Is it a forgotten mission field? Or an often neglected one? Perhaps so.
There is definitely an unmet need there. And I'm not speaking of a
remote jungle tribe, or people in a country closed to the gospel. What I
have in mind is those in the hundreds of small rural communities
scattered across North America.
I can only speak about Canada, where I've lived and ministered. The numbers in the United States are ten times larger, but I suspect percentages of urban and rural are somewhat similar for them.
Canada is a vast and beautiful country, with a population spread from coast to coast. But in recent years many have gravitated to the cities for various reasons–schooling, jobs, medical care, and so on. As of the 2011 census, the population of our country was around 34 million. Of these, 81% are in the urban centres, leaving 19%–or 6.5 million people–living in the hundreds of small communities spread across the land.
But...six and a half million people--that's a true mission field! And surely the gospel is for "all the world" (Mk. 16:15).
My Own Experience
In over forty years of ministry, I've served in one larger city church, and several smaller ones in rural communities. One of the latter was in a tourist area circled by beautiful woods and lakes; another in farming country, in the midst of a boundless vista of western prairie.
I know something of the challenges and opportunities that come with each situation, but the Lord has given me a special burden for the smaller centres. I grieve to see church buildings, once open and a vital part of the community, shut down and boarded up. Or ones that have been turned into private homes, stores, museums and other things.
The Pressing Need
Though some smaller communities continue to thrive, others are in decline. Highways and railroads now bypass them, and the population has been dwindling. Often churches in these towns are forced to close, or are seriously struggling. In many towns, there's no evangelical witness at all. Perhaps an urban centre is situated within reasonable driving distance, where people can shop, receive medical care, and even attend church. But in some cases there isn't one conveniently nearby.
Of course the larger centres have their appeal. Easier access to the things just mentioned, and much more variety in the way of culture and entertainment. They can also support larger churches, with more programs for more people. But there are advantages to the smaller communities as well. Lower cost housing is one and, generally speaking, there is less crime. They are a great place to raise a family.
In terms of ministry, there's the possibility of belonging to a closely knit social structure where almost no one is a stranger. Values may be a little more conservative–one reason why simply cloning what is done in the city may not work there. On the other hand, country folk tend to be very accepting of the effort pastors or Christian workers put forth to serve them, even if it's not fancy enough to suit a large city church.
The Lord's Concern
Sometimes it's argued that we need to focus on the cities because we can reach more people there. In many cases that's true. But we should ask whether numbers are always the bottom line with God.
The Lord drew Philip away from a successful evangelistic campaign in Samaria, where multitudes were being saved, to minister to one man on a journey through the desert (Acts 8:5-12, 26-39). But who can say what the impact of that one convert was, when he returned to his homeland of Ethiopia? And who can say what the impact will be of one convert in a small rural church, if Jesus tarries?
The Lord speaks, in a parable, about going out into "the highways and hedges" (Lk. 14:23, NKJV) to draw people into the bounty of the master's house. The word "hedges" likely refers to those grown around fields along country roads, to protect the crops. Folks in those areas are clearly important to God as well. Yes, "the dying groan in the city" (Job 24:12), and a compassionate Saviour hears their cry. But those in small and scattered farming communities have need of the life-changing gospel too.
A Call to Prayer
Some individuals are gifted to be involved in the kind of ministries available in urban centres. But surely the Lord has provided others with a passion to serve in our smaller communities. Are you alert to the opportunity? Are you informed about the need? I can't tell you to take up the kind of ministry I've described. Only the Lord can issue a call like that. But will you pray, and ask Him if it is His will for you? I urge you to bring the possibility of your involvement to the Lord.
¤ Pray with perception. Be informed. Learn as much as you can about the opportunities and challenges in the smaller centres. "Lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest" (Jn. 4:35).
¤ Pray with passion. There is definitely a need. Pray earnestly, with the kind of caring heart the Lord Jesus had. "When He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd" (Matt. 9:36).
¤ Pray with persistence, not just on one occasion. Tennyson speaks in one of his poems of "battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer." That is persistence! Pray with a readiness to respond to God's call, like the prophet who said, "Here am I! Send me" (Isa. 6:8).
A Ministry in Rural Communities
For 65 years Village Missions has been providing (and subsidizing) pastors for rural communities. Their motto is: "Preach the Word and love the people." Small struggling churches have been built up, and the Lord has used them to bring thousands to Christ. Do check them out if you have an interest in this work. I know they would be blessed by your support and involvement, as the Lord leads.