To those of the Medina-Streeter Lutheran Parish who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:
May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
In last month’s Pastor’s Article we looked at the chapter of David Poling-Goldenne and L. Shannon Jung’s book Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Rural Congregation that dealt with Evangelism within vital and effective rural congregations. What we found is that, while there is no one right way for all churches to do evangelism, there is one thing they all share: sharing their faith openly with those around them.
However, in this next chapter, Poling-Goldenne and Jung, lay out a way that in the end may produce effective evangelism without being the goal from the get go. In chapter six the authors describe how many of the effective and vital congregations they researched had a common denominator of caring ministries; that is serving the community around them, both locally and globally, as Jesus served. These congregations see themselves as existing for the primary reason of serving others; acting out forms of caring service and social ministry to the community around them.
The ironic part is, however, that they are not doing these acts of caring service and social ministry for the exact purpose of evangelism; that is bringing new people into the church. As Poling-Goldenne and Jung state, “their motivation is to love others as Christ has loved them” (76). These vital and effective congregations don’t participate in caring service and social ministry expecting a return for their service, like gaining new members, instead simply because this type of ministry and service needs to be done. As such, as the popular hymn puts it, “[All will then] know that we are Christians by our love.” This type of service may produce such a reward like new members, since people tend to, as Poling-Goldenne and Jung say, be drawn into faith and community because of the charisma these congregations exude through genuinely caring for those around them (76).
While these acts of service and caring tend to focus primarily on the immediate area surrounding these effective and vital rural congregations, by meeting the immediate needs of the community, they also recognize that caring and providing service to their neighbors must reach farther communities as well; nationally and even globally. As the authors point out, “Vital rural congregations view both local and global efforts as important” (77). But whether the community being served is local, national, or global, one things remains most important: to meet the needs that are relevant to each specific community. In our local community it would do us no good to build a well and provide clean water, since those things already exist here in our country. Likewise it would be no good for a community in a third world country to sponsor a safe environment to hold a post prom party if that specific community does not yet have a school in which to hold a prom.
There is a specific obstacle, however, that can derail community care and service before it even gets off the ground, which this chapter of the book Discovering Hope addresses. There is a common sentiment that tends to get expressed, especially in small rural communities. Sentiments like “We are too few and too small to make a difference. What could our little church do for others? We can barely take care of ourselves” (79). The truth is if we were to set out in this type of service and care for our community with this mindset, then we have already set ourselves up for failure. But the truth also is, that we already know the needs that face the people within our community, and we are already doing something to address some of those issues. Like supporting food scarcity both locally and globally. Or providing space within our walls for local organizations and activities to meet, organizations and activities that also work for the betterment of our community and the people within the community. When we are honest with ourselves, we find that the size of our numbers is not what matters, but the size of our hearts in relation the size of the needs around us.
The bottom line is this. The key to discovering hope and building vitality in rural congregations, through prayer, worship, making disciples, and evangelism all boil down to the one major function all churches in every community serves: providing caring, relevant, ministries and service to the community around us, both near and far. When a church is committed to showing that they are Christians by their love, or by doing God’s work daily as called shepherds of God, as our mission statement reads, then the people who see and are affected by this feel our energy, are blessed by it, and are drawn into service of their own by it. As Poling-Goldenne and Jung put it, “Through caring ministries, Christ is made known not only to those served by the congregations but also the congregation themselves” (81). If you are looking for a way to make sure our congregations are vital rural congregations, then I would invite you to take part of the service opportunities that already exist. If one of the ones that already exist do not fit something you are passionate about, then I would invite us to have a conversation to see what our church communities could be engaging in for the betterment of our communities both near and far.
In God’s grace and glory,