Rural and small town churches across Canada are rapidly disappearing. Fifty years ago, the town where I grew up had five churches. Only two remain, and they are the churches where one is least likely to ever hear Bible-based preaching. Smaller towns nearby have no churches at all.
This is more than a demographic curiosity. It means that in whole swaths across our nation people are deprived of a readily accessible place to hear the Word of God preached. In times past many people deemed this a necessity. Families would invest money, time and labour to ensure they would have a place of worship.
What has caused the decline? One part of the problem is the cost of maintaining a minister. To provide suitable living accommodations and a decent salary for a minister and his family was by far the greatest part of the operating cost of most small town churches. Some denominations would have one minister serving congregations in three or four towns. Over a period of years the smaller congregations died out one by one. Other denominations merged rural and small town congregations into a congregation in a larger town. Many people find it too far to drive and now many congregations in the larger towns are struggling.
Ministers do not want to stay long in a low-paying church; the parishioners find the constant turnover of ministers discouraging. Some ministers are young and find it hard to develop a rapport with parishioners older than themselves. Others have been taught new ideas in the Bible Schools and Seminaries that do not resonate with their staid small-town parishioners. Old-fashioned Bible truths and the old hymns are laid by in favour of teachings and choruses thought to be more appealing to younger people. None of it seems to have worked.
The real problem is the notion that a church cannot survive without a trained and salaried minister. The pattern shown in the Scriptures is for believers to meet together for worship and mutual edification. In such a setting, The Holy Spirit will eventually give direction to choose one or more brethren to be ordained as ministers. They will minister to the needs of the brothers and sisters, while continuing to earn their own livelihood. The congregation may provide help for expenses incurred in their ministry, but they will not need a salary.
The preparation needed for the ministry is not training in Bible School or Seminary, but a genuine spiritual life, with love for God, the brotherhood and all mankind. Such a minister is well equipped to minister to the needs of people and point them to the same Saviour who has delivered him in all his times of need.
The preaching of the Word should not be a lecture by someone who is considered to have superior knowledge, but an exposition of Bible truths that relate to the very real present day needs of every man and woman, including the preacher himself.
This is the pattern of the New Testament and of Anabaptists of former generations. Congregations organized in such a manner can prosper and grow and multiply.
There was once much sound Bible-based preaching in most denominations. I fear that over time the reliance on trained and salaried ministers introduced unsound teachings, as well as creating a financial burden that small-town congregations could not manage.
Are there still people in the small towns and rural areas with a longing for Christian fellowship and sound Bible-based preaching? Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost and to gather together His scattered sheep. Such sheep are not only to be found in the glamour of foreign mission fields or big city missions, some might be found in the very prosaic setting of a small town.