In my previous posts I explained how rural communities have been changed by postmodern ideas and people which have moved into rural areas. Rural churches can reach postmodern people by capitalizing on four reliable practices, each of which I deal with in separate blog posts. I already addressed how churches can use technology to promote their own activities to newcomers; how churches can allow outsiders to use their building for various ceremonies; and how the church can more effectively take advantage of their physical location in order to reach people who have moved into their area.
In postmodern society, with fairly easy modifications, many rural churches can remain the social, ceremonial, and physical center of their community. These are the three areas that are relatively easy for a rural church to make adjustments in. Historically, the rural church has also been the philosophical center of rural communities. It is in this area that the rural church will have the greatest struggle. Though the community may have ideologically agreed with the church in previous generations, this is less true today. Increasingly the rural church finds itself out of step with the postmodern worldview of its own community. Rural churches that seek to impact the changing values of their communities will have to do more than just make minor adjustments in the three areas I have already discussed. They are going to have to grapple with the hard philosophical questions of what is actually Biblical and what is just tradition. Churches are going to have to let go of some of their traditions while maintaining fidelity to core Biblical values.
Mainline Protestant churches often chose to respond to the changing culture by essentially adopting the community's growing postmodern values as their own. Thus those churches became more liberal in how they viewed Christian principles and values. Perhaps surprisingly to those congregations, this has seldom drawn the community in and many mainline Protestant churches are still in steep decline. While there may be a variety of reasons for this continued decline, the primary one is that they changed their values but kept their traditions. Perhaps the values themselves were not as much of a problem as the traditions that no longer spoke to society in a relevant way. Many mainline Protestant churches chose to jettison the wrong thing and it has not helped them reach more postmodern people for Christ.
Many conservative Protestant churches have responded to the changing culture with a fortress mentality. These churches are determined to continue to hold to their traditions by keeping the world out. Such churches encase themselves in a spiritual bubble that is rapidly shrinking. Just like their mainline Protestant cousins, these conservative churches refuse to consider any significant change in methodology or practice, even when those methods and practices fail to communicate the Gospel. A number of recent surveys have shown young people are leaving the church at an alarming rate. Researchers vary in the exact numbers, but most agree that between 61% and 88% of young people leave the church after high school and that only 35% return, usually around age 30. Somehow churches are failing to communicate Biblical truth to these young people in an effective way. Rural churches are going to have to learn how to communicate more effectively in order to reach postmodern people for Christ.
Communication is only one issue. How the church is perceived by the postmodern community is also a problem. Often, those who hide inside the fortress assume they are more spiritual than the rest of the community. The community seldom agrees with that assumption and increasingly views the church as self-righteous and irrelevant. If rural churches want to impact their postmodern community, they are going to have to learn to venture out of the fortress and engage people in the community once again. If rural churches fail to engage their community, many of them will not exist in twenty years. Though the decline in conservative Protestant churches is slower than what is being experienced by mainline Protestant churches, the decline is beginning to take its toll. As such congregations age, the decline will begin to accelerate. Rural churches should take action now instead of waiting until they reach the point of no return.
Clearly the fortress mentality adopted by some conservative Protestant churches is not working any better than the mainline Protestant efforts to grow by liberalizing its values. So how can the rural church bridge the philosophical gap between themselves and postmodern people who have moved to their community? I will address this issue with seven specific ideas in my next post.