(From time to time we invite gifted and thoughtful rural church leaders to share their insights with us on The Covered Dish. The following article was graciously contributed by Rev. Chad Holtz, pastor of Marrow's Chapel UMC in Bullock, NC, and a student at Duke Divinity School. Chad also shares his sermons and his reflections on life and church on his blog, "Dancing on Saturday .")
This is my first post here at Covered Dish and I am honored to be invited to offer some of my thoughts on rural ministry on such a wonderful forum. Hopefully these reflections will not detract anything from the reputation Covered Dish had just moments before this posting.
I have been pastoring a rural United Methodist church in Henderson, NC for the past 3 years while studying at Duke Divinity School, which means I know more than some and less than many about parish life in rural settings I have also been conversant over the past 6 years with the emergent church, which makes me an expert to some and woefully uninformed (or misinformed!) to others about this ever expanding movement. This is the first time, however, that I have ever been asked to reflect on the two - rural ministry and emerging church - together. I was surprised to learn after a brief search through Google-land that very few, if any, discussions are taking place involving the rural and emerging church. No doubt there are many reasons for this, one most certainly being that rural churches, while comprising the majority of churches in America tend to hold a minority voice in our culture. As any rural pastor will tell you, this should not be the case.
What I’d like to peel back here, even if ever so slightly, is a reason or three why the rural church and emerging church need each other. In fact, I will even suggest that the rural church is the emerging church, and something beautiful will happen when we live into that faithfully. You, the reader, can determine whether or not there is more fruit to be peeled, and I hope you’ll add your voice, or shears, to the discussion.
What follows are three ways I see the emerging church conversation shaping life in rural ministry. These are by no means exhaustive and I hope you, whether clergy or lay person, will add more.
Bigger is Better
Our culture, certainly in America, is obsessed with size. Rural churches often get the short end of the stick because they don’t boast the numbers that suburban or urban churches muster. The voices of churches in Bullock or Warrenton or Clinton can be drowned out or seem inconsequential when competing with the voices of Raleigh or Durham. We must be honest here, however, and confess as rural pastors and lay people that when and where we feel as though we are not being heard could be a result of not opening our mouths. We must guard against having our feelings of dis-empowerment becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Emerging Church has brought into question our cultural value that assumes bigger is better. In fact, it has from the beginning insisted that smaller is faithful and therefore, in many ways, better. This is, of course, good news for rural churches! Because the emerging church places a high premium on conversation and participation, the value of smaller gatherings cannot be over estimated. Of course, this is not a license to forgo evangelism, as we will see in a moment. It is, however, and this cannot be stressed enough, permission to be thankful for the people who have gathered, even if that number is only 2 or 3 (or 20 or 30). I think there are plenty of rural pastors as well as lay people of rural churches who need to hear of their smaller, intimate gatherings, “This is good. This, too, is faithful.”
Perhaps the greatest critique the emerging church offers the institutional church, particularly those of us in mainline traditions, is one aimed at our structural dependence. Many of the people attracted to the emerging church are drawn to it because they have grown weary of doing church and have a passion for being the church. Tired of over-sized bureaucratic machines that appear more interested in self-preservation rather than creation’s redemption, they now purposefully resist the top-down hierarchy that they feel stifles mission, and seek to emphasize the priest hood of all believers. So they have moved out of the institutional church and into homes, streets, pubs, convention halls, theaters, and even the world wide web, forming cohorts and house churches or other gatherings
This is not news to those of us who are Methodists but rather a call to return to our roots. The mission of the United Methodist Church is to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This does not happen through bureaucracies but, as our Discipline clearly states, through the local church. “The local church provides the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs...The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world...[and is] the strategic base from which Christians move out to the structures of society. The local church shall be organized so that it can pursue its primary task and mission in the context of its own community” (¶ 201, 202, 243). When addressing the relation between the mission and the polity (or structures) of the Church, John Wesley wrote, “What is the end of all ecclesial order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God, and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far as valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not, it is worth nothing.”
Proponents of the emerging church are right to call us to the carpet on this. Listen to how one leading voice in the emergent conversation, Mike Clawson, describes one strand of emergents who seek to reconstruct the way we do church, moving from an attractional model to a missional one:
this conversation emphasizes the need to create outward focused church communities whose purpose is to send people out into the world to bless the world, rather than simply trying to attract people into the institution of the church. For these emergents, all other aspects of church structure and ministry are subordinated to the call to mission. For missional emergents, the church doesn’t just have a mission, the church is a mission – what “the mission” is may vary depending on the orientation of the church towards evangelism, social justice, or both, the common thread is that Reconstructionists believe the form of the church should be flexible in relation to the function of the church.
Clawson's essay  (pdf) is a worthwhile read, especially if you are new to the emergent conversation and/or part of a mainline denomination.
This is not a radical new innovation but a call to reform, to remember, if you will, our first love. It’s the sort of stuff we Methodists are made of. Our mission is a grass roots mission, and it begins and ends with the local church. Rural churches are hot beds for this sort of missional activity because they are so firmly rooted in their community and have inroads and bonds that new churches or churches in areas where the demographics are constantly in flux do not have.
Rural churches, like all churches, need to become less concerned about self preservation and determine to live more faithfully into the mission that has always been present but often forgotten if not ignored. How will we do this? In truth, the sky is the limit. The variety of ways the local rural church can be a vibrant witness are as numerous as the number and types of communities in which they serve. With Pentecost Sunday on the horizon there is no better time than the present for our churches, old and new, young and old, big and small, to dream dreams and see visions (Joel 2:28). Of course, our story is one that confesses that the arrival of the Spirit comes not without price. Which brings me to my last point.
Today is a good day to Die
Rural churches know all too well the heartache that comes with death. I don’t mean to diminish the sense of loss felt by other larger or urban churches, but the death of a parishioner in a rural church tends to send shock waves through the entire community. The deceased was likely a member from birth and chances are good that a majority of the membership are related to him or her. Their death is often a stark reminder that the church they have lived and died in could also face a death of its own. As industry (even farming) increasingly moves out of rural areas, the youth who once returned home after college to raise their families in the churches of their birth no longer do so. It’s difficult to dream dreams or see visions when a year is marked by more funerals than baptisms.
The emerging church was birthed from similar concerns about death. Death of vibrant mission among churches who were too focused on attracting new “members” vs. “making disciples.” The groaning death pangs of a modern culture giving way to a postmodern one. The death of the ideal of a Christian nation and the realization that we live in an increasingly pluralistic society. These “deaths” and many more caused people to question the ways in which we are church.
One of the greatest gifts the emerging church has given to people of faith is a safe, grace-filled space to deal with and discuss the things which matter most to us, like our faith, even as our world, culture, and community - everything we hold dear - appear to be in flux. Whatever critiques might be leveled at the emerging church (and there are many), its prominent rise and influence in the Church at large today is a result of faithful people determined that death would not have the last word.
A friend of mine who pastors a rural Presbyterian church in Wisconsin shared with me the other day that it was only when her church discarded its fear of death that it truly begin to thrive. When it faced squarely the possibility of death and the fears associated with it - death of its aging membership, death of the community, death of the church itself, death of their traditions and habits of “doing church - it was then that one wise member asked, “If we are going to die, how can we die faithfully?” To quote Rabbi Sager from the Duke Divinity community, “That is a far better question than any one answer.”
What might happen if rural churches everywhere gave up the fear of death and decided to face it faithfully and hopefully? What might emerge from these fearless communities?
The longer I serve a rural church and the longer I read and converse with emerging thinkers the more I am convinced that the rural church is the emerging church, or at the very least, can be. If it is true that what defines emergent Christians is their relational ties and conversation, their desire to be “bound together, despite (and often in celebration of) their differences, by a simple commitment to be in relationship with one another,” then they are rural church members have much in common. If, as Mike Clawson adds further,
“The emerging conversation aspires to be a safe space, a place to ask questions, explore new theologies, try new practices, and pursue God in both new and ancient ways without fear of condemnation or exclusion. The only requirement is that one has to be willing to extend this same safety and respect to others. As Tony Jones puts it, the answer to the question of what emergents hold in common is simply, “We’re friends...”
...then the rural church can go even a step further because in many cases we are made up of more than “friends” but “family,” not only spiritually but quite literally. Rural churches can and should be the perfect laboratories for exploring the ethos of emergent Christianity so long as we can embrace the truth that big is not always better, that structures are only good so long as they serve our mission and that today is as good a day as any to die.
(To read more of Rev. Chad Holtz's thoughts on the emerging church, visit his blog, "Dancing on Saturday." )