An Audience of One
One of the things that I think many rural pastors struggle with, deep down, is the seeming-obscurity of their ministry.
On television, through the web, in denominational resources, we see images of clergy basking in the rapt adulation of large crowds, spotlighted by television cameras, energized by the collective appreciation of sprawling congregations that, literally, look up to them as they hold forth from the pulpit.
We see a ministry with an audience.
Then, on Sundays, we look out at our audience: the same few dozen people we’ve come to know so (too?) well, in a dimly lit sanctuary that echoes with its emptiness, haunted by who’s not there.
There are no reporters.
There are no television cameras.
There are no spotlights.
Heck, there aren’t even any stop-lights in the town.
Does any one see? Does anyone hear?
In a physics class, we were asked a philosophical conundrum: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
We were told that “No, it doesn’t make a sound. A sound wave sent loose through the air by a fallen tree requires a hearer for it to become a “sound.” Otherwise, without an audience, at its most basic level it is just that: a wave through air. It doesn’t make a sound.”
If a ministry takes place in a rural place, and it feels like there is no one there, does it make a sound?
Because there is an Audience.
In a quiet moment after morning prayer, I was talking with Rev. Sam Wells about how hard it must be for him to be Dean of a cathedral as large as Duke Chapel. He said, “You know, in many ways, this is much easier than when I served a tiny inner-city congregation. There, on some Sundays, no one came except those of us leading the service. Here, at least, I know someone will hear.”
“How did you keep doing that?, “ I asked him. “How did you keep serving in ministry with no one there?”
“You have to believe in angels,” he said. “You have to believe that more are present than you can see.”
We have an audience. Someone hears. More are present than we can see.
Philip Yancey writes of how, during the renovation of an ancient cathedral in England, a beautiful statue was discovered hidden within the crawlspace behind a wall. The statue was hundreds of years old, yet no other human being had laid eyes on it since it was crafted and sealed behind the wall by its sculptor. This was intentional: The sculptor had not created the statue for human eyes to behold: it was made for God alone.
The statue of was there, whether anyone saw it or not: its beauty not to be found in the eye of any other beholder but God.
I think of that sculptor, crafting a beautiful piece of art that no one except God might ever see -
I think he might have made a good rural pastor.
“If a ministry happens in a rural place, and it seems no one is there to behold it, does it make a sound?”
There is no such thing as an obscure ministry. We always have an Audience.
An Audience of One.