But wait a minute! That last line came from a popular TV drinking establishment in a metropolitan area! People living in the core of Kansas City think that the near suburb where I live is out there. Ask people who live in what they think is a rural community how slow and simple their life is these days! Watch the farmer be close to nature in his air- conditioned tractor cab, talking to his broker on his cell phone.
What IS rural these days? That question is behind many discussions about ministry among pastors and leaders in rural churches and communities. What we need is a set of lensesÂ or alternative perspectives to aid in perceiving, understanding and functioning faithfully and fruitfully in rural ministry. How can a person gain entry into a rural community and/or congregation, find acceptance there, and be an effective leader and partner in ministry, facing today's challenges? What issues, resources, questions, models, and cases might stimulate creative approaches to town and country i.e. rural, ministries?
The US Bureau of the Census says that a community or county is rural when it has less than 2500 inhabitants. Anything above that is urban. Communities with populations of over 50,000 are metropolitan areas. Anything less is non-metropolitan. As my friend Judy Heffernan, formerly director of the Heartland Network for Town & Rural Ministry, says, Rural is a residual concept. It's what's left over after you count the cities.
But don't you know some dwellers in urban, non-metropolitanÃ?Â communities who think they are rural? And haven't you visited with residents of towns of 1,643 inhabitants who talk like they're city folks? Surely there are other factors more important than mere numbers!
Well, yes, there are factors like low population density, distance from governmental centers, scarcity of social services. There are identifications with particular enterprises such as farming, mining, ranching, logging, fishing. But then what about leisure and recreation? What of rural industries -- manufacturing, processing, and distribution networks? In their book Rural Communities: Legacy and Change, Cornelia Butler Flora and colleagues say that there are now more differences between rural communities than there are between rural and urban.
So, what's RURAL? I contend it has to do with culture, with world view, with ways of life. While it is still true that go out there and just love the people, is good advice, it will not prepare you to lead your congregation through transition to new vitality. The realities we work with are more complicated than ever before. It takes some knowledge to figure out where you are, what's happening, and how God is leading in your setting, now. This series of articles will hopefully aid rural ministry leaders in embracing the best of what is rural, and shepherd a greather understanding of worth and effectiveness in rural ministries.