How can we be missionally effective in rural areas?

Monday, 20 April, 2015

Pete Atkins, convenor for the Fresh Expressions training hub, identifies important principles for mission engagement in rural areas.

Every now and then it's good to summarise where we have got to in our thinking about mission - a kind of corporate reflection on practice. This year's Making and growing disciples in the countryside conference, organised by the Fresh Expressions rural round table, will be an opportunity for that gathered consideration of strategy and practice - both by those with area responsibilities and also those engaged in mission in a particular rural context.

The conference is taking place from 15 to 17th June at The Hayes, Swanwick. In preparation for that, I've been identifying what I now see as important principles - from a church leadership perspective - after many years of working to enable mission engagement in rural Lincolnshire. As a result, I have found myself looking at church culture and what seems to be needed in order to form, and deploy, effective rural missionaries.

The question in my mind is, What culture of local church makes for the release of effective, missional individuals into villages? Here are my responses so far:

1. A church which focuses on the worship of God in all aspects of its life together, not just when it gathers: where a living, immediate, immanent, committed, thankful, sacrificial and devoted love relationship with God is the heart of life as individuals and as a local body of Christ. This means a high value on prayer and the appreciation of the presence of God in all aspects of life.

2. A church where there is a high value on mission and the pursuit of a missional vision with an expectation of vision for, and call of, individuals to mission activity. This means having a corporate understanding of the ministry of all Christians to take part in the Missio Dei and an expectation that God will lead us in his mission on a local practical basis. Again, this means a high value on prayer and discernment and the development of each person's ability to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and discern where he is already at work. It means developing a theology and praxis of this - with storytelling key to spreading understanding in the church.

3. A church where there is an understanding that a prime place of growth as a disciple is as in the gospels; being part of a small group on mission with Jesus and in dependence on his leading and empowering through the Holy Spirit. Each disciple pursuing their vocation in community - with all the faith, collaboration, dependence and courage needed - makes for accelerated growth!

4. A church where there are high levels of encouragement, support, resourcing, interest, prayer, and equipping for those who follow God's call to participate in mission in their context - be that local geographical and/or network. This means creating appropriate levels of accountability with permission to explore local creative and imaginative mission avenues aimed at forming disciples and communities of them. It seems also to mean creating a church community that naturally loves and supports each other and feels to be family, and 'home', for those who are dispersed in their places of mission. For those in small numbers in rural contexts, it seems vital to be connected to a larger body or network for wellbeing and support.

5. A church where there is a high value on the establishment of the Kingdom of God, such that this transcends and transforms denominational - or other potentially partisan approaches - whilst not straining appropriate loyalties. This must be based in a love for the whole church, traditional and contemporary, established and fresh, and a desire for her to serve God and the people of our communities well and together. It means a willingness to engage, enable, include and work with Christians/church in situ but have a capacity for innovation and the creation of 'room to move'.

6. An appreciation of, and commitment to, the creativity of God as reflected in the possible shapes of new Christian community and how these relate to the present church and the mission of both. This means permission, encouragement and understanding the command of Jesus to form disciples and community as he leads. It also means a profound understanding of the fact that he is with us always.


Interesting piece. A couple of observations if I may

In what sense is this about *rural* areas? What is there here that couldn’t be said about any area?

I didn’t see anything about understanding rural culture or context. Surely this is a key factor without which rural churches are likely to engage only with urbanites living in the countryside rather than the whole community.

Any reflections on the cultural understanding of being church and clergy role in rural areas?

Thanks Robert and I think you are quite right about these principles applying to any context - urban or rural: they represent my starting points as I began to reflect on our local experience of rural mission, but as you rightly point out these are not by any means all we need to consider. In considering the foundations of what we have learnt so far I think it really important that with any missional approach there is an understanding of the context and a shaping of our work by it - and there are particularities about the culture, history, logistics, mindsets etc of our villages which need to be recognised and reflected on. From our experience of a number of rural communities it is evident that each village or hamlet is unique and a profound listening exercise within each community will be needed before embarking on any missional activity. The result is likely to be different ways forward in different contexts.
I wil think further about the cultural understanding of being church and the role of the clergy and reply separately.

I agree with all this, and it would be great if we could all get to this point in rural churches, but we are not there yet.

Please put in something about building this culture with multiple churches - who have had different minsters in the past and are not uniform in thought and practice - and now share one minister - e.g. we have 4 churches in one parish and always have to think at both 'church' and 'parish' levels. Many rural clergy have more than 4 church communities.

Also, this all assumes capable and active lay leadership and church members who are willing and able to think in a missional way, and about concepts like 'the kingdom of God. My experience is that rural congregations are often starting much further back than this, i.e. they may be at the stage of thinking that 'church = building + vicar', or 'I come to church to have a quiet hour on a Sunday morning', so there are quite a few stages of work to go before one even gets to the beginning of a discussion about mission.

I hope the conference goes well.

Motherhood and apple pie. This is very disappointing as nothing is intrinsically rural about it. In fact it is hard to believe that the writer has any knowledge at all of rural life or church in rural area. What is written is applicable to large urban churches and does not address 'rural' at all. As I said very disappointing

Excellent and well argued piece. However I feel there is a need for the steps towards this to be more clearly identified, particularly giving permission to mission leaders (i.e. clergy) to give offence by explicitly abandoning the chaplaincy role in which many are trapped. Bishops need to tell congregations to remove that expectation, ask in appraisal sessions whether the clergy are declining it, and support those who are getting flak for it. And of course, given that that's what people pay for, it will get 'interesting'...

My reflection on the urban/rural concerns is that rural isn't at all homogeneous. There are as many different "rurals" as villages. Our own is a new-build village which expects to have 2500 or so dwellings when finished. Quite different from friends down the road dealing with a very stable population of say 500 homes. As Pete comments you need discernment in each. Urban too needs discernment in each area to see how to present the timeless truths about Jesus.

One of the distinctives of rural over mission might be, given the numbers of people an almost absolute need for good relationships between different churches/groups/denominations/believers and working together. In urban situations would there be a slightly lower priority on this? All my experience in the UK has been rural so I am interested to hear what folk think.

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