Over the last couple of days, a few people have been chatting about rural ministry. For the record, just to be as clear as I possibly can so that there can be no confusion, I think there is a genuine need for churches to exist in rural communities and I think people in rural communities need the gospel as much as anyone else. I do believe that churches sharing the gospel in rural communities are just as valuable as churches sharing the gospel in urban areas. I want there to be no misunderstanding. I believe everywhere needs churches.
The reason I am labouring that point is that some seem to have gotten the wrong impression. Following comments I made here and here (the second one details comments I received after the first), I’ve had a few comments that either didn’t grasp what I was saying or inferred stuff I specifically wasn’t saying. For example:
What do we mean by ‘gospel work’ and what is the gospel? Points from a robust discussion – Building Jerusalem
Important discussion here about whether bread and butter rural church activity is “gospel work” or not. HELP ME OUT GUYS….! https://t.co/xCumTxruHr
— Claire Alcock (@parttimepriest) April 25, 2018
FWIW as an ordinary pew-occupant in a rural church, a blog retweeted by @vahva about the same time as yours last night spoke to me on your debate: that there’s a tendency to equate “an emotional experience in a Christian setting” with an experience of worshipping God. /2
— Elizabeth Roberts (@lizzyoxon) April 25, 2018
2/Perhaps writer seeks euphoric revival style in villages on a Sunday to prove that something’s happening. As opposed to the practical on the ground Christian support which is going on every day through the parish church?
— Elizabeth Roberts (@lizzyoxon) April 25, 2018
Hi guys. Two things might help you out in your discussions. 1. I didn’t say rural ministry isn’t gospel work (nor did I imply that); 2. I was quite clear what gospel work is and isn’t and didn’t anywhere suggest it is ‘euphoric’ or ‘revivalist’.
— Stephen Kneale (@steve_kneale) April 25, 2018
I just wanted to make sure we were clear on that before I went on. With those caveats out the way, I want to make a plea for some more joined up ‘kingdom thinking’.
I have noticed a tendency to argue for ‘our patch’ rather than what best serves the kingdom. There are far too many people who call for plants and resources for the city simply because that’s where they happen to be. Others make the case that rural ministries have been forgotten, similarly because that’s where they happen to be. But that sort of argument can appear to have more to do with saving our ministry job than anything that particularly serves the good of the kingdom.
There are a few things that probably bear thinking about. As I said in a comment on Facebook:
The question isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about rural or urban, deprived or wealthy per se. The question is surely just about kingdom priority. Where will our resources be put to the greatest use for the kingdom? That involves some genuine consideration of questions like: where are churches needed? Where has the gospel not gone out? Where is fruit coming from? Is it possible to serve larger areas with fewer resources freeing up resources for areas where we can’t do that? If so, how and where?
In fact, it is this sort of Kingdom-thinking that keeps us from over-focusing on the unbiblical strategy of reaching the influential and culturally respectable above all others. Kingdom-thinking considers the value of a soul and considers things such as where the greatest fruit will come from and the best place to channel our scant resources.
The reason I speak so much about church in deprived communities is because the stats bear out several things. First, that we have largely – as an Evangelical movement – been very poor at reaching such areas. Second, that the majority of the country live in urban areas. Third, that the majority have not been to university and do not have graduate professions. Fourth, that most gospel fruit is coming amongst the very poorest in society. As such, we need to focus our attention on deprived communities because we have under-churched those areas and we are seeing the greatest gospel fruit amongst them. Kingdom-thinking considers the relative size and impact of channelling our resources here.
Kingdom-thinking also considers that there are rural communities with no gospel witness in their midst. Despite such communities not necessarily being what some might call ‘strategic centres’, they still nevertheless need churches. Essentially, they need churches because there are people lost in their sin in such areas. Kingdom-thinking, however, would not simply look at rural communities and try to import a city model into a very different context. It would consider whether a single church serving a larger area might better serve the gospel needs of the people than a series of tiny village churches.
Kingdom-thinking would look to the relative size of communities and seek to focus its resources in the largest areas of population with the greatest gospel need. Often, this will be urban areas but it will sometimes include large rural areas too. However, kingdom-thinking doesn’t just plant for planting’s sake. It doesn’t plant churches on top of other churches simply because we see planting churches as an inherent good of itself. Nor does it plant on top of other churches simply because other churches are a slightly different shade of gospel-believing Evangelical to us. It plants first where there are no churches and in places where existing churches could not realistically reach the places nearby. it seeks to revitalise existing works, taking into account population shifts since that work was originally started.
We need to get out of the mindset of simply planting and revitalising churches for churches sake. We need to start asking some harder questions about what best serves the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to stop simply planting and maintaining churches in areas simply because it provides us with a ministry job and it is comfortable. We need to plant and revitalise in those areas of high population with the fewest churches (the North East, on this measure, would be a priority area as would many council estates and deprived towns). We need to ask whether pooling existing churches together might better serve the kingdom rather than simply planting more and more in the same place. We need to seriously ask where is fruit likely to come and where best should we channel our resources.
I would like us to give serious, joined-up Kingdom thought to these questions. Not just feathering our own nests, not just planting because we call ourselves planters, not just taking resources because we can never have enough. We need to ask where will our resources be best used, where are there most people heading for a lost eternity that we can realistically reach with the gospel. These are the hard questions we need to ask.