Tim Keller, Ministry in a Rural Church

I had to draw attention to this brief article by Tim Keller, where he suggests that the best place for a young seminarian to gain experience in pastoral ministry is as a solo pastor in a rural church. Right now, it’s really cool to talk about the importance of ministry in the city: “renewing the city,” “praying for the peace of the city,” recognizing the city as the place of the greatest influence, as the place where Paul spent most of his time, etc. I hear all of that, and I am so grateful for brothers ministering faithfully in the context of the city. But sometimes, perhaps inadvertently, rural churches are then in turn treated with scorn, and pastoral ministry there is portrayed as a wasted life. And, as you might guess, this absolutely wears me out. So for this reason, I was so encouraged to read Keller say this:

Some will be surprised to hear me say this, since they know my emphasis on ministry in the city. Yes, I believe firmly that the evangelical church has neglected the city. It still is difficult to get Christians and Christian leaders to make the sacrifices necessary to live their lives out in cities. However, the disdain many people have for urban areas is no worse than the condescending attitudes many have toward small towns and small churches.

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. Nor should they go to small communities looking at them merely as stepping stones in a career. Why not? Your early ministry experience will only prepare you for ‘bigger things,’ if you don’t aspire for anything bigger than investment in the lives of the people around you. Wherever you serve, put your roots down, become a member of the community and do your ministry with all your heart and might. If God opens the door to go somewhere else, fine and good. But don’t go to such places looking at them only as training grounds for ‘real ministry.’

Rural churches are not simply training ground for an aspiring world-changing pastor. They are not stepping stones to more visible platforms and bigger pay-days. The blood of Christ spilled for these was every bit as costly as that spilled for the rest of his people. The risen and ascended Christ has called them, established them, and presides over them as their Head just as surely as he does any other manifestation of his church on the planet. And at the resurrection from the dead, there will be New Creation kings and queens rising from the hayfields of what were once the graveyards of little country churches, joyfully meeting their Lord in the air. Rural church members are the very flock of God, and they deserve a shepherd who will view them as those who have been invested with incredible dignity. They deserve a pastor who will minister among them with a kind of wonder and awe that is surely in the apostle John’s voice when he says, “Behold! What manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called the children of God. And that is what we are!”

Like city churches, rural churches are worthy places for pastors of very humble gifting like myself to pour out their lives. And, like city churches, rural churches are worthy places for pastors of tremendous gifting to pour out their lives. I praise God that he raises up pastors to serve the church in both contexts, unto his glory. Like Peter and John on the shores of Galilee, let each man hear the call of Christ for himself. May we not turn aside to critique and evaluate our call in light of our brother’s, or our brother’s call in light of ours. Let us simply obey the Good Shepherd when he says, “You follow me,” and let us give thanks that he uses us both according to his good pleasure.

About Eric Smith

Sinner saved by the grace of Jesus, husband of Candace, father of Coleman and Crockett, West Tennessean, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church, student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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