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"Rural Matters" Prioritizes Needs of Small Congregations

A new initiative seeks to prioritize the needs of AG congregations in small communities.

The next great Assemblies of God mission field may not be some remote Asian hamlet, an isolated African village, impoverished South American barrio, or far-flung Pacific Ocean atoll, but rather the rural heartland of the United States itself.

That goal is at the locus of the fledgling "Rural Matters" movement, launched during a December brainstorming session of pastors, educators, business owners, and others. The parties are interested in prioritizing, revitalizing, and re-envisioning roles the Fellowship's churches play amid the nation's thousands of small farming, ranching, mining, timber, and fishing communities.

"Our major objective is to raise awareness of the need for ministry in rural America," says Bryan Jarrett, lead pastor of Northplace Church , an Assemblies of God megachurch in Sachse, Texas. Jarrett is spearheading the Rural Matters initiative.

"One of the first things we need to do is to change the whole idea of what rural ministry is," Jarrett says. He notes that when gifted young leaders sacrifice to take the gospel to a foreign mission field they are rightfully commended. Those who are called to rural service should be equally lauded, encouraged, and supported, he believes.

"When a gifted young minister chooses to serve a church in a rural community, the attitude often is that they are selling themselves short, that at best the rural church should only serve as a training ground until a 'real' ministry opens up for them," Jarrett says.

It is easy to see why pastoring in a small, country church might be seen as a second-class assignment, says Steve Donaldson, director of the 12-year-old Rural Compassion , component of Convoy of Hope . The outreach program is a partner in the new Rural Matters collaboration.

Unlike big-city counterparts, ministers serving rural congregations often must squeak by on meager salaries - and sometimes must find a second job. They also frequently forgo medical insurance and retirement benefits that pastors of larger, urban churches receive.

Donaldson says it's difficult to raise funds for rural ministry because it's not viewed as exotic as the foreign mission field. But he maintains it is as equally important.

Rural Matters, Donaldson says, grew from a conviction that the time is ripe for a broader vision and platform elevating the too-often-ignored, non-urban areas of the nation to a missions priority.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 46 million Americans still lived in rural counties as of 2012, despite an increasing trend toward population urbanization. Those nonmetropolitan communities are spread over regions comprising 72 percent of the nation's landmass.

While rural communities remain socially isolated, economically challenged, and often limited in educational opportunities, they aren't disconnected from Internet and cable or satellite television. The latter media exposure opens the world to families on the farm, both informing them beyond anything their rural ancestors knew. It likewise exposes viewers to morally questionable entertainment and increasingly accepted secular worldviews.

Jarrett, himself the product of a small Arkansas farming community, calls rural America his "tribe." And, in a manner not dissimilar to missionaries arriving in a distance village abroad, he contends, rural ministers will find a "tribal mentality" in play as they arrive at their off-the-beaten-path assignments.

"It's hard to break in if you aren't from here; they have their own culture," says Jarrett, who has watched Sachse rapidly morph from a farming town of about 9,700 people in 2000 toward more of a suburban Dallas bedroom community of more than 20,000 a decade later.

That growth has meant change for Jarrett's Northplace Church, too. When founded in 1921, it was a small, mostly white Pentecostal church in a cotton-farming community. Today, with 2,200 people attending on a typical Sunday morning, it is a multiethnic, socio-economically diverse congregation that embraces living video streaming of services, podcasts, and social media as well as small groups that nourish more intimate fellowship.

For most rural churches, though, success will be measured by more modest metrics. For example, when struggling pastors receive financial aid and training to help them become bivocational as they build their congregations; health insurance; and retirement planning and assistance

Rural Matters envisions itself as both a think tank and conduit for such services as financial, technical, and staffing assistance for music, youth and community outreach and other programs aimed at revitalizing the AG's engagement with rural American congregations. 

Another Rural Matters brainstorming session is planned in March to better define specific goals for the movement.

"There are a lot of challenges, and a lot of opportunities," Jarrett says.

Another Rural Matters proponent is Alton Garrison, AG assistant general superintendent. He grew up in Sour Lake, Texas, which has a population of 1,800.

"I have personal knowledge of the needs of rural towns," Garrison says. "I know from experience that God hasn't neglected them and neither should we."

Robert E. Mims

Robert Mims has been a journalist for more than 40 years, including stints as a news wire service and newspaper writer and editor. He also had done numerous book and magazine assignments as a freelance writer and editor.