John Simmons reflects on the importance of rural churches for local communities
This article was published in the September to December 2020 issue of Rapport magazine.
Forty three years ago, the Lord moved my wife, Jan, and me out of the spiritual comfort zone of a lively town church in a way which was completely unexpected, but unmistakable. We moved to a village of 400 people in rural North Dorset, where the church was, to say the least, a bit uninspiring. For six months after moving we commuted to our old church until we came to realise that the Lord had moved us here for a reason, so we’d better get stuck in.
Some of our Christian friends found our decision to get involved in the village church difficult to understand. ‘You’ll not be fed!’ ‘What about the children?’, ‘You won’t find the Lord there!’ To which Jan replied, ‘If I go, at the very least I shall be taking Him with me!’
When we first came to the village there was a weekly Sunday school in the Methodist chapel. Two elderly ladies had been running it faithfully every week for many years. We offered to help, as we had been working with Scripture Union on camps and missions and had up-to-date resources available. This was a lesson to us to ensure we contextualise the Gospel as best we can.
North Dorset has many small villages and settlements, and most will have a church. There are very few Methodist chapels left, but the Anglican churches are high profile architecturally, often listed Grade 1 and very beautiful. People from the towns (Dorset doesn’t boast a city) look at the situation and suggest wholesale closure and retrenchment into a few larger churches in the nearest town or larger village. Having lived in a medium-sized village for over 40 years we would strongly oppose this view, and the recent experience of lockdown has reinforced this.
The presence of a church
Firstly, the church is a visible sign of the presence of God in a community. Whereas we would be the first to maintain that the church of Christ is not made up of buildings, physical architecture does speak silently about the people who inhabit it, and churches are no different. A closed church standing in a prominent position in a rural community speaks of the death of Christianity.
Secondly, one of the lessons of lockdown, and of our church being locked and unavailable, has been the realisation of the importance the building has to villagers who might rarely attend a service. We were surprised at the response when the church here was opened for prayer at the beginning of June, and became aware of the importance of a special place of calm and peace to a wider section of the community. We believe there is a special spiritual dimension to a place which has been prayed in for hundreds of years and where God is regularly worshipped by a body
Thirdly, even in the country our church-going people have a wide range of likes and dislikes and are accustomed to choice. In towns, people can easily choose a church which fits their ecclesiology or has a style of worship which connects with them. In the villages, there will be a few people who would get in their cars to go to church elsewhere, but they are a small minority. Most come to church in the village – if there is a service which suits them – or not at all. We are part of a benefice of five churches, and when we have a joint service the attendance would be around half the combined attendance of the five churches on a normal Sunday.
Until lockdown overtook us, in a normal month we were organising a rota of services which included a Book of Common Prayer 8am Holy Communion, two modern Common Worship services and a ‘Breakfast@9’. We would have a different congregation for each, with only the more committed attending every Sunday. I mention this because it is an important consideration when we plan what we should do when the pandemic is over.
Finally, the argument about closure of churches is often driven by money. We have found that it is possible to look after our church to a high standard provided we are following a God given vision for the building of the kingdom in our patch. I am of course well aware that some rural parishes are struggling financially, and all the more so due to the recent closure. However, I believe there is a spiritual dimension to this. I well remember some years ago a wise Christian said to me, ‘God doesn’t pay for that which He hasn’t ordered!’ A good principle, which drives us to examine carefully what God is ordering. Then trust Him to provide.
Lessons from lockdown
What are the lessons which come from the recent experience of lockdown? We are still working on this as I write, but here are a few thoughts.
Loneliness has come into focus. As people have been encouraged to help out, and others have been almost forcibly locked up in their own homes, the need for human interaction has come into sharp focus. This is especially true for those of a cautious disposition, for whom a gradual easing of lockdown has become a threat, not a joy. The church community needs to hold onto the friendships which have developed with people who don’t normally attend services, or who cannot because of disability or age.
Technology has shot ahead, as has the willingness of technophobes to engage with it. This provides an opportunity to continue with experiments which work. Here we have been running a Zoom home group with about 20 people engaged, some of whom would not physically be able to leave their homes.
The use of cash as a means of exchange and giving has shrunk fast, and is likely to continue to do so. We will need to increase our focus on the theology of generosity as a positive part of our teaching, rather than of necessity. Generosity reflects the Father heart of God, and needs to be taught both by word and, more importantly, by example. Hospitality (as distinct from entertaining, which in the country tends to be reciprocal and competitive) needs to be a revived way of outreach.
The talking head method of teaching needs review. The sermon? Even the word gives the wrong impression to those on the fringes of the Faith. We will need to find better ways of releasing the gifting of the whole congregation in our formal services, and to include those who are not physically present. We have observed people who would not feel comfortable entering a church readily engaging with material available on their iPads or mobiles.
What about the children? There are very few who attend services in our rural churches, although some do Messy Church and other activities. I am a firm believer in chaplaincy in schools, which when supplemented by Christian residential activities can have life-changing impact. We have seen this in our own family. In the rural church, our more productive focus has been on reviving the faith of middle-aged folk who move in, and who have had some form of engagement with the Lord many years previously.
In conclusion, we need always to be looking for the leading of the Lord in all we plan and do. I know this is fundamental, but I, for one, so often track off with ideas which are mine rather than His, and wonder why I get so tired.
Lee Abbey Council