Urban, suburban, and rural. These are the three basic categories of communities in America.
Mega-churches tend to focus on and thrive in the middle category. Tim Keller has often emphasized the strategic importance of the first category. But earlier this week, he lit up the blogosphere with a post endorsing the last category – the rural community.
Keller says one of the best experiences for young pastors to seek is to pastor a small church:
Young pastors or seminarians often ask me for advice on what kind of early ministry experience to seek in order to best grow in skill and wisdom as a pastor. They often are surprised when I tell them to consider being a ‘country parson’ — namely, the solo pastor of a small church, many or most of which are in non-urban settings…
…Young pastors should not turn up their noses at such places, where they may learn the full spectrum of ministry tasks and skills as they will not in a large church.
Then he adds this very important clarification:
Nor should they go to small communities looking at them merely as stepping stones in a career.
Our town of Yucca Valley has a population of around 25,000. If you add all those in a 30-mile radius, which is about the extent of our reach, we have about 100,000 people. I don’t know if this qualifies as a rural community or not, but we are definitely on the smaller scale of things when compared to the Coachella Valley, the Inland Empire, and greater Los Angeles.
That being said, I strongly agree with Keller’s advice. In my opinion, pastoring a church of our size, in a community of our size, has been the ideal “first pastorate.” We are currently averaging about 60 on Sunday mornings and have close to 140 on our active rolls (which includes members, attenders, homebound, children, etc.). There’s plenty to keep me and our deacon team busy, and we certainly get to experience the whole gamet of ministry.
Yet, during college and seminary, I did serve in a mid-size church (500-750) for ten years. During that time, my wife and I had the opportunity to sit under and work alongside wise, godly men and women. We got wide exposure and helped in a variety of ministries including Sunday School teacher, janitor, outreach, deacon, planning social events, AWANA leader, and a pastoral intern. Serving at Placerita Baptist gave us a valuable snapshot of a healthy ministry and helped us avoid many of the common mistakes of first-time pastors (not to say I haven’t made my fair share!).
So maybe my advice would be this: invest yourself heavily in the local church during high school, college, and seminary. Then consider the adventure of pastoring a small church in a more rural setting.
We are very thankful for the church and community where the Lord has brought us. And I’m not making any plans to move on. As I think Spurgeon once said, preaching to 100 people is plenty to be accountable to God for. And with today’s technology, it’s not hard to get involved and have a broader level of influence.
Heed Keller’s advice. Consider the urban setting. But don’t rule out the rural churches.