About a year and a half ago, I met with a group of pastors, nonprofit leaders and laypeople to talk about how the rural church could strengthen its impact in the community.
We started by sharing stories about the needs that we saw: high poverty, few jobs and limited education. We also talked about what we saw working in the community, like the way the farmers market had begun accepting SNAP benefits.
Finally, we discussed what we thought each group could bring to the table, ending with the question, “What can the church do for the community?”
This is familiar territory for me, since I serve as a rural church pastor in North Carolina and previously worked in public policy.
What surprised me was that the most theological insight came not from any of the pastors but from the county planner.
In a struggling community, she said, where everyone is craving better days, the church does not have the luxury of pessimism. The church has a responsibility to cultivate an atmosphere of hope.
Her frame of reference was practical. After all, a hopeful and optimistic community is more likely to entice new businesses or attract potential residents.
But I think her comments also had a deeper theological meaning. In a community of decline, hope becomes countercultural. While it would be wrong to foster a false sense of optimism or to promise that manufacturing and young adults will return, the church has a unique ability to stand in the hard realities and still preach hope.
After all, our faith is rooted in a hope that comes even while staring at the face of death. We believe that hope persists even when our data and statistics tell us otherwise.
Chatham County, where I serve, benefits from its proximity to the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Still, large swaths of the county are impoverished, and many of the small towns farther from the ever-expanding suburbs are struggling. My parishioners, like their neighbors, are not immune.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my lay leaders and I shared a five-hour car ride. During the drive, she told her story of starting a small business. Like many during the Great Recession, she lost her job when her position was eliminated. Along with her husband and son, she started a business making and selling jerky. They perfected a recipe and began producing the jerky in a community kitchen.
She learned how to get a small-business loan for rural entrepreneurs and how to pass a USDA inspection. Eventually, the product was stocked in retail stores across the state.
She said that she thought it would be worthwhile for her to help others learn to create effective business plans. After all, hers was successful, and she knew what it took. She could share that know-how with others.
Slowly, the conversation wound its way back to our church. We thought about all the resources in our small parish. In my congregation, we have retired teachers, small-business owners, nurses, scientists, a retired farmer and a salesman, among others.
Many other organizations, we realized, worked hard to amass a group like that. For us, though, it’s just our church. We gather at least once a week to show the world exactly what a community looks like.
As we drove, we dreamed about how our congregation might leverage those resources to help our community. We imagined what it would mean to deepen our participation in the conversation on the future of our county.
What if we could help others develop skills? Or connect people to job opportunities? Recently, we received a funded summer fellow from a secular nonprofit with whom we had previously partnered. With that resource, we hope to move those dreams toward reality by creating sustainable plans to capitalize on our existing partnerships.
I am convinced that churches can and should learn a discipline of evangelism that confronts difficult realities yet still teaches the hope that God is at work in our world. On the surface, it might feel weird to talk about evangelism in places of decline, particularly since many rural communities are struggling with a shrinking population.
At its core, though, evangelism is about inviting people to participate in the kingdom of God, to see and experience what Christ is doing in the world around us, with us and through us. Our rural churches have the ability to present good news -- to offer hope -- in places that have given up on it.
Before I began my pastorate, I worked for a public policy organization that linked statewide resources to rural churches. In my conversations with those policymakers, advocates and nonprofits, I always heard the same thing: we need churches to be at the table.
As a small-church pastor, I’ve discovered just how serious those voices were. My congregation lacks the resources of a tall-steeple church; I am keenly aware that I am the single largest expense of our budget.
Yet other organizations and community leaders constantly remind me of the value that churches hold in community development.
A local food bank requested our fellowship hall for a food distribution program, because we have a large, centrally located building with willing volunteers. Youth empowerment agencies have asked what works in our church, because our small parish offers our youth space to exercise leadership, fostering their self-worth and highlighting their potential.
Community leaders recognize the value of the rural church, whether for securing the faith community’s support for a bill that funds grants to rural convenience stores or providing volunteers for a community outreach initiative.
Usually, these conversations and partnerships come about simply -- arranging a phone call with another organization, talking to a community leader over coffee. Oftentimes, organizations already have programs designed to include churches in the conversation, and they are eager to bring new congregations into what is already happening.
In that car ride with my entrepreneurial congregant, I once again recognized what that county planner had implored me to see: our small congregation has a lot to offer our community, because we can offer hope. When rural churches embody and give that hope, we provide leadership in even the most challenging of settings. And that, I am convinced, is a worthy and needed ministry.