In the course of this short series of articles I have sought to make some suggestions that may inspire and encourage you to look at different aspects of church life in a new way, and to remind you to see church as the community of God’s people, just as the early church did. In making these suggestions I have tried to draw on my own experience and ideas to present things that are achievable for small rural congregations. I would like to use this last article to present a vision – what perhaps I might describe as my hopes and dreams for the rural church.
Let us start at the centre, in the church’s meeting place. This, as we have discussed, is usually a church building of some sort, but need not be. As well as the necessary equipment for worship and all the things that a church needs when it meets, this place has modern facilities and a high degree of versatility in order to be used for a large variety of activities. A small shop might be run from the premises, or a post office or coffee shop, for several mornings every week. Groups can hire the space, and a number of local clubs take advantage of this.
Inside it is bright and clean, but its message is uncompromising. Its walls are covered with scriptures, pictures, banners and photos, as well as points of interest and education. It has a small side room that has been set aside for prayer – this is used most days and is always open for private prayer or for a quiet chat.
Yet this place is not really the centre of the church community – it’s just a place where that community is focussed every so often, for its own benefit and for the benefit of those outside. The community members all live within fairly easy reach of this place, and some are found in the same village. Everyone owns or rents their own house, so there are no financial ties to the church and members can move away freely whenever the need arises.
Every household participates in the economy of the community to some extent, depending on space, ability and fitness. The aim is not self sufficiency but identity, helping others in times of need, and local resilience. Some people from outside the community of faith are also a part of this, and their contributions are welcomed. The sum of all the small parts that make up this economy means that the community can help those who need paid work for short periods, as there is always something that needs digging over or fixing.
Some houses contribute in different ways, offering bed and breakfast for travellers (with the support of those with chickens and pigs!) or quiet places of retreat for weary Christians. With a small but steady flow of people to minister to (directly or through supporting those that do), there are many natural opportunities to bless and be blessed, and to explain the ways of God. Others have set aside part of their gardens, where community members can relax in the beauty of nature.
This community prays together, but it doesn’t put itself under pressure to always be at every prayer meeting. It shares common devotions, but doesn’t dictate the entire contents of its members’ prayer life. It offers its needs in such a way that everyone knows the important things to pray for, and it loves to make known its answers to prayer so that all can be encouraged. It has seasons of more concentrated communal prayer and fasting, and times of refreshment and celebration. It can react easily to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Despite the growing sense that the nation is turning away from God as a whole, those local to this community cannot help but be impressed by the commitment that these people show to one another. They are accessible, open and honest, and a positive part of the ‘local community’. They are not always trying to preach, but their testimony relentlessly speaks for them. People cannot help but be curious, and some are being drawn slowly towards the community despite themselves – there are many opportunities to ask questions without being threatened. If ever things took a turn for the worst, this community would be a good place to come to weather the storm.
This vision is not trying to be everything to all men, but it is seeking to replace ‘church as usual’ with the creation of a stable platform that God can use to do what He loves to do; draw people into His kingdom and send them out again to proclaim His word. This is what the church has always sought to be. But this vision offers possibilities, and the chance to live radically for Jesus. It might attract God’s people into villages rather than see them leave for the nearest large town church! It might enable older folk to stay in their own homes for longer with increased local support. It might be a steady platform from which to launch outreach activities throughout the region. It might be a small piece of God’s will and purpose for bringing this land back to Him.