Disciplemaking in America’s Rural Churches

If you are a rural church pastor, you may be wonder, “Can my church successfully grow generations of disciplemakers?” 

The question is understandable. Often, disciplemaking strategies are geared toward churches in urban settings where diversity and population density are significant factors in planning. While conversations regarding the urban church are vital, the rural church faces its own unique challenges (and some advantages) in making disciples. 

The term “rural church” does not simply apply to properties hewn from the edges of Midwest corn fields. It refers to churches situated in any community with fewer than 2,500 persons. One in seven Americans live in these rural areas.

According to a National Association of Evangelicals study, “High numbers of pastors, missionaries, business and political leaders point to their rural upbringing as a key component in their personal formation.” Studies cite that churches in rural areas have a successful track record of producing and exporting leaders due to the innovation, community cooperation, and rhythms of rural life. Community cooperation in such settings lends itself to understanding relational ministry, as opposed to settings oriented toward individual achievement.

The NAE study further notes that “not all small rural churches are spiritually stagnant or numerically declining. There are vital, growing, missional rural churches in every region of the country.” Notably, these churches are also increasingly diverse in ethnicity. With these facts in mind, generational disciplemaking in the rural church appears paramount to the Great Commission. 

Cultural Adjustments 

As I partner in building disciplemaking cultures in urban, suburban, and rural settings, here are a few cultural distinctives that have required adjustment and care to facilitate healthy disciplemaking in the rural church. 

The challenge of background 

One challenge to healthy disciplemaking in the rural church is the “gravity” that tends to pull one back to their roots. Long-term residents can unfortunately be remembered for years as the product of their home environment rather than as a person transformed by Christ. A person’s last name can carry baggage that is difficult for some to release. For example, they may receive labels such as, “Tom’s son, the guy who spent six years in federal prison,” or “the guy who received failing grades in school.” Feeling trapped by the gravity of one’s social, academic, or behavioral struggles can be a significant hindrance to growth.”

The fact that identities can be hard to escape in a small community is not a new problem. Consider Jesus’ return to Nazareth in Luke 4: “’Isn’t this the son of Joseph?’ they asked” (v. 22). When Jesus affirmed himself in the synagogue as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 61, He was subsequently driven out of town to the edge of a cliff. In the process, Jesus reasoned with them, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown” (v. 24). A similar statement was made by Nathanael in John’s gospel regarding Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

However, when followers of Christ share openly, challenges become opportunities for transformation. Someone who truly has become a new creation through meeting Christ and being discipled is a genuine example of what God desires to create in each of us as we grow in Him. These stories can influence communities deeply.

The challenge of vulnerability 

Not only do people in a small community share the same struggles we all experience with vulnerability, but they also face an added risk of being known “too deeply” in an environment where news travels quickly because of tight social networks. Violations of trust are comparable to the thorns that choked out the seed in Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mark 4:7,18-19). Just as thorns hinder the growth of a seed, so can trust violations slow a believer’s growth.

As Christ-followers live out their lives in close social networks, they must stress confidentiality and grace-filled relationships in disciplemaking from the onset. When leaders take special care to protect a person in his or her areas of vulnerability, they cultivate good soil into a place ripe for growth

The challenge of ministry tradition  

Church service and ministry traditions can serve as anchors that foster great meaning in the lives of churchgoers. While this is positive, traditions can pose extreme challenges to building the new ways of relating that come with disciplemaking. Because of high longevity rates in members of rural churches, those who have anchored their lives in longstanding traditions may perceive a growing focus on disciplemaking as a threat.

On the other hand, longevity lends itself to natural relationships where the Christian can be known and loved through life’s circumstances by those committed to them for the long haul. One’s church family will often consist of a next-door neighbor, the family down the road, and parents who sit beside them in the bleachers at Friday night football. This frequent community contact makes it easy to “do life together” as a natural investment. Therefore, follow-up with disciplemaking can feel much more natural in a rural setting. Navigators like to say we make disciples right where we live, work, play, study, and worship. In a rural community, this is not only possible—it’s the norm. 

The advantage of community welfare 

In rural areas, people care about the welfare of their fellow citizens. Community members naturally see each person, not just those inside the church, as interconnected, and see that one person’s success is everyone’s success. This mindset of community welfare is extremely helpful as we disciple others to reach toward people outside the church. When children attend the same school and their parents use the same grocery store as the unchurched in their area, their desire to see others come to know Christ can take on significant meaning. 

Fertile Soil for Disciplemaking

What do you typically think of when considering the backbone of our country? Many have weighed in on this question and have answered, “small business,” “manufacturing,” or “agriculture.” Depending on one’s personal bent, any of these may appear true. But one thing that ties each of these together is their strong presence in rural communities. Despite the shift of commerce to urban centers during the last century, both longevity and stability continue to reside in rural settings, where community values hold people together. It seems intuitive, then, that the importance of growing disciplemaking within the rural church should be a high value if we are to see movement occur.

Are you a rural church pastor who wonders if disciplemaking is a realistic goal in your congregation? Consider the very soil God chose for Jesus’ upbringing: a small town called Nazareth. Consider also that Jesus’ commission to his disciples reached “to the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Despite the unique challenges of making disciples in the rural church, disciplemakers can find fertile soil and, by caring for it well, can see God produce great fruit for His Kingdom. 

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