Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reaching Postmodern Rural Communities - Part 7 – Seven Ways Rural Churches Can Reach Postmodern People Philosophically

In my previous posts I have explained how rural communities have been changed by postmodern ideas and people which have moved into rural areas. I have already addressed how churches can make minor modifications to their actions to regain their position as the social, ceremonial and physical center of the community in the eyes of postmodern people. In my last post I began the discussion of the more complicated issue of how rural churches can bridge the philosophical gap between themselves and their postmodern neighbors. In this post I want to list seven specific things churches can do to begin to address this philosophical divide. This is a complicated issue and it is unlikely to be "solved" by a simple blog post, but it is my hope that this post can help churches begin to think more specifically about this issue instead of feeling overwhelmed by the rapid change going on around them.

In order to bridge the philosophical gap, rural churches should consider these concepts:

  • Practice the faith outside the church that is preached inside the church through being involved in community organizations and activities that address real community needs.

Postmodern people often lament that while the church talks about serving their community, such service to the community is actually rarely seen outside the four walls of the church. In order to reach postmodern people, churches should consider if their actions match their words. Daybreak Community Church of Colchester, Vermont, has reached many postmodern people by sponsoring community activities that met real needs the church members saw around them. For the past six years they have helped facilitate the annual Relay for Life event in their community. This event helps raise funds and spread awareness of breast cancer. The church receives no direct benefit from sponsoring this event other than the goodwill of the community. Daybreak has also helped with an annual summer marathon. Their duties in the marathon include picking up all the rubbish left behind by the onlookers. This may not sound like a spiritual investment in the community, but as the community has seen the values of the church lived out in real life, they have responded well and many previously unchurched people now worship regularly at Daybreak.
  • Show Christian love through compassion ministries.
Closely aligned with a sense of serving the community is the idea of meeting the needs of the less fortunate. Even rural communities have people who are hungry, homeless and hurting. The church should be leading the way in meeting the needs of these types of people through their various compassion ministries. Barre Baptist Fellowship, Barre, Vermont, sits on a side street of a small town in a traditionally rural region of the nation. Ten years ago they started a soup kitchen to meet the needs of the homeless people who they saw hanging out on the corner down the street from the church. Since then their ministry to the homeless has grown to include serving nearly 5000 hot meals each year. The church also provides blankets, socks and coats to the homeless during the winter months. Members of the church often help people find jobs and sit with them through court hearings and legal proceedings. The congregation is now made up almost entirely of people who were reached through one of these compassion ministries.
  • Help church members recover personal evangelism by sharing their own difficulties in life and how their faith gave them hope.
Postmodern people are often under the false impression that to be a Christian means living a perfect life. When postmodern people discover that Christians have struggles too and that faith helps Christians overcome those struggles, there are interested in learning more. Faith Community Church of Barre, Vermont, has excelled in reaching troubled teenagers. I currently serve as an elder at this congregation and have been deeply involved in this ministry to teenagers. One of the methods Faith Community Church has used is to help teenagers who have become Christians learn how to share the stories of their own struggles in life. During their youth worship services the church utilizes interviews with teens that grew up in difficult situations but found hope through Christ. Many of those interviews have been put on the local television station or posted on YouTube. Some have been recorded on DVDs and distributed to other teens. As postmodern people have seen the power of the Christian faith to change those teenagers' lives, they have become more interested in having that kind of faith for themselves.
  • Offer bold preaching that is relevant to daily life instead of a diluted or contrived message.
The tendency of some mainline Protestant churches to water down the Gospel message has not been successful in bringing postmodern people into the Christian faith. The tendency of some conservative Protestant churches to attempt to force the message on postmodern people has not worked either. What is working is the combination of bold preaching with relevant applications to daily life. Christ Memorial Church in Williston, Vermont, has become well known for its bold but relevant preaching. Their sermons, often lasting 45 minutes, speak to relevant issues in the lives of postmodern people but hold firmly to biblical teaching. As a result, Christ Memorial has excelled in recapturing people who grew up in church but dropped out because they just didn't see any connection between the sermon and real life. Many people in the congregation previously had a connection with various mainline Protestant churches and sensed that the lukewarm sermons were not helpful. Typically they strayed away from church for many years until discovering the bold and relevant teaching at Christ Memorial.

  • Work hard at letting everyone know they are welcome to attend any church services or activities regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof.
A church must help everyone in the community know they are welcome to attend church services and activities even if those people are not yet sure if they even believe in God. While churches will obviously need to limit who may officially join the church to those who agree with the church's doctrine and religious practices, making the services open for anyone to attend is important. Churches often unintentionally portray their membership requirements as attendance requirements. Churches should make it clear both in printed material, on websites, and in sermons that anyone is welcome to attend worship services or take part in church activities regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. When members of Daybreak Community Church volunteer at the Relay for Life or at the city marathon, they intentionally invite non-Christians to participate with them. The church also makes it clear that any Christian who wants to connect with one of their service projects is welcome regardless of their denominational affiliation or lack thereof. When Daybreak Community Church started, they made a crucial decision not to put their denominational affiliation in their name even though they are strongly connected to a major American denomination. That decision was based solely on their desire to make sure everyone in the community felt welcome, regardless of what religious label those individuals may use to describe themselves. Faith Community Church also left out the name of their denomination for the same reason, even though the state office for their denomination is located in their church building. As a result, both churches have a variety of people from a variety of religious backgrounds attending their services.
  • Work hard at expressing love to those who are bound up in sin while patiently showing a biblical way out of the pain their sin causes them.
Postmodern people decide what truth is based on their experiences and relationships instead of objective truth. This approach to life often leads them to become involved in unhealthy activities and poor lifestyle choices which lead to significant amounts of personal pain. The church understands those unhealthy activities and poor lifestyle choices to be sin against a holy God. It is easy for biblically minded Christians to forget to express the love of God while exposing sin for what it is. But churches that can find that right balance between expressing love while also pointing out how sin hurts will be able to resonate with postmodern people. Christ Memorial Church has discovered that balance. At a worship service I attended a few months ago, the sermon touched on the dangers of excessive alcohol use while at the same time acknowledging how hard it is to overcome an addiction to alcoholism. The church made the scriptural truth clear, but also offered love and hope to those present who were trapped in the pain of that sin.
  • Embrace technology and innovation without losing the sacred aspect of church.
Many postmodern people had a connection of some kind to a traditional church while they were growing up. Though they may have wandered from that connection and question the historical teachings of the church, they still have a memory of the sacred. These same postmodern people now live in a very technological world and have come to expect technology to play a significant role in their lives. Churches that can learn how to combine those two elements will find ministry to postmodern people to be productive. Faith Community Church uses a high degree of technology in their services. All the songs are projected on the wall, as are the scriptures and notes from the sermon. It is not unusual for them to incorporate a video into the worship service. Despite all their use of technology, Faith Community Church also lights candles during their services, quotes the Lord's Prayer at almost every service, encourages people to use kneeling benches in both private and corporate prayer and celebrates communion together much more frequently than many churches in their denomination. Combining these modern technological and ancient sacred elements has allowed Faith Community Church to connect to a large number of people who had a religious background as a child but have not been very connected to religion as postmodern adults.

Rural churches are finding that their communities are rapidly changing due to an influx of urbanites and the progressive postmodern ideas that increased use of technology has brought to their communities. In order to reach the postmodern people who now live in their communities, rural churches will need to make changes in their thinking and practices. Some of those changes will be relatively easy and will cause little discomfort to the current members. Other changes will be more significant and will bring a higher level of tension to the situation. But if rural churches are to continue to fulfill the vision of reaching their community with the gospel, then such changes cannot be avoided.

Learn more about reaching young people in Dr. Terry Dorsett's book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church.


  1. Practical ideas. Not sure it will totally do the job, but at least it is a start. Better than just sticking your head in the sand and watching the church waste way. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this Terry. You've articulated the issues very well. I've often thought that the churches in New England have so many stained glass windows that people haven't been able to see outside the church. If you asked the average non church goer on any street in any town in VT: "What would happen if the churches in town closed?" What would their response be?

  3. Bruce James, BCNE Evangelism and Male Leadership DirectorFebruary 5, 2010 at 7:40 AM

    In other words our orthodoxy should be the same as our orthpraxy? I think there could be more from the Christian community which conveys the message than what we have been able to muster.

    Could it be our structure has constrained the free flow of thought and reason in the marketplace of ideas? Where is the genius of the wisdom of God being displayed?

    Philosophically speaking, I heard it said once that the church should be the guardians of the questions. We should be the first to engage the culture with the hard questions instead of the last. But questions get us into trouble because we are not ready to deal with the answers. Or we don't speak the truth in love loudly because we cannot stand the heat of debate. Then we sit on the sideline and curse the darkness while failing to shine the light? Some of your thoughts above did address this topic.

    Thanks Terry, I really liked what you had to say about the placement of the church in the community. Wow what an opportunity. What we have here it seems is a basic image problem. I read the other day from a study done that the average church supplies $184,000 dollars of services to the community through its services. That's impressive by any standards. I am seeing that a lot of community leaders are very open to what the church can bring to the table if we would only bring it. Of course you know that and that's why your making an impact in VT the most secular state in the nation.

  4. Weren't you at the North States Central Rally last year in Indianapolis, Indiana? This sounds a lot like the ideas that were presented in a break out session there.

  5. Yes, I was the one who led the breakout session in Indiana last year on how to reach rural postmoderns. Much of the seven part blog series was developed out of the materials that was shared in that session. I am happy to go to other churches, associations or conventions to share this material.

  6. Bill Barker, Appalachian Regional MinistriesFebruary 8, 2010 at 6:25 PM

    I read through all 7 blogs this morning about rural churches reaching postmoderns. For the most part you are on track. The material needs some more thought and research and I would encourage you to develop it beyond a blog.

    For example, if the smaller membership rural church is to thrive:

    1) We need to develop pastors who understand where they are in terms of pastoring rural churches. The CEO pastor will either die or kill the church in most rural settings. Yet, that is what we are producing for the most part in our schools today.

    2) You develop in a small way what needs to be developed in a big way - how the church can work with the community without sacrificing its beliefs or principles.

    3) Help the rural church to once again discover life style evangelism and how it works in the single cell church.

    You are on track. Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Read the 7 articles and many of the points you cite are applicable here as well, but the reality is many of God's people have lost God's burden for the lost if they ever had it to begin with and until that is sought and gained we'll never effectively reach our communities for Christ!

  8. I like the comment frank rothe made. "What would my town say if my church were to close."
    Interesting post terry. I like how you approached the issue without resorting to some of that "church growth" garbage. Too many churches reach out to their communities by make subtle changes to revamp the church. I once attended a church that took crosses down because studies showed they could be offensive to visitors,

  9. Thank you for writing these.
    How do you think this generation differs from previous generations?
    I've read all seven of your articles and see some likeness and some differences to the past; many similarities in the almost six decades that I have been ministering.

  10. Jimmie,
    Thanks for your comments. I think the primary difference between ministering to this generation and to previous generations is the individuality they display.

    In the past, most generations decided things in “groups.” Sometimes the group made a good decision. Sometimes the group made a bad decision. But most people in the group looked to what the group was doing before making a choice for themselves.

    While there is some of that happening in postmoderns, more and more the next generation tends to make choices based on their own personal preferences and desires. So even if everyone else is going bowling, they may still decide to stay home and watch a video. If everyone else accepts a certain value or belief to be true, a postmodern individual feels empowered to accept a different value completely and expects the group to support them in their individual choice.

  11. Dear Terry,
    It's Greg Titus. I guess I need to work on my technological skills, so I can figure out how to comment under my own name. Anyway, I really appreciated your writing these seven articles and inviting me to read them. I found some good and practical advice that could be put to use in many rural churches throughout New England. Farmington Baptist Church in Farmington, Maine employs many of these principles and as a result it draws people from over 18 different surrounding rural communities. Increasingly, the Lord has been showing me that the church needs to be the church beyond the four walls of a building, even if it is in a prime location. A genuine love and emphasis on people over programs will truly grow the Kingdom of God. Thanks for all that you do. May the Lord richly bless you and your family and continue to mightily use you for His glory.

  12. Looking for practical ways to put some of the principles in this blog post into action? Purchase my book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. The first part of the book explains why bivocational ministry is biblical, normal and missional. The second part of the book explains how to mobilize the laity to do high level ministry in a team setting with the pastor so that the church can be effective in reaching its community for Christ.
    The book is published by Crossbooks and you can buy the book directly from them at:

    The book is also available on, Barnes and and a many other online bookstores.
    If you live in Central Vermont, you can purchase a copy at the Faith Community Church in Barre, VT.