Saturday, March 24, 2012
Where two or three are gathered ...
Perhaps one of the wisest things ever posited on the lips of Jesus was the statement: "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there ..."
In the modern rural Church, two or three is sometimes the full congregation.
In an article from the Winnipeg Free Press (click here to read it), the author, Randy Turner examines in a fairly even handed and upfront way what the implication of congregations numbering less than a half a dozen means for the future of the Rural Church. In Turner's case, the issue is focused on Manitoba, highlighting congregations west and south of Brandon, but the future of Rural Churches in the 21st Century is precarious at best.
The biggest challenge Rural Churches face is Denominations that really don't care about them. By and large, we live and minister with an unspoken, but very real ethos of measuring our 'success' in ministry by moving 'UP' to bigger and wealthier and MORE urban Churches.
In the last 20 years of active ministry I've witnessed dozens of students settled in to small mult-point rural Churches only to blast off to bigger more urban charges as quickly as they could ... the comment is often made that it is a three or four year stop by these students before they head off to bigger and better congregations.
What does this expectation say of Rural Ministry?
What does the shift away from settlement in the United Church mean for these struggling multi-point Pastoral Charges?
What care does the greater Church really show towards Rural Pastoral Charges when a rural church an hour and a half outside of Toronto (and less than 30 minutes away from a larger centre) is regarded as 'remote and isolated' by most of the Church? What does this say about the isolated and remote centres like Inglis, Ninette, Nipawin, Bella Coola and countless other points thousands of kilometres beyond the shadow of the GTA????
Rural Ministry is the very heart of the Canadian Church. Many of the great leaders of our storied past came from rural places, and the conversations that gave our nation things like the Social Gospel, Universal Medicare, and countless other social safety nets, began at the kitchen tables and Church basement gatherings of RURAL folks who shared coffee or tea and started discussing solutions to the problems that ail us.
Even things like clergy car allowances, and appropriate renumeration for housing started in the backwoods of Rural Saskatchewan when young clergy listened to the struggles of their older counter parts who couldn't retire because they had nothing to live on ... the youngsters saw and injustice and worked diligently to rectify the situation, not for themselves, but for ALL of us ... I was privileged to meet and become friends with one of the ring leaders of this when I was in ministry in BC. Rev. Jack walked away from the United Church later because he couldn't tolerate hypocrisy and b-llsh-t, but he remained a dedicated servant of Christ even outside the tent we call The Church.
The bottom line to me when I read articles like Turner's is that we need to reorient our thinking about Rural Churches, and stop seeing them as something that needs to be closed, amalgamated, or dismissed for the good of the larger Church. Instead, we need to step back and reorient our focus and realize that when there are two or three dedicated and committed people in a community who are willing continue live their faith, there is HUGE potential.
The article itself dances along that acknowledgement when it notes the tragic death of two young women in Boissevain ... in those moments, when communities are brought to their knees and struggle to comprehend what is happening around them, the strength of the Church becomes an invaluable resource.
Not only can we put words to the grief, we have the tools to help move people from the darkness into the light of the Resurrection. When a community struggles to make sense of a tragedy like the loss of the two young women, the history, heritage, theology, and mere presence of the Church offers a balm to the soul of the grieving ... it may not seem like much, but those tens of thousands of egg salad sandwiches prepared and shared, are about more than just lunch!!
AND there in lies the potential of the Rural Church ... we have the tools and the means of engaging and enhancing our local communities, we just need to stop our lamenting, and use our faith to move forward.
There may only be two or three gathered on a Sunday, but instead of weeping and saying "there are only two or three" we need to celebrate that there are still two or three, and use the gifts, talents, enthusiasms and faith of that small group to touch positively the community around them ... people may think The Church is irrelevant and a thing of the past, but that is the very moment when the Spirit can do her best work !!!
It's time for Denominations like the United Church (and others) to value Rural Churches by investing, time, money, resources, skills, and PEOPLE into them, and stop buying into the cultural value that erroneously claims bigger is better, and urban is better than rural ...
Remember, when Jesus sought out the very presence of God, he didn't do it in the city, he did it in the remote rural places!!!
If rural was good enough for Jesus how can we even think about dismissing it today???