Revitalization in Rural Churches, Part 2

Republished from Voice, Jan/Feb 2018. Read Part 1.

Deal with Unresolved Conflict

We can learn valuable lessons about dealing with unresolved conflict from the example of Nehemiah in 5:1-13. To truly lead restoration work we have to be willing to deal with unresolved conflict. There is probably no greater need in rural restoration work than to become proficient in the skill of conflict resolution. In the rural setting, after a time of evaluation, it will often become obvious that unresolved conflict is a major cause for decline.

You can’t ignore conflict, because it will not simply “go away.” For a while the tension in a situation or relationship may subside, but unless the root issue is understood and worked through, it’s only a matter of time before the conflict will rear its ugly head again and this time with much more intensity. Unresolved conflict severely impacts the testimony of a church in the rural setting, so be willing to rely on the One who breaks down walls. Fulfill your calling as a peacemaker.

Empower the People to Minister

As we read through Nehemiah, one of the most inspiring parts of his restoration project is found in Chapter 3 where we see the variety of people he involved! It is not only inspiring, it was critical if the restoration was going to happen. The principle of delegation is so necessary if we’re going to be strong restoration leaders. In light of that, let the people experience ministry. Give them the freedom to learn from you. Give them the freedom to ask you questions. Give them the freedom to fail or succeed on their own.

Please don’t give up when you meet resistance on this! Many rural churches are in decline because they’ve believed the lie that the pastor must singlehandedly do the work of the ministry. However, many beleaguered pastors have simply resigned themselves to doing just that.

I am convinced that one key in restoration work is to emphasize member expectations in a membership class. If your church doesn’t offer a class like this (many rural churches do not) consider starting one. Too many pastors do not lead a new member’s class where expectations about “every-member ministry” (Ephesians 4:12) are clearly spelled-out. If church leaders expect little of their members, that’s exactly what they are going to get.

Develop a Positive Ministry

I love Nehemiah’s example at the beginning of his restoration project. In Nehemiah 2:18 he told them of the hand of his God “which had been good upon him.” Circumstances were looking pretty bleak in Jerusalem, but he had this positive focus on the good hand of God. Church members are far more willing to follow a leader with a positive approach than one who is a constant critic. Look at the response of the people in 2:18!

Be careful about criticizing the state of affairs in the church. Instead, try to get people to focus on the good hand of God and how much better things will be once certain changes are made. Help them to catch a clear vision of what God’s hand can do. Now, it’s easy to begin restoration ministry with this positive approach, but the challenge is being able to sustain that three years into the work and beyond. Always evaluate, “am I pushing people toward ministry or leading people to ministry?” We can’t really lead anyone when we harbor a negative attitude toward the church; we’ll resort to pushing them.

My wife and I found ourselves regularly saying these words to each other, “Remember, it’s all about ‘taking baby steps.’” We were trying to remind one another about the need to celebrate each and every little victory in this process of restoration, even though we desired to see the changes coming more quickly. Be sure to celebrate these restoration milestones with your people too!

Some restoration leaders end up getting completely drained in the process because they try to constantly appease their nagging critics. Don’t spend all of your time seeking to placate critical adversaries. Perhaps we could learn something from Nehemiah’s words to Sanballat and Geshem when he told them, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (6:1-3)

Conclusion

Reversing decline in the rural church takes time, so we need to be patient. I know that it’s hard to hear about the need to be patient, but restoration leaders must be because true change takes time. This summer, my wife and I rejoiced that the restoration work on our old church building/house had finally come to an end and we moved in. But when it comes to rural restoration work you never come to a place of completion. Therefore, restoration leaders need to be mindful that as long as they are shepherding a local church they will be laboring to keep a church headed down the right track. Chapter 13 of Nehemiah makes this reality crystal clear.

Restoration ministry in the rural places can sometimes be a lonely and arduous calling. But it is a vital work, and nothing compares to the joy of seeing God reverse decline in His church. Four times in the book of Nehemiah we find this leader crying out to God, “Remember me!” As you put your hand to the plow each day be assured that God remembers you and that He is the One who will give that true and lasting reward to those who share His passion for rural restoration.

I encourage you to sit down with the Book of Nehemiah again and allow God to instill within you a fresh vision for the restoration ministry that is before you.

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There are 2 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

I've been a part of two small churches--one in a town of 9000 and one in a town of 6000 so not quite rural churches--but when I went around town, what I found in both cases was that there were large numbers of people who had been put off by those churches at some point.  In one case, I pointed this out to the pastor and noted that the church might grow hugely if only people would make contact with the "expatriates" and make an apology or two.  Sad to say, that's much more easily said than done.

CAWatson's picture

Town of a thousand, church was at 160-200 at its peak, it is now at 20. Church split nearly 20 years ago still affects the town, the people, and the church. 

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