It was what one might think of when they imagine a funeral in the rural south. The family was devastated. For most of them, this was the first time in years that they had been in a church building. That church building was somewhat typical for houses of worship in the area. It was well-kept, well-lit, and had a center aisle extending from the double door entrance to the stage where the pastor stood. The pastor was nervous. It was his first funeral since taking the job.
That pastor was me.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. When I was studying pastoral ministry everything centered around the city. The city, we were told, is where you have to go if you really want to change the culture. Rural settings, it was sometimes implied, is where pastors who aren’t quite ready for prime time go to learn the trade a little more. So when I was finishing up my degree and mailing out resumes, I didn’t send any to rural churches. But none of the big city churches ever called back. A few rural churches down south did. I would eventually become the pastor of one of them.
It wasn’t my plan to be the pastor of a church with a name that I couldn’t pronounce in a town with more cows than people but I’m glad that it worked out that way. Here’s why.
Rural churches often have a built-in sense of community.
A while back I was driving to speak at another church in a larger town when my truck started smoking and shut down in the middle of an intersection. I don’t know how to fix automobiles but I do know how to pray. And use a phone. God, in his grace, allowed my truck to start back up just long enough to get me into the parking lot where I had to speak. And God, in his grace, had two men from my church make the 30 minute drive to where I was. While I was speaking, those two men loaded my truck up on a trailer and when I was done they drove it back down to our small town. A few days later, one of them bought it from me for more than it was worth. You may think that they were doing this just because I was their pastor, but the church that I pastor is filled with people who can tell stories just like mine.
People in the rural church are patient when you make mistakes.
One week I forgot to do communion before closing out the service. The very next week I forgot to call down the ushers to take up the Lottie Moon offering. The week after that I stood up to give announcements and skipped the two girls who were supposed to do the advent reading and candle lighting. I wish that I could tell you that these things happened when I first started out in the ministry but I’d be lying. They happened last month. The people in the church just laughed and said things like, “That’s just Jay being Jay.” I can live with that.
There tends to be a strong devotion to the biblical teaching and preaching in rural churches.
A few weeks ago Sheol came up in one of our adult Sunday School classes. Over the next few days I had several people come to me asking questions like, “What did Jesus do while he was in the grave?” and “Are Paradise and Heaven the same thing?” So I studied and prayed and we did a Bible study on it one night. And they listened. Their questions weren’t rhetorical in order to prove a point. They were sincere in order to know and love Jesus more.
There tends to be a strong devotion to the church among Christians in rural areas.
Every Wednesday night, we have a meal before our Bible Study and prayer time because that’s what Southern Baptist churches in the south do. I’m pretty sure that it’s commanded in the Bible somewhere. (I haven’t found it yet but that doesn’t mean it’s not in there.)
Just over a week before Christmas, tragedy struck the family that prepares those meals. We were left with tons of food for a big Christmas dinner and no one to cook it. It took over 20 people to do what was usually done by two; but it got done. Men took off of work to deep fry chicken. Women came early to cook and make sure there was enough food. There was. That’s because the people in the church don’t just come to get fed. They care just as much about feeding.
Rural churches will carry you.
Back to that nervous, ten year younger version of myself about to preach his first funeral at his new church. I got even more nervous when the person who was supposed to lead the hymn backed out at the last minute. That left yours truly as the song leader. Here’s a little background information on yours truly: I can’t sing.
But that didn’t matter, I thought to myself. Once I sing the first few words, the crowd will take over. There was one problem. The crowd was more Free Bird than In the Garden. So I sang a solo to a dazed and confused crowd. You know that joke about singing so low you can’t hear it? That was me. But I noticed something happening.
Some of the regular members of my church were in service sitting on the back row. But they weren’t just sitting. They were singing. Loud. For me. Over me. By the time the song was over, their voices were drowning out the scared, monotone voice of their nervous pastor.
And that’s probably the best thing that I can say about rural churches, at least the one that I serve. They’re often made up of people who are willing to sing the song that you could never sing on your own.