(CEN) Making and growing disciples in the countryside

Friday, 29 April, 2011

Country life is changing at remarkable rate. The 21st century village is, more often than not, now home to a range of communities - and the challenges and opportunities associated with them. A conference at the beginning of May, run by Fresh Expressions and the Rural Churchplanters’ Forum, will look at one of those challenges in more detail: making and growing disciples in the countryside. Revd Sally Gaze, author of Mission Shaped and Rural and leader of the Tas Valley Cell Church, South Norfolk, explains more

Lots of people have a very set idea as to what life, or ministry, in the countryside is like - usually people who have never lived or ministered here! Sometimes their image owes more to The Archers than reality but the fact is that rural contexts are very diverse and the countryside is changing very quickly indeed. We asked those booking for the conference to let us know a little more about their own settings and the variety is amazing; one Minister's parish covers 350 miles and includes 10 distinct communities; four islands, five villages accessible by road and one by sea on the mainland.  In a classic understatement he says, 'The traditional parish model cannot provide a model of ministry that enables mission and innovation to be developed'.

It's interesting that there are recognisable differences in what people think of as a rural setting. A lot of places that describe themselves as rural would not be seen as such by others in more remote areas; there are real regional differences being played out against the same backdrop. Many of the 'rural' areas surrounding the London belt for instance would not be seen as such by many working in far flung areas of England, Scotland or Wales. That's fine – we wouldn't say one 'urban' context is exactly the same as another simply because it's urban. The same is true of the countryside.

The Rural Churchplanters' Forum came into being because training was available on how to start mission initiatives in the countryside but there seemed to be a gap when we started to think about what happens when people become disciples for the first time and want to grow and mature in faith. In rural contexts we don't have the resources of many large, urban churches so youth work, for instance, may be a particular challenge if you only have one teenager who's attending what is the only church in the village. Where can that teenager go to gain support in his or her faith? Maybe churches across an area can resource age appropriate fresh expressions of church. Christians in the countryside need to pull together. That is shown in the work of other organisations too - The Arthur Rank Centre is very supportive of what we are doing and we also have a good relationship with Rural Ministries.

We also have to make the most of what the countryside can offer in that we often have the opportunity to do things in small, or mixed age, groups. It's not about how many people you can get to come to a particular event or a once a month service, it’s about how you can enable them to grow in faith, to follow Jesus in a practical everyday way.

In a major cultural shift in recent years, many people - whose families have lived and worked in the same rural area for generations - can no longer afford to live there. Instead others move in from the towns, some settle well but others have a very different approach to life and the area they inhabit. This means there can be several 'villages' within a village as the very different communities live side by side but appear to have very little else in common. The challenge as we minister in these situations is to share the good news of God’s love with all of the people in the area, whether they are long-time residents or newcomers.

Another major social trend to contend with is the increased use of technology. We are seeking to communicate the Gospel in an age where people are used to comfortable surroundings, the big screen and instant communication. With many village churches working together, planning ahead for church services and associated activities remains a must... but people's decision as to whether to attend or not is now much more likely to be decided at the eleventh hour. That's not a purely rural phenomenon of course but the mobile phone - signal permitting - has undoubtedly changed the way we communicate and commit. What does that mean for us as church communities?

making and growing disciples in the countryside will bring together people from across the denominations that have planted or are hoping to plant a fresh expression of church in a rural area. Helping us along the way will be Bishop Graham Cray, Archbishops' Missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team, and other members of the Rural Churchplanters' Forum. Our hosts are Pete and Kath Atkins, leaders of the Threshold family of churches in rural Lincolnshire.

What do I expect the outcomes from the conference to be? I think it will:

  • highlight key issues for the national Church to consider in terms of making and growing disciples in the countryside;
  • identify ways in which we, as pioneers of new kinds of churches in the countryside, can support and learn from each other each other.

Some ministers, seeing the unity of the church as being vital to mission, are concerned that the development of fresh expressions of church is something that will lead to further segregation but I believe diversity is good for unity. It is as we listen to people - and honour their different needs and preferences - that we communicate the love of God.

making and growing disciples in the countryside takes place at Bawtry Hall, Doncaster, from May 4-5. For further details, contact Sally Gaze at sally@tasvalley.org.