LAKE OZARK — About 40 directors of missions from across Missouri gathered here Jan. 29-31 to discuss small and rural church dynamics with Gary Farley, DOM at Pickens Baptist Association in Carrollton, Ala.
Farley, an author, rural sociologist and missions strategist, gave the Missouri DOMs several points to consider as they work with smaller membership churches. The DOMs were meeting for their semi-annual meeting with Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) leaders.
Farley is a contributing author/trainer with the Center for Rural Church Leadership. He formerly was the rural church consultant for the Home Mission Board until 1996. Previously he taught courses in rural sociology at Oklahoma Baptist University and Carson Newman College.
He told the DOMs he is pleased that the North American Mission Board is launching some church revitalization initiatives. Often changing demographics in a community contribute to the decline of congregations over their life cycle. Rural churches are in a very changed landscape from where they were even 20 years ago. Population shifts have moved many people into more urban settings and jobs are not nearly as plentiful in the countryside in today’s world.
But Farley said the key to a rural church’s success today is the matter of “changing the ‘mission’ of a church which was formed to serve a neighborhood or a racial or cultural group to one that serves another … group.” Rural churches often have to shift their focus from reaching farming families to reaching the rural residents who are occupying the former farmhouses as rental tenants. Often people will drive out from the outskirts of the nearby city to attend church in a country setting because they like the style and worship of the country church.
He said in his book We’re Family (published by the Baptist Sunday School Board in 1990) that a church which develops a “niche” or a “signature ministry” can often attract people from up to 30 miles away who will drive to the country church for a specific interest. A good worship band (often country western style) or an AWANA program for children, a men’s or women’s ministry are some of the things a “30 mile church” can foster in order to thrive. Farley said “Six Mile Churches” that have not reached out beyond their original township-wide “church fields” often continue in a slow decline.
“The work of a small and rural church should be a locally-arrived-at mix of programs, events and projects.” He added rural churches are much more motivated by moving from one event or project to the next than they are by traditional denominational programs.
“Good events and projects can make the small church attractive to the unchurched,” he said.
As for directors of missions, Farley said the associations are often the key influencers for smaller, rural churches.
Farley’s work is published at www.ruralchurch.us. Many practical helps are available for pastors, DOMs and others interested in rural/small church revitalization.