New Rural Youth Ministry Challenges

March 25, 2010

New Opposition on the Rural Ministry Front

In the next few days I want to take a look at two types of struggle in rural youth ministry. None of this is designed to criticize. It is only designed as a platform to discuss how we will deal with these challenges.

The first is institutional. The second is generational.

It is as complex as this. The people driven to this frontier of ministry, the small towns and communities that represent more than a quarter of our country’s population find themselves fighting a slow landslide of depreciating hope, diminishing ambition and diminutive ministry. Even today, as we sat together to discuss what keeps us at this task, tears were shared over the frustration that as the church loses ground, so the people lose purpose.

As one of our staff said, “I just am so frustrated by the fact that our kids want nothing!”

Two nights ago I sat at an academic awards night and fell into increasing depression as students were named but did not come forward. In three classes, the participants were outnumbered by the no-shows at a pace of two to one. These were our achievers.

We cannot ignore a reality. Churches are failing in the heartland.

According to Village Missions, a missions organization which focuses on the needs of North America, The numbers of churches are dropping drastically. In 1900…27 churches for every 10,000 people In 1990…12 churches for every 10,000 people

To be a bit more succinct, FOR EVERY CHURCH THAT IS OPENED IN NORTH AMERICA, NEARLY 3 CHURCHES CLOSE EACH YEAR.

The overwhelming task is that in order to reverse the trend, we have to grab hold of the next generation, youth, before we have lost them as well. But there is very little networking from rural ministry to rural ministry.

Although Duke University Divinity School has recognized the importance of uniting pastors and focusing monies and resources in those rural communities through its Thriving Rural Communities Program, it is centered on United Methodist Churches. The same can be true of the Nazarenes, the Baptists and the Assemblies of God.

It is true that Pastoral associations abound, but Pastors most often continue to hold onto the same youth ministry philosophy that has failed. That is, “We can do this ourselves”. The results in our county are horrendous. Out of 4,300 secondary students, less than 5% attend churches with any consistency. A few churches have youth pastors but most churches use a revolving door of volunteers. Again, this is no judgment. This is just a field observation. The institutional barriers to rural youth work are many. In some ways it is like a paratrooper descending into France. Flooded plains, poor maps, and unmarked hedgerows make it impossible to walk a straight line.

Here is a short list of the hurdles as well as the hopeful promises of change.

Lack of Trust Denominational strongholds have made it difficult to work together. It is not so much about theology as much as longevity and turf. The hope is that necessity has made rural pastors more willing to share in the responsibilities. Critical mass alone dictates that we can’t all have meaningful Good Friday Services. In this, rural churches have dropped their collective guards long enough to celebrate together.

As long as pastors agree not to pillage other pastors’ flocks, there can be a legitimate co-laboring. This does not mean however, that a cooperation, specifically with a para-church organization is coming soon.

Our own ministry foray with the rural churches has been great, albeit a bit slower than we expected. The Rural Church Initiative asks for churches to trust us with the training and Outreach aspects of their ministries to youth. The three churches that began with us have seen that over two years , their volunteers stay, the student numbers have more than doubled and there is a unique and consistent willingness on the part of these churches to do ministry together.

Just last week, our three primary RCI churches joined together for a Survivor Outreach designed for families. Well over 200 people came together for a Sunday night service. That number represented a 400% boom in attendance for Sunday nights.

It will take a long time to reach our goal of ten rural churches involved in RCI. One hedge cleared at a time.

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