it. R. C. Sproul once said a reason for his writing children’s books is to improve his ability to communicate sound theology. In his opinion; you know your theology well when you can explain it to a child.
A rural church can be an excellent way for a gifted man seeking retirement to remain active in ministry on a part-time basis. I know of a small Baptist Church in Turtle Lake, ND that has long been without a pastor. It is in great little farming community in a region with great hunting and fishing. A man with minimal support could continue to preach and disciple while having time to enjoy outdoor hobbies.
In addition to our existing strategy, maybe it is time to consider an additional approach to planting churches in America?
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