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Joel Tom Tate on the Surprising Joys of Pastoring a Rural Flock
Several years ago I was living next door to one of the nation’s best Evangelical seminaries. It seemed obvious that this was an opportunity to act on, a providential gimme. So I enrolled there, took one class, and then felt strongly that the Lord was telling me that my seminary career was over. Ironically, that one course was on the denominational distinctives of the church I belonged to at the time, so that the one course I did take does me absolutely no good now as I pursue my ordination in the Wesleyan Church.
Later, the kind hand of Providence brought my family and me to a tiny country church in the mountains of Vermont. It was my first pastorate, and we were thrilled about the people, the church building, the parsonage, and everything else that came along with it. I was so grateful to be a pastor that I never thought to complain about being stuck with a very small congregation in a place where our prospects of significant growth were pretty slim, realistically speaking.
A Country Church
And did I mention that it was a country church? If I ever had any doubt, my congregation did everything they could to remove it. Every week for a few months, the children of one family in the church would offer the same prayer request. They asked for prayer about the cow their family had purchased from a local farmer but which had yet to be delivered. It was a rambunctious cow, and the farmer had all manner of unexpected difficulty in capturing and conveying it to their homestead, which was adjacent to the church.
On the Sunday of Pentecost we unfurled Pentecost banners and talked about the gift of the Holy Spirit. During prayer time the children asked again for prayer about the cow, and dutifully we prayed. When the children were dismissed for children’s church, they went down-stairs to help my wife set up for a party to follow the service. It was a beautiful summer Sunday, and we were going to have a Pentecost birthday party for the Church on the lawn, with red cupcakes and red balloons.
Halfway through the sermon, we all heard the rumble of a truck going down the dirt road next to the church. At that point I had already lost the attention of half the men in the church. A few minutes later, with my wife in the distance desperately calling for her to come back, an irrepressible child came into the sanctuary to announce that “the cow’s here!”
The benediction had scarcely left my lips before the men of the church slipped out, grabbing cupcakes on their way. Presiding over the Pentecost party, I found myself wishing I were with them. The meadow and an angry cow, that’s where the action was. I felt like Moses coming down the mountain to find that the people had been swept away by some golden calf from out of nowhere.
On another occasion I found myself volunteering to help someone in the church butcher a batch of his chickens. I know it sounds glamorous, but surprisingly, it is hard, smelly work. I was glad to do it, and anxious to demonstrate that I was game. But as I scooped hot innards out of a chicken’s cavity with my bare hands, I had to laugh: This was very far from what I had envisioned when I responded to God’s call to ministry.
But the more I reflected on these things, the more I began to see a connection between occasionally playing second fiddle to a cow and God’s refusal to send me to seminary. This church is where our God wants us. But had I graduated seminary with a Master of Divinity degree, I wouldn’t have heard a call to a small church where I would have to work a second job and cut wood to help heat the parsonage. I’d like to think otherwise, but I know myself too well.
A Local Outpost
There had crept into me a notion like a virus, the toxic idea that little local churches are unworthy of good leadership, that good leadership and top-notch resources would be wasted on them. I had become an anti-shepherd, all too glad to forsake the hundredth sheep for the company of the ninety-nine who knew well enough to stay in a comfortable fold where the weekly bulletin reads like a book and you’re encouraged to bring your coffee and Danish to your seat between the first guitar chords and the point when the drums kick in.
Then I discovered the simple virtue and rugged fidelity of the hundredth sheep, and I found that my flock was faithful and devout, where I had not been.
And yet it’s not as though my little church doesn’t deserve the benefit of a pastor with the insight and skills, the knowledge and preparation, that one acquires in seminary. What happens here is very, very important, and I almost would that God had called someone more qualified to the work here.
Every Sunday certain of our neighbors drive past our church on their way to larger churches in places like Rutland, to churches that use PowerPoint and plug in their instruments. And some of our congregation drive past those same churches to come here. But for the most part, this church is a local affair, a very visible outpost of the Kingdom, maintaining a ministry of presence in this high valley year after year, keeping the doors open.
On Christmas Eve many of our neighbors who attend elsewhere (for excellent reasons I’m sure) stayed close to home and joined us for our sweet and earnest service. Those of us who attend every week, accustomed to having the pews to ourselves, were disoriented and delighted to be in church at night surrounded by unfamiliar faces. The songs were sung well and loudly (for a change). Our joy was real, our anticipation sweet, as we said together how glad we were that the Christ-child was born in our midst.
We took communion together, and we were simply the people of God being built together into a spiritual house. There was a part of us that coveted the ongoing company of our fellow saints, that cherished the sense of success that comes with a full building, so that our happiness was tempered by the sad awareness that on Sunday it would just be the faithful few again. But more fundamentally, we knew that while we might never be entrusted with the inn, there are times when it is a real privilege to be in charge of the stable.
Let the innkeeper rent out his rooms. It is our pleasure to throw the barn doors open and invite everyone into the dusty places where the miracles have happened.
No Longer Stuck
People move around. Americans have cars and they know how to use them. It’s not unusual for people to drive 40 minutes to go to a church that they hope will meet all their needs. Churches are becoming less and less local institutions because people in churches aren’t stuck with each other. Expecting people to stay in churches that challenge them, where they are sometimes uncomfortable, and where their fellow believers strike them as boring or embarrassing or both, is like asking water to flow uphill. Itching ears never had it so easy.
As a result, the old model of the local church is looking increasingly quaint. In that old model, every generation was well represented, all the social classes were represented, every taste, interest, need, and desire had someone to speak for it. The only thing everyone had in common, aside from a similar address, was Jesus and a creed.
Being a congregant at one of today’s large, contemporary churches might mean sharing a pew with someone who lives an hour from you and never once running into your pastor during the week. Congregants at the sort of churches that have “hit on the right formula” are apt to have much in common in terms of musical taste, educational experience, lifestyle expectations, and so on, but very little in common in terms of a shared life. It’s seldom the case that they share a mailman, a school board, a grocery store, or a cup of sugar in a pinch. Can anyone deny that something’s been lost when that’s the case?
Historically, the church has benefited from the stabilizing influence of two common denominators. The first and most important is a shared faith in Jesus Christ and a submission to Scripture. The second has always been that of geography. This common denominator has looked, at times, like more of a curse than a blessing. It can lead to an unhealthy parochialism and can insulate the church from good and necessary things.
But in its absence, the other common denominator is weakened, as believers form associations based on worship preferences, social status, ethnicity, and so on. Too often, the church that smugly eschews all the trappings of the local church ends up being much more parochial and insulated in its way than the stodgy local churches it disdains.
The stubborn little local church is an antidote to all of this. Like her Lord, the local church aspires to be an incarnation. It has no form or stately majesty that you should be drawn to it. It does the work of the Kingdom in its corner of the world faithfully and dutifully.
True, many small country churches are fundamentally unhealthy and have outlived themselves, and few things are sadder than wasting a beautiful Sunday morning in such a church. But this is not a result of a church’s being small or located in an isolated rural community. In fact, being small and located in a rural community can make a church valuable to the wider Church.
For one thing, such a church has a history. From the pews of my particular church, prayers have been offered regarding the Civil War and every conflict since. Most of the people on any given Sunday are related somehow to someone who was in attendance 150 years ago. There are some things you just can’t get away with in a context like that. And it’s all right if at times the younger people chafe at that: I suppose they’re supposed to.
Churches with no history, without the accountability of the saints who have gone before, often end up rushing in where old Grandma So-and-So had feared to tread. Now I’m not suggesting that inertia and knee-jerk negativity should be confused with the wisdom of the ages. Old Grandma So-and-So’s wisdom comes to us polluted with her prejudices and pinched perspective, but we don’t dare discard it out of hand, as she often had very good reasons for insisting that such a thing be done and such-and-so always avoided.
The other sense in which little local churches are valuable to the wider Church has to do, ironically, with their very lack of appeal. I mentioned before my discomfort when I was confronted with the question of whether or not I would have taken a church like ours coming out of seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. That discomfort was multiplied when my wife and I stopped some time later to ask ourselves if we would have made this our church under different circumstances.
If I weren’t in the ministry and we had moved in next door, would we have attended one service and then promptly joined the ranks of those who sometimes rankle me now in their migration past the church on Sunday mornings to go to shinier places to “have their needs met”? That was a difficult question to contemplate. Ours is literally a narrow door by which too few enter.
I don’t want to overstate the lack of appeal; it’s not as though we work corporal mortification into the liturgy, although during certain hymns it might feel that way. It’s just that with our low production value and uncomfortable pews, at some point the congregants will have to resign themselves to the fact that if the service is to be a service at all, it’s going to be a service to God and certainly not to the congregation.
I am not here making an argument in defense of churches that are sloppy, lazy, incoherent, reflexive, bogged down in shibboleths, resolutely boring and unimaginative, inconsiderate of the needs of their own and unaware of the needs of others. I am extolling the virtue of churches that do everything they are supposed to do, namely, read Scripture, sing songs, preach the Word, observe the sacraments, and act charitably, and still do not have the wherewithal to maintain the sort of range of offerings that will satisfy the discriminating churchgoer.
The fact that such churches persist at all is a sort of miracle, and miracles deserve attention. When you are driving through the picturesque back roads of Vermont, which is unfortunately to the rest of America what France is to the rest of the West (the place in our national coalmine where the canaries first stopped singing), you wouldn’t be surprised to see beautiful country churches posing for photographs. Vacationers from New York City who would never think of going in one on a Sunday morning would be upset if they weren’t there for them to photograph on Saturday afternoon.
But if the presence of church buildings in a landscape of stark apostasy is still a given, what is amazing is that actual worship takes place in some of those buildings. Sunday after Sunday the Word is preached to handfuls of the faithful. And in their persistence they give testimony to the resilience of a church that knows too much about the future to get discouraged now, to the universality of a church that stubbornly maintains garrisons wherever the flag of Christ has been planted, and to the work of a church that is satisfied with mere obedience.
For the accountability and testimony that they provide, local churches, churches that put the flesh on the gospel in communities that need the good news badly, should be appreciated and encouraged.
And speaking of putting flesh on things, I need to report that I got the last laugh on the cow who upstaged my message that Sunday morning. I, like Adam, was privileged to name the beast. I suggested “Chuck” (as in chuck roast) and “Chuck” it was. Now, while we all have Jesus in our hearts, many of the people in our church have a little bit of Chuck in their freezers.
Joel Tom Tate is the Director of Student Activities and the Campus Minister at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Vermont, in addition to being the pastor of North Chittenden Wesleyan in North Chittenden, Vermont, where he lives with his wife Christine, their three daughters, and a flock of ducks.