Ministering in Small Churches and/or in Small Towns

First of all, I would highly recommend you read “Small-Town Ministries and Shepherds.”

Also, read one of my past posts “How To Have An Expository Preaching Church?

Both posts address some aspects of ministering in small churches and/or in small towns in America.

In one of the leadership meetings at a church that I used to shepherd in the Upper Midwest, I distributed the copies of David Van Biema’s Time Magazine article “A Rural Exodus” (February 9, 2009), which I would highly encourage you to read. Van Biema’s thesis is that many pastors and/or fresh out of seminarians are not interested in small town churches. He notes what many guys think: “A town without a Starbucks scares them.”

What also caught my attention from the article is that only 1 out of 5 churches have a full-time seminary-trained pastor in parts of the Midwest. I believe it. I see it. And I know it. Such statistic does not even qualify what type of seminary training, since not all seminary training is equal.

Like many pastor friends of mine who serve in small rural areas, I too get offended by statements like “All you need is a Bible college degree to serve at a small town church” or “You don’t need a formal training to serve at a small town church” and other similar nonsense. First, it is wrong for pastors to think so low of small churches and/or small towns. Second, it is wrong for churches (regardless of what size) to have such a low view of minister’s qualification. That’s like saying, “It doesn’t matter if my surgeon didn’t go through all the medical training as long as he likes to open people up.” What nonsense! If there are standards and qualifications for our local school teachers, dentists, car mechanics, and surgeons, shouldn’t we also have standards and qualifications (more so) for men to accurately handle the word of God?

Missiologically speaking, I see a huge need for churches to revitalize in small towns all across America, especially, in the Upper Midwest. In some sense I am glad to see churches close down when they are no longer qualified as a biblical church. In fact, I’m praying that more would close their doors. However, I do feel for some of the genuine remnants of God that cannot find a healthy church in their towns or surrounding towns so they have to drive 2 hours or so. That is the case in many parts, such as North Dakota, where I helped a group of people who wanted to plant a church there.

Clarifying Words on Missions

Pat Howell of Biblical Ministries Worldwide and MissionCrossRoads wrote an excellent article clarifying usage of terms like “international ministries” and “missions,” along with “home and foreign missions.” I’m posting here his words with his written permission:

Here is my ambition with regard to terminology. I prefer we jettison the term “missions.” I use it particularly when I am speaking to an audience unfamiliar with the usage of “International Ministries.” In other words, this is an attempt to break in a new terminology of international ministries.

Today the word missions is freighted with meaning of every kind. It applies to everything from traditional overseas work to cleaning the neighbor’s yard as a form of community service. A good thing to be sure, but is it really missions? If some form of outreach related ministry does not fit the budget anywhere else, it goes under missions.

Moreover, the old adage “Well, we are all missionaries” contributes to this unfortunate amalgamation of ministries under the rubric of missions. We are not all missionaries, or as I would say “international workers.” We are all witnesses to be sure. But international work and workers require specific training, and they encounter very particular challenges that accompany ministering overseas, and frankly, they often embrace hardships that are painfully unique to their work. The years required for cultural acquisition and language learning come to mind immediately.

It appears to me that the most common refrain amongst potential but soon discouraged candidates for international ministry is 1) The prospect of having to raise support (sorry—Support Discovery—and lets be honest, how many of us want to do that?), and 2) learning another language and culture in order to minister in your field of service. Thus, to say that we are all missionaries is to contribute to the diminution of the church’s understanding of international ministry and its requirements.

Perhaps rethinking the issues will be useful in helping us to be more specific as we target areas of ministry, both locally and globally. Local evangelism and a ministry of good works are required by Scripture and essential to a local church’s health and witness in the community. But the testimony of Scripture is that the church is to take the gospel to the uttermost (last, most distant, or extreme) part of the earth. (And by the way, Short-term missions will not accomplish this great task).

Our legitimate emphases upon local and national ministry must be carefully seen in the greater context of those who have never, ever, heard the gospel in their own language—and have little or no opportunity to do so. Doing so will cause us to more carefully evaluate the strategic nature of all ministry, the competencies of those who minister, and the use of God-given resources. The embarrassment of riches that American evangelicals enjoy must be seen as a stewardship granted us by the King who gave us the great commission.

I appreciate your second question regarding “home” and “foreign” missions—and it is a fair one. Both works, regardless of what they are called are essential. Again, I would simply prefer we use different nomenclature. Let us consider calling them “Local, National, International Ministries” or something more creative, or descriptive.

Undoubtedly, there are those ministering in the United States who encounter very challenging cultural issues. Working among Mormons, working in the inner city, working amongst a rural congregation in dairy country—all these require learning a new culture if you are unfamiliar with them. So, there is great validity to the notion of “missions” in this regard.

My appeal is that we really think through what we are doing, why we are doing it, how we are doing it, where we are doing it, and does it genuinely square with the specific statement of our Lord regarding the “uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

And I would like to add two other considerations here:

1. We really need to examine the effectiveness of what we are doing. Howard Hendricks liked to say, “The church thinks it is doing so well, because it has no idea what it is doing.” I fear that when it comes to international ministries we do not do a great deal of examination—we are just happy to have something happening. But what about the stewardship of lives, resources, and responsibilities that accompany the great commission? We should be preparing the best folks in our churches to send them out—and the best leaders in our churches should be overseeing our outreach ministries—since they really are a reflection of who we are and what we are about as a church.

2. All ministry should be seen in light of the great commission. Virtually every Biblically minded pastor would agree that that the church is the focal point of ministry and that the local church is the divinely appointed means to evangelize the world. Thus, every local church should not be merely “missions minded.” Rather every local church should be “Mission Minded.” Our mission is clear—take the gospel to the uttermost part of the earth. So, every ministry in the church—from children’s through adult—all ministry in the church is to lead ultimately to the fulfillment of the church’s mission. Evangelizing the lost, teaching believers, nurturing toward spiritual maturity in both character and ministry, and each believer understanding and embracing their vital role in the mission of the church—locally and globally. I believe this is the truly Purpose Driven Church.