In my previous posts I explained how technology has changed rural communities by bringing postmodern ideas and people into rural areas. These postmodern ideas are a new challenge for the rural church to grapple with. Postmodern people are interested in spirituality, they often do not think of the local church as the exclusive source of such spirituality. Rural churches can reach postmodern people by capitalizing on four reliable practices, each of which I will deal with in separate blog posts. I have already addressed how churches can use technology to promote their activities to newcomers to the area. In this post I want to discuss how churches can become what I call the ceremonial center of the rural community.
In the past, a rural church building was often the ceremonial center of a rural community. Weddings, funerals, baccalaureate programs and Christmas Eve services have always been hosted in the rural church for the entire community, not just for the members of the church. In my first post I discussed how the church can attract new people to come to various events that members of the church were holding. Though this post may sound like a similar concept, the difference is that not all the events I will discuss in this post will be for members of the church. This post deals with allowing non-members to use the church for various events or ceremonies that are of importance to them.
The use of the church building by outsiders for various ceremonial purposes is important because postmodern people want to "belong" before they "believe." This does not mean postmodern people want to join the church organizationally, it means they want to feel part of the group relationally. Henry Zonio, who is on staff at Redwood Park Church in Thunder Bay, Ontario, explains it this way, "We turn church into a club with membership requirements, which if not met means exclusion from the benefits of being part of the club." Zonio goes on to say, "It is our job as citizens of the Kingdom to welcome people from all walks of life and at all points of their spiritual journeys into our communities. Doing that, though, takes risk. It takes willingness to struggle through the mess. It takes an unconditional love for people that goes beyond our preconceived ideas of what it means to be a part of a faith community." Rural churches are going to have to deal with such questions as: Can non-members use the church for a funeral, or a wedding, or a 50th anniversary party? Can non-members host an AA group in the building or a scouting troop? Rural churches will have to decide how much they love postmodern people in order to determine how much they are willing to let them "belong" before they believe.
In addition to allowing non-members to use the building for their own events, rural churches will also have to grapple with the question of how much they will allow postmodern people who are not members of the church take part in some of the ceremonies the church. Would the church allow a family to take part in the annual child dedication service on Mother's Day if the family is not a member of the church? If an individual became a Christian and wanted to be baptized at the Easter baptism service but did not want to actually join the church due to family pressure, would that be acceptable? Many of these questions have never been considered by the rural church before. But postmodern people are asking these questions and are expecting a response from the church.
Churches obviously need to think about the theological implications of allowing those who may not yet be Christians participate in various ceremonies, but should also keep in mind that many postmodern people will not chose to become Christians until they feel they are a part of the group. Finding that balance between theological integrity and intentional outreach can be a challenge, but it is a challenge worth engaging in. For example, the state that I live in allows homosexual marriage. Such a union goes against the deeply held theological understanding of our church. Therefore we do not allow such unions to take place in our church. Though it is possible that we might reach more postmodern people if we allowed our building to be used for such ceremonies, it would violate our beliefs to do so. So while we allow many things that we might not have allowed in the past, we have drawn a line regarding issues that go against our theology. These are the types of issues that rural churches will have to decide, and different churches may come up with different answers. But clearly, the more that postmodern people can be included BEFORE they believe, the more likely they will choose to become Christians and find their way into the church.
It is also important to note that postmodern people are not interested in taking part in empty rituals. The ceremonies they are allowed to take part in must have real meaning and purpose. Postmodern people are looking for meaningful relationships and they believe they can find those relationships by taking part in the various ceremonial functions of the church. If rural churches want to reach postmodern people, they will need to spend time praying, discussing and considering how many ceremonies they allow the community to take part in.
Will allowing people outside the church to use the building or take part in the ceremonies of the church automatically fill the building with new people? No, of course not, but it is one step that rural churches can take to reach out to postmodern people who now live in their communities.