Three characteristics of effective small-town churches
By Ron Klassen
Our English language is full of oxymorons: found missing, same difference and definite maybe. To some, “small-town church growth” sounds like an oxymoron. With only one stoplight and precious few residents, can the small-town church actually grow? It can, and it has in many contexts.
For the past 25 years as I’ve traveled across the United States, I have observed shared characteristics of effective evangelistic town and country churches.
1. A sense of urgency
Many rural people tend to think most everyone in their community is a Christian. And even when people recognize that not everyone follows Christ, they tend to think the church has been in the community long enough that people know it’s there and that they are welcome to attend anytime. They don’t feel a sense of urgency to become proactive in evangelism.
One way to develop this sense of necessity is to compile statistics that show the need. Don’t just quote generic statistics for the country. Do a little homework on your community. If you don’t do the research, your congregation will inevitably think your community is an exception.
When I was pastoring in a town of 500, the city utilities man attended our church. He told me one day that he had hooked up about a dozen electrical meters in our town in the past three months. I was shocked and passed the news on to our evangelism committee. They didn’t believe me until I produced names. Our committee developed a plan for welcoming newcomers to town and befriending them. A number of these new residents became a part of our church.
One of the characteristics of town and country settings that you can take advantage of in gathering data is small-town intimacy. Unlike in a city like Chicago, those of us living in small towns likely know who has a home church and who doesn’t. We can mentally go street-by-street, section-by-section and make a list of households that don’t regularly attend church. Use this list to determine what percentage in your community is likely unchurched.
The unsaved are out there. Gathering information can open the eyes of your congregation and help give a sense of urgency for evangelism.
In urban areas, one could potentially be effective in evangelism without have a credible life. You could cuss out a fellow employee but be an effective youth leader. Your marriage could be in shambles but you could be a successful small group leader.
Why? Because you are serving people you don’t know or aren’t with all week long. They have no idea how you lead your life.
Contrast this to the small town environment where it’s almost impossible to lead a double life. You can’t cheat your neighbor, not pay your bills or tell off-color jokes to someone on the street and then be successful in sharing the Lord with these same people later in the week.
Without credibility, it isn’t too likely that one can be effective at evangelism in a small town. Two kinds of credibility are needed: personal and corporate.
In small town settings, one’s personal history is known: conduct, values, past sins, marriage relationship, family life, financial dealings—it’s all an open book. And if one’s book doesn’t make for the kind of reading that enhances credibility, then one’s ability to be successful at evangelism is in question. Life in a small town is lived in a fishbowl. Personal credibility is essential.
What is true for individuals is also true for the church. Because of the social intimacy present in small communities, evangelism efforts will likely not be effective if the church is not healthy. Health is what makes a church credible.
Sooner or later, every person and every church takes their turn at messing up. And in a small town, everyone knows it. If not messing up is a prerequisite for effective evangelism, then no one will be able to do it. So how can one maintain credibility in a small town?
One answer is for a congregation to regularly spend time in individual and corporate repentance. Follow the example of the prayers of the Bible, many of which consist of the spiritual leader bringing the sins of the people before God. Pray thoughtfully and with great care.
Many times during Sunday morning prayer times, as pastor I confessed the sins of the people before God. Not private sins that I learned from counseling appointments during the week, but general sins that I knew people committed. I would say things like, “Since last week some of us have yelled at our children when we shouldn’t have, cheated on a test at school or gossiped against a neighbor.”
Corporate repentance is not only a regular reminder of the importance of confession and repentance, it also has a cleansing benefit. Confessing sins has a way of encouraging us not to commit the same sins next week.
Corporate confession not only helps the church become healthy, it also provides a model for individual confession. It shows the need for making things right with God and with people. Maybe someone says something that causes a congregational meeting to blow up and word gets out into the community, damaging the church’s witness. But if conflict is dealt with properly, the community will hear about that too. They will say, “People aren’t perfect at First Church, but when wrongs happen there they deal with them.”
All of us have sinned—as individuals and as congregations. This doesn’t mean our credibility is lost forever. What we need to understand is that humble repentance is a powerful witness. It’s the kind of news that gets around town too! It restores credibility.
Churches that are effective at evangelism take a multi-faceted approach. They don’t look for one formula, a single program or one approach as their solution. Their approach is from a number of angles—sometimes dozens of them.
These churches look for obstacles that need to be removed that are making evangelism difficult. For example, a church constitution that requires a form of decision-making that creates a lot of open conflict and harms the church’s reputation could be a hindrance.
They look for building improvements that are needed to make the church more attractive for newcomers: new paint, a pleasant foyer, updated nursery, upgraded sound system or new bathroom fixtures.
They look for church ministries that need improvement: music or children’s programs.
They create opportunities for their people to be involved in evangelism: showing movies on Main Street, hosting a children’s rodeo, holding vacation Bible school or organizing a Thanksgiving dinner.
Multifaceted churches repeatedly suggest many ways that the congregation can be involved with evangelism on the personal level: going hunting with an unbeliever, inviting neighbors to your home, heading up the town’s welcome wagon program for newcomers, volunteering in the public school, etc.
Small-town churches can grow, although the strategies may be different than in urban settings. I hope that the observations in this article will trigger something that might be implemented in your small-town church.
Ron Klassen is the executive director of Rural Home Missionary Association, a ministry that plants and strengthens churches in small-town America. Klassen, a former Mennonite Brethren pastor, will be a resource speaker at the Sept. 5-6 LEAD ONE USMB leadership training event in Sioux Falls, SD.