Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Missionary Practice for the Rural Church

In preparation for a mission trip in a few months, I was told to read Tradecraft for the Church on Mission.  I was greatly encouraged by the book, as I mentioned in my review here.  Much of it centers around missionary practices of mapping, relationships, protecting indigeneity, persons of peace, and so on.  Having never studied anything like this I was impressed with the thought and details in the book. While much of it would seem common sense, it is far from simple pragmatism and is grounded deeply in reaching people with the gospel.

It's also centered around large cities, which I am not in.  To be fair they never state, its never stated its only for big cities, but the pictures they paint imagine large cities. The place I live and serve is about 3500, and it is the biggest town for miles.  County seat, ya'll!  But the practices they talk about are also helpful in exegeting a rural city, so I want to give some thoughts on doing that.

Mapping is one of the first practices they mention. Getting a feel for a city, for it's boundaries, and where people gather etc.  My community has less people than a neighborhood in a large city, so it may seem like it's easier to map it to understand it.  In some ways it is, like following the paths that people take around town.  When you have only two stoplights, most of the traffic goes through there.  My church is right across from Sonic, and EVERYONE in town knows where Sonic is.  But I think it's harder with less people because there is less data to draw from and less people to observe.  It makes it more difficult when you have a smaller group sampling to observe. This is not to say that it's impossible, just harder.  

This line of thought also works as it relates to tribes. A tribe is a group of people that self identify in order to fit into a larger group.  Tribes are as loose as cheering for the same sports team, on down to close knit groups like families, close friends, etc.  People often get their identity from their tribe, including how to think about certain subjects, how to dress, views toward authority in a culture, among others.  Upon reading the chapter on tribes I made a list of the tribes in my community.  Without thinking too deeply I came up with the following:

Law Enforcement
The Local Junior College
Volunteer Fire Department
Chamber of Commerce (business)
College Students
High School Students
Community Involvement (development groups, Mason's, Lions, etc)

There are many others to be sure. But again, because it's a smaller rural community, there is less people to draw from.  And many (most) people travel in many different tribes.  I'm thinking of one man who is a Mason, a church person, works at the college, and in involved in local business.  The point is that it can be harder to reach out to an individual tribe, and that many "tribes" can be just 2 or 3 people.  If someone wanted to reach the skater community in my town, it would be about 5-10 kids, only 2 of which are seriously committed.  A rural community church pastor must be adept in crossing all of these tribes. This echoes the biblical words of Paul to be "all things to all people"  A pastor in this setting might attend a breakfast at the college, hang out with college students at the local Baptist college ministry, lead services, and deal with those seeking benevolence all in one day.  This type of  pastor is constantly crossing boundaries (tribes) as he deals with a typical day.  

This can work to a churches advantage as they pursue diversity, in order to honor God.  God is glorified in diversity, states Tradecraft.  While true, diversity is hard to come by in rural communities.  That's not to say there is not diversity.  My own state of Oklahoma has the third highest inter racial marriage rate in the US..  Many people think small towns are all white, or indian, or whatever.  But if you look around as you go about your business in town, you will see great diversity. Not on the scale of a large metropolitan city, but diverse nonetheless.  But while there is diversity, Sunday morning is still greatly segregated. There are many reasons for this, but only one solution: the Gospel of Christ that unifies those in the church to one another.  Often times there are huge barriers to overcome in this reaching for diversity.  Many communities have long standing barriers, spoken or unspoken, that segregate people. But as so many people in a smaller community are spread across so many tribal boundaries, this can be a great source to encourage diversity.  Rural community churches must strive hard to overcome these barriers in pursuit of diversity that glorifies God.

This leads to the next point, the exegeting of a community.  Rural communities have stories that define them like everywhere else. But our stories don't change as often.  And if you're not a part of the story, and don't know every ones role, it can be hard to get yourself in.  I moved to a church in a community of about 2k, and on the first day the music minister shook my hand and said "I've been here 20 years and I'm still an outsider."  He was exegeting the community for me, in one sentence!  In a large city with population turnover, the feel of a neighborhood can change quickly. Gentrification is an example of this. But with rural communities with a stable population, things stay the same for much longer. This is good, because it promotes stability. But with regard to exegeting a culture, it can prove difficult, as what defines a community is not what happened last week, but what happened 100 years ago.  There is a lot of story to wrap your head around as you unpack in a rural community.  You cannot insert yourself quickly into the story either, it takes time to do that.

Lastly, it is important to protect idegeneity, but what exactly that is remains to be seen. While no group is ever completely homogeneous, rural communities have more diversity than many think because you cannot section yourself off with only people like you.  In SoHo, or Hells Kitchen, or Austin, or the suburbs of Houston, you can find enough people like you to form your tribe for everything you do.  Many young people leave smaller communities who don't fit in because they are looking for the acceptance that a large group of peers brings.  But as was mentioned, people in rural communities must cross boundaries constantly, from ethnic to tribal to socio economic.  Protecting idegeneity in a rural community means not just trying to bring the big city church to the small town.  It means having liturgy and worship in a way that honoring the story of the community, it's values, and practices.  You cannot simply throw out years of practice and tradition in rural communities. It's a good way for a mutiny!  But you must do that and still reache out to those around you.  It could be country, or rock and roll, or a giant pipe organ.  But make sure the practices of your church reflect the practices of the rural community, in so much as they honor God.  

There are many ways to think like a missionary in a rural community. What are some ways that thinking like a missionary can help in a rural community setting?

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