I’ve heard it a thousand times! “Oh, you’re the pastor of that cute little church in the country.” Friends and family often add, “When are you going to step up? You’ve got all that education. Are you going to stay in the country forever?” If I’m not careful (and prayerful), these types of comments can lead to ministerial despair! I’ll admit the first few (hundred) times these words hit my ear, I felt a little humiliated, embarrassed, and insignificant. But that’s nothing more than foolishness and sinful pride! I am the pastor of a small country church and I am quite thankful to be one. As a matter of fact, I hope to make the case that such a ministry is desirable for pastors searching for calls and for people who are searching for the truth of God’s Word. In other words, small Country churches, when focused on Christ and His Word, are greatly used by the Lord to build His kingdom.
This month, I am finishing my fourteenth year of ministry at Friendship Presbyterian Church (PCA) in rural Laurens County, SC. How “rural” is it? Our little community of Hickory Tavern has one stop light, doesn’t even have a post office, and is still greatly rejoicing over the opening of our first national chain store – Dollar General! When I began searching for a new call after serving three years in Hilton Head, SC as an assistant, one of the wise seasoned pastors in the area warned, “Don’t go up there to that country church. Lots of young guys with promise do that and then they’re never heard from again.” Against his advice, my wife and I agreed to move our young family and I began preaching the first Sunday of February 2001.
Friendship is rightly defined as a small church. We have about 140 on the rolls, including children. We average right around 85 worshipers on a given Sunday, with the congregation waxing to 110 on special festive occasions, and waning to half that much on the occasional sultry summer Sunday. Calling us a country church is a bit of a misnomer in that no one in our congregation farms for a living and most of them have well-paying jobs in surrounding communities. However, the close-knit, warm-hearted atmosphere suggests that Friendship has maintained a country ethos throughout her 195 years.
In many ways, I am ill-suited to preach in a country church, having grown up in a quintessential suburban town full of Yuppies and transplanted Yankees (Aiken, SC). I’m also the son of a 2,500 member mega church. To make matters worse, I don’t like NASCAR or country music, have little (alright, no) construction skills, don’t own even one dog or gun, and to make matters worse, I have an undergraduate degree in music! Yet, the people of Friendship and Hickory Tavern have taken my family and me right in.
Immediately, we began to see the tremendous benefits of parish life within a country church. Upon moving into the manse, we found that the church had “pounded” us, leaving our refrigerator and pantry stuffed full (as a matter of fact, it wasn’t that long away that we finally threw away some of those Jello packets from ‘01!). My wife also has had two difficult pregnancies during our ministry and the congregation showered us with meals, prayers, cards, and well-wishes. Upon mentioning the arrival of our fourth (and final) child, the deacons responded by showing up at the manse the next morning to enclose our garage, making room for another bedroom!
A cynic might say, “Well, sure, they take care of the preacher; what about the regular person in the pew?” Through ministering to parents after the tragic death of a child, to warm welcomes offered to those with scarred and sin-stained lives, to providing financial gifts to families in need, this country church fulfills Paul’s clarion call for the body to “care for one another” (I Corinthians 12:26ff). What a wonderful corrective country churches offer for those who are disenfranchised by big box evangelicalism, where congregants often worship in relative anonymity and head to their cars as quickly as the pastor sounds the last word of the benediction.
Country churches also offer a covenantal richness that is often missing in newer, larger bodies in that four generations can be seen worship together – sometimes on the same pew. Obviously, this can lead to provincialism and an unhealthy inward focus, but we have experienced just the opposite at Friendship. What a great opportunity to see God’s covenant faithfulness being passed down from generation to generation right in our midst! Isn’t that a more profound demonstration of God’s grace to families than what we find in the latest children’s or youth ministry fads?
For younger ministers, smaller rural churches offer an excellent opportunity for sharpening study and exegetical skills due to the relative lack of administrative and staff oversight duties. Often, these churches still hold morning and evening services on Sundays, providing ample practice to preach through books of the Bible verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter. In addition, there is the prospect of the minister truly getting to know his congregation so that he gains greater insight as he seeks to apply the truth of God’s Word. When it comes to training leaders, small church pastors and elders can lay a firm foundation by investing significant time in prayer and discipleship into the lives of men and their families. Often, there is some time and room in the schedule to pursue additional studies, writing, and to volunteer in the community. In summary, one can experience a rich, full ministerial life within the rural setting.
Aside from the attractive ethos and vibrant body life, smaller churches also afford an excellent opportunity to focus ministry on the ordinary means of grace: the reading and preaching of God’s Word, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and prayer, both public and private (WSC 88). When the congregation is smaller, churches tend to be less program and personality driven (well, there is always potential for that “boss elder” thing!). Surely, programs have their place. We would like to add a few more in our congregation. Yet, there is something special and unique about churches that still hold public worship on the Lord’s Day as the most significant and prominent event during the week. Why? Because the congregation understands that during worship and through the means of grace, Christ speaks most clearly and directly to His people.
To be sure, there are drawbacks to small country churches. Congregations can be just as cliquey as their big-city and suburban sisters. Sometimes, momentum for ministry is difficult to build and maintain because of an overall lack of numbers. Also, if there is a dominant family or individual, pastors can be intimidated against changing even the least of things. Patience is required as growth generally happens at a slower rate; this is true for a number of reasons. For instance, Presbyterian churches face a climate of heightened suspicion in rural communities due to our adherence to reformed theology, and in particular, to Calvinism (which I’ve learned is quite a dirty word in some circles). This is an ironic development as Westminster Calvinism took root and blossomed in rural Scotland and once prospered in the rural Carolinas. In addition, potential prospects from surrounding areas battle the stigma of leaving the safety of the suburban social scene to worship in “the sticks.” Finally, some people within country congregations resist growth because they want their little churches to remain the same forever. However, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
In conclusion, let me simply say, “Do not despise the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10)! Instead, rejoice over the vibrant, viable possibilities of ministry in small country churches. If you currently preach at a church like mine, be encouraged! Your ministry is valued by the Lord, regardless of how those who play the numbers game may view you. You are vital in demonstrating the beauty of the body of Christ in your community and in carrying the gospel to the next generation. If you as an individual happen to be searching for a church that preaches the whole counsel of God, don’t overlook small country churches as incapable of meeting your spiritual needs. You might be greatly surprised at the integrity and quality of ministry presented just a short and scenic drive away! If you are a seminary student or a minister seeking a new call, consider the joys and challenges of a country church call. Do not succumb to stereotypes. Judge each church and ministry opportunity on its own merits, not based on biased preconceived notions. If you are a seminary professor, a scholar, or a denominational employee, lead those under your influence to appreciate the value and the contributions of smaller, rural congregations. Avoid the tendency of only promoting large churches with celebrity pastors or ministries that are considered innovate, hip, or cutting edge.
Truly, I do not know how long I will be ministering in a country church setting. That is up to the Lord, not to me. I do know, however, that I have enjoyed the brightness of His face shining on me during the fourteen years I have served Friendship Presbyterian Church in Hickory Tavern, SC. As I look forward to my fifteenth year of ministry, I am meditating on what I consider to be one of the most significant texts concerning the essence of church life, Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” As I think on the beauty and simplicity of this picture of biblical worship and ministry, exactly what we seek to practice at Friendship, I recall a crisp fall Saturday evening not too long ago. As I turned to leave our small, beautiful sanctuary after practicing my sermon to an invisible congregation, I mistakenly left the light on over the pulpit. All the other lights were extinguished. As I turned to lock the door, I saw a lone gentle light shining softly on the worn red oak pulpit and communion table. I stared for a few moments and thought, “You know that’s pretty much what this church has been about for 195 years. It’s still what we have to offer today. In the world’s eyes, it’s not much. But in Christ’s powerful hands, it’s more than enough!”