I’ve been reflecting recently on ministry in small towns. I’ve been blessed to be pastor of a small town congregation for almost 6 full years now and along the way I have noticed a number of things. In particular, I’ve noticed things which can, or have, caused stumbling blocks for the local Church. I’ve decided to reflect on some of them.
1. The Past
Now, this isn’t going to be a rant against the local Church for only living in the past. While that, I’m sure, is a problem for some congregations, there is another element of the past which has come back to haunt many congregations, and that is past practice and teaching. This is especially true when it comes to salvation.
If you were to ask every person in our small little town if they were a Christian, or believed in God, I would suspect the majority of them would say, “Yes.” Yet, if you look at the plentiful Churches in our small town you will find the majority of them are struggling with attendance. So what gives? What has happened that has caused so many in our small towns to profess belief and yet not be involved in any congregation?
Much of it has to do with, again, salvation. In years past pastors and laypeople focused immensely on profession of faith. If we could only get people to confess that Jesus is Lord then they will be saved! The problem is such a proclamation means very little either today or ever. The truth is, profession of faith, or confession in Christ, does not mean that one will necessarily be saved.
This unfortunate belief has/had permeated these small towns. We rejoiced for, perhaps, generations over a child professing Jesus. We led them in prayers. We led others in prayers, all the while convincing ourselves that this was how salvation definitely comes. This has led, though, to generations who believe they are saved and yet have no evidence at all of their salvation. There is no pursuit of God, no desire of fellowship with His saints, no desire to walk circumspectly in the world, no desire to glorify God in their lives.
Bad teaching and bad evangelism has led to a disaster for the many congregations in small towns. Many congregations in these small rural areas have been devastated because the younger generations simply do not attend Church. Many of them think they are all perfectly safe from judgment, and yet they have been greatly deceived. Unfortunately, there is no one to blame but ourselves for our lack of understanding of salvation, our failure to recognize salvation is an act of God first and foremost, and that salvation is an act of God on a person’s life, and when God acts, we are changed.
2. The Internet and Individualism
This is not going to be a critique of the internet itself. In all honesty the internet (like the majority of things) is a morally neutral agent until a moral agent either uses it for good or ill. No, the problem isn’t with the internet itself, the problem is that many individuals substitute going to Church for listening to a sermon online.
The unfortunate part of this is that it is both good and bad. It is good for us to listen to sermons online. It is good for us to learn from other pastors and teachers who we might not be able to hear locally.
The bad comes from us accepting it as our only source of nourishment. We are not called to be completely isolated and individualistic. No, we are called to be the body of Christ, and in order to be the body of Christ it requires us to be utilizing our gifts together. It is no, me and me alone, but it is us together, celebrating this new order of love which has come through Christ.
The internet, though, has caused us to become, ironically, completely individualistic in this sense. We justify staying at home because we are attending as remote members of another congregations worship. A congregation of which we are not truly part.
I could only blame lay-persons for this. But the truth is, I do lay some blame at the feet of many well-known pastors and preachers. From the get go, I truly wish they had a disclaimer for their messages in which they said, “We rejoice if you listen or watch our sermons and teachings, but please do not make this a substitute for commitment to a local congregation.” Because that is the truth, it is not a substitute, even if it is a blessing in other ways.
Now it is not only the internet, but something more which is individualism which can be caused by the internet. As it is, there are many who read just enough Scripture to then believe that they have all the knowledge possible and it isn’t necessary for them to come together in worship. They believe that because they are filled with the Spirit, then they must have any and all the answers already.
Well, that sounds nice, but the truth is it is not the case. It is blatant arrogance which says that an individual makes when they say they do not need Church history, or more time in Scripture. Its arrogance which says, “I don’t need to read these individuals like Augustine, or Calvin, or Luther, or Piper, or Sproul, or Dever or etc.” The truth is, not everyone is gifted in teaching, or wisdom, or knowledge. These are all different gifts which are given to some and not to others.
Thus, the arrogance is twofold, either A. you do not possess these gifts and therefore are in need of others who do have these gifts in order to find growth, or B. You do have these gifts and instead of sharing them with the local congregation you hoard it for yourself. I suspect that the former is the case since it is very easy for us to fall into an individualistic understanding in which case we do not believe we are in need of anything more than what we already know. In either case, you’re failing to maintain your responsibility to the fellowship by abandoning it rather than serving it in love.
3. Current Trends in Evangelism
How do I say this nicely? There is a stain on evangelism in America. Far too many of our congregations use the American dream in order to try to lure people into their congregations. We have been doing this for a long, long time. We did it primarily by offering people a “get out of hell free” card at conversion. Once this stopped working, however, other tricks have come about
I’ve heard them all. I’ve heard about the congregation which provided a gun raffle for visitors. Recently there was a congregation not too far from us which was offering a free Ipad to lucky visitors.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of thinking, “If we offer them something like this then maybe they will come back and stay!” Well, that’s nice, but it’s also worldly wisdom which is dictating how you evangelize. We are not called to trick people into attending our Churches by giving them hopes that they will be the lucky winners of some gift.
No. Christ is the gift. Christ is all we need. We do not need to offer anything other than Christ crucified. The Apostles in Acts never promised any who they proclaimed to a better life, or a new cloak, or what have you. No, they simply offered the great and generous Gospel of Jesus.
Unfortunately, many congregations have succumbed to using worldly means to attract individuals. Do you know how this hurts the Church? It hurts the Church because then these individuals begin to think that the Church is only there to give them what they want. By looking down at congregations who will not simply give them what they want. By making Jesus into little more than Santa Claus we have allowed individuals to believe it is all about them.
But here’s the truth. It isn’t all about me, or you. It’s all about Christ. About what He has already accomplished through His life, death, and resurrection. About what He will accomplish when He defeats death once and for all. About how He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and it is a privilege for us to even proclaim the Gospel and to walk with Him and desire Him and glorify Him with our lives.
My fear is that the rural congregations are slowly going to be darkened. Most do not understand what this means for these small towns. Most aren’t in these small towns and don’t understand what it means period. It means that God is going to judge these towns by silencing His prophets in their midst.
Many times I have reflected on a Church closing its doors. I honestly believe there are two reasons for it. The first is that the congregation was unfaithful. This is certainly possible. But the second reason is, in my estimation, the more common reason, and that is as judgment.
Most people do not understand that when the prophets ceased to speak in the lands of Israel and Judah it wasn’t because of the prophets, but because God was judging the people. My fear is that these obstacles which so many congregations are facing will ultimately lead to such judgments on so many small towns that are in desperate need of Light in their darkness.
If you would, pray with me that God would bring redemption to these towns. That He would not judge them by silencing His congregations, but that He would let His Light continue to shine. That we would have courage to continue on in faithfulness, not falling sway to the ways of the world, but in the wisdom of God. That pastors and teachers would be raised up who understand the true fruit of the Church is not in its building, nor its singing, not even in the pastor, but in our glorious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May He alone receive the glory forever.
Soli Deo Gloria,