Editor’s Note: Why care about the rural church? While it’s easy to focus on growing urban and suburban churches because of their population density, it also becomes easier to forget about the importance of churches in rural areas. To help me better understand the rural church and its strategic importance, I reached out to Tyler VanWey, a young leader and Lead Minister at the Carroll Church of Christ in Carroll, Iowa.
Q. When searching for a ministry job or planting a church, it’s become trendy to aim for multi-staff positions at urban or suburban churches and effectively leave rural churches behind. What made you care about the rural church?
Truthfully, I didn’t go out looking for the rural church, the rural church found me. I was asked to consider applying at a church in the middle of Western Iowa. Pretty much all of Western Iowa is rural. As I began looking at the city of Carroll and the surrounding areas, I was shocked at the lack of churches.
Rural areas tend to get the stereotype that everyone is already a Christian, but when you actually look at the state of the church in these areas you notice that the churches are few and far between. That’s specifically true of Renew-aligned churches, but even when we consider all churches, there simply aren’t enough churches to support the populations that live in some of these areas. Where there are churches, several of them are closing, declining, or struggling in some way.
“Where there are churches, several of them are closing, declining, or struggling in some way.”
In short, what Jesus said thousands of years ago is still proving to be true: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2). We need more churches, and we need more laborers in this harvest field. There are many great churches that are faithfully working in these areas, but we desperately need more in order to reach the fields that are ripe with harvest.
Ultimately what made me care about the rural church was that my heart broke for these people and churches. Obviously, there is a need for churches in urban areas as well, but I was very familiar with multiple organizations targeting church planting and support in urban areas. I didn’t know of many organizations that were targeting rural areas. I clearly saw the need and God had clearly laid a path for me to step into that need.
Q. What gets left behind when we forget about the rural church?
In three words: The Great Commission. In one word: People.
There are hundreds of thousands of people in rural communities who need to hear the good news just as much as people in urban communities. It really is that simple in my mind. Jesus called us to make disciples of all nations. To state the obvious, that doesn’t mean the goal is having just one disciple in every nation, but making as many disciples in each nation as we can.
In order to pursue what Jesus has called us to do, we have to plant churches, raise up church leaders, and make disciples in rural areas. When we forget rural areas, we miss the chance to proclaim the good news and make disciples of people whom God loves and Jesus died for.
“In order to pursue what Jesus has called us to do, we have to plant churches, raise up church leaders, and make disciples in rural areas.”
Q. Any surprising blessings that come from ministering in a rural church?
People in rural areas tend to understand what it means for the church to be a family. Rural families tend to plant roots and plant them deep. There are a number of 3-generation and 4-generation families in our church and community, which means that these families are used to their loved ones being close and taking care of each other. They take care of their own. This family orientation translates over to the way they think about church.
The preferred image of the church in many of these rural areas is the church as a family. You generally don’t have to teach them about hospitality or work too hard to get the church body to care for each other. While in a more individualistic area it may be difficult to get a prayer chain started or to get meals prepared for a family going through a tough time, these communities do those things almost instinctually.
Q. What are some frustrations?
One of the things that attracts people to rural living is that the pace of life tends to be slower. That’s not just a stereotype, it is generally true and applies to almost every area of life and leadership in rural areas. This means that decision-making can be slow, planning can be slow, and, most significantly, change can be slow.
That pace can be a huge advantage when things are going well, when the community has a positive view of your church, and when you are moving in a positive direction. The problem arises when change becomes necessary, as it always eventually does. It takes longer and requires more patience than it would in a more fast-paced, high-change environment.
Q. What excites you about the potential—perhaps untapped—in these churches?
The opportunity for reach and impact. That sounds funny because we think of high-impact and far-reaching churches as those in high-density populations, but I am totally convinced that there is tremendous potential for regional impact within the rural church. In the church leadership world, the prevailing wisdom is that most churches can only reach people within a 20-minute driving radius of their church. In a city that may be true, but in rural areas people are used to driving 45 minutes just to go to Walmart. In some areas, an entire county will send their kids to one school district, meaning that school is a 20-minute drive one way for some families.
“I am totally convinced that there is tremendous potential for regional impact within the rural church.”
There is the potential for churches to have that same kind of reach and impact. One church in a rural area has the ability to reach an entire county and even an entire region. These churches aren’t confined to the borders of their city or suburbs but by how far they are willing to reach.