Rural Dreams: Transitioning from Big City to Small Town Ministry

Sharing with you all an article I wrote for the Gospel Coalition during my time in Canada. I hope it will be helpful as we consider our approach to ministry cross culturally.

MAY 27, 2018

I sat motionless on my sofa as I watched Kris Bryant, the Chicago Cubs third baseman make a play on a weak dribbler to his side of the infield. Could this finally be it? Was I actually witnessing my childhood team win the World Series? If it was all just a dream, I hoped I might bask for a time in this surreal moment. But it wasn’t a dream. I was fully conscious. The Cubs had done the imaginable and brought a joyful celebration to a city no longer having to “wait ‘til next year.” I could hear that familiar song being sung outside my condo, “Go Cubs go, go Cubs, go. Hey, Chicago whataya say?  The Cubs are going to win today.”  I’ll never forget that night.

Knowing that just a couple of months later I’d be moving my family to a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada, made the victory all the sweeter. We really had no idea what awaited us. My wife and I had only known city life. We experienced great joy in Chicago’s rich diversity, ethnically and socioeconomically. The nondenominational, multicultural church where we served in many ways reflected the eclectic heartbeat of the city.

Our pastoral team consisted of a White man, a Black man (yours truly) and a Chinese man and I can tell you it was not the beginning of a tired, worn out joke. There was authentic unity and harmony among us. We had the blessing of having very supportive families, some of whom were very faithful partners in the ministry of the gospel. What in the world would seduce us away to a place so extreme in contrast to what we’ve known and enjoyed all of our lives? One word. Calling.

The Power of Divine Calling

The concept of “calling” can be a bit ambiguous and difficult to qualify.  I have not always sensed a calling to rural ministry. In a very broad and generic sense, I have been for some time aware that my calling is to preach and to shepherd the local church, from which I gain great satisfaction. Nevertheless, over a period of time and through a confluence of events, it became clear to me, and thankfully to my wife, that God was calling us from the big city context to serve in a rural community.  Coming to terms with the fact that God was indeed leading us into a very foreign and seemingly illogical situation was a powerful enough force to do what we otherwise would never have dreamed of doing.

Rural Town Prejudice

As we prepared for the move, I became more and more aware of a kind of prejudice towards rural ministry.  Just a few years earlier, while a student at a well-known Bible college, I got a pretty clear indication that rural ministry was not exactly on any student’s wish list. One of my professors devoted an entire week of class to trying to convince us to consider rural ministry as a viable option. The vast majority of the students thought it was a colossal waste of time, myself not excluded.

When one fellow alumnus learned where my family and I were heading his reply was, “Saskatchewan?  Man, that’s God-forsaken country!”  Needless to say, his candor did not help to fill me with much confidence about my decision.  I can only say that I am glad that I didn’t allow my own preconceived notions, nor anyone else’s, to deter me from following God’s call.  Nearly a year has passed since we arrived. It has been some of the most challenging months of our lives. Yet, I can tell you that I would not seek to trade places with anyone…anywhere.

Big City or Rural Ministry

Someone reading this might be surprised to learn which context I personally prefer.  Both options have their strengths and weaknesses, joys and challenges. I’ve enjoyed the more personal touch of rural life.  But that reality can bring significant strains and complications as well. I honestly do not believe it is my place or anyone else’s to persuade in one direction or the other.  At the end of the day, you must go where the Lord is leading you. My only hope is that one would be sensitive enough to hear when God calls and respond in faithful obedience to go wherever His will may lead.  Having said that, I will share a few very precious benefits and rewards should one be called to serve in a foreign context.

Acceleration of Spiritual Growth

Few things are more thrilling to the believer than to witness personal growth in character and in usefulness.  Having to adapt to essentially a new world has increased my dependency upon God and strengthened my confidence in Him.  This is not to say that He cannot use domestic circumstances to produce His fruit in us. The Lord knows we had our share of hardship back home.  However, it is not unnatural for one to begin to coast in known, familiar surroundings. Indeed, Abraham’s spiritual development may have been due in large part to his displacement from the familiarity of home.

Stimulation of Vitality in Local Church

Your arrival to a new setting may also have the effect of breathing new air into the lungs of a local congregation.  Change in a small rural town happens slowly, while big city life seems to be always moving. Both instances carry latent strengths and weaknesses.  While a local congregation may not be ready for a drastic shakeup, examining the ministry with a fresh pair of eyes will likely ignite a new enthusiasm and optimism amongst the people.  The surrounding community may develop a curiosity concerning this local church that thinks outside of the box.

Opportunities for evangelism and discipleship present themselves in a very natural, unstrained manner. The local church may receive a much-needed jolt to continue its mission in turning the spiritual lost to Jesus Christ.

Sharpening Your Missional Focus

Let’s face it. We get distracted from time to time.  We lose sight of the fact that this world is not our home. The comforts, pleasures, excitements, and worries of life tend to drown out the greater, urgent call to make disciples by witnessing to those in our sphere of influence—men, women, children who are headed towards a place of eternal pain and suffering. It is hard to admit, but we easily get distracted. Having been far removed from family and from the place I considered home, it is easier for me to recall why I’m here. I am outsider in Saskatchewan.  I will probably always be an outsider.  But you know what? That’s okay. Because all believers are outsiders. We are pilgrims on route to our eternal home. And we want to bring as many as we can with us before the day is spent and night falls.

I could not have imagined this plan of God in my wildest dreams. But I’m content with what He’s done. My wife is content. Our small children are oblivious.  The church seems to be growing spiritually. The Cubs are still winning. Life is good.

In Him,
Pastor Mark