Many times at conferences and conventions certain congregations and pastors are paraded forward as fine examples for the rest of us to emulate. I remember such a presentation at the 2010 Synod Convention. I have heard other pastors remark about these presentations and the implied accusation that they are not laudable or exemplary because they have not had the numerical growth that the example congregations experienced. To that, I will add another category of growth which most rural pastors are very faithfully working on, that would be growth in the faith.
When you look at the Scriptures, sure there are numerical growth examples (Pentecost being the finest example). There are also many examples of growth in the faith (milk to meat stuff) and exhortations for pastors to feed the sheep. These passages can serve as great encouragement for pastors often chided for not being in situations where numerical growth took place (remember that Election has a role to play here).
But those rural or small congregation pastors are often the most skilled caretakers of souls out there. They care for the person for years, taking them through trials and tribulations, having a relationship deeper than any larger congregation could afford with each of his members (unless small groups… oh wait that idea has been discussed already). Finally, those faithful pastors in those small “maintenance” congregations are the skillful shepherds who lead their sheep carefully to the gateway to life eternal. They are there with their sheep, guiding them with the Word of God to the Shepherd.
So for all of those rural pastors (of which I used to be one) I give thanks to God. God uses them to create a growth that is often immeasurable, growth in faith.
For all the larger congregations, consider starting to support the smaller congregations (string-free) as they are vital to the care of souls in smaller communities. Support can have many forms, including just plain financial support. You want to talk about Witness, Mercy, and Life Together, all three done in one action of generosity and fellowship.
Before anyone comments, I realize there are many faithful pastors in faithful urban/suburban congregations as well and they deserve thanks to God for their work as well.
Stay tuned to BJS in the future as I hope to introduce some tools to help our rural pastors and parishioners share ideas and encourage one another in their situations. Perhaps some in their comments would like to give comment on a “forum” to discuss rural ministry among those who are actually in the thick of it.