Throughout the world men and women work with the soil wherever conditions permit. Some do not produce enough food for their own families. This is true in areas in which there is not sufficient moisture, or where there is not enough warmth. Others, however, produce enough food to sell to others. They are able to sell their products and from the income to purchase goods for the well-being of their families. The conditions under which the people of the world farm differ considerably. Some have adequate homes, educational opportunities, and medical care. But many live in poverty and under the shadow of disease. This is true in lands other than our own, but it is also true to a certain extent in our country. Some who farm have large farms to work, whereas others find that their farms arc much too small so that they are required to supplement their income with work away from the farm. The people who live in this way are those in rural areas. And many of them do not know Jesus as their Savior. They must be reached for Christ.
This has been the task of the church of all ages. And the church has addressed itself to this task throughout the ages with varying degrees of enthusiasm and with varying degrees of success. Missionaries have been sent out by the church both into adjacent areas and into countries beyond the border of the homeland. The work of the church in America has been no different. And now the task facing the Christian Reformed Church is still to see to it that those who know not the Christ may come to know him and the salvation that is available in him.
RURAL EVANGELISM HAS ITS OWN PROBLEMS
In this article we shall deal with the matter of bringing the gospel to those who live in the rural areas of our land. We shall discuss some of the distinctive aspects of rural evangelism. We must not think that evangelism as it is to be carried out in the rural areas of our land is much different than city evangelism. It is not. The principles are the same. But the application of the principles is much different. We shall concentrate on some of the differences which are significant in the work of rural evangelism. As we consider the distinctive aspects of rural evangelism we shall consider the problems that are faced by any church which would take up this work. We shall consider, first, The Problems in the Church; and secondly, The Problems in the Field.
Those in the rural church who are enthused about evangelism are likely to face the problem that many people there do not recognize; namely, that there is work to be done in rural districts. They will meet with outstanding men in rural communities who say that there is no opportunity for evangelism in their areas. I recently read of a young man who was called as a candidate to a rural church. He chose the rural field because he felt that in it was to be found a good opportunity to reach those unacquainted with salvation in Christ. After he had gotten acquainted with the people in his church, he had a meeting with his official board and suggested to the members that a careful house-to-house survey be made within five miles of the church to discover any unreached families. Members of the board smiled indulgently at their young pastor and informed him that there were no unreached families in the area. These members of the board had lived in the surrounding territory most of their lives and knew all the people personally.
The young pastor accepted the word of the board members. However, after two years had passed, he began to realize there were some people in the surrounding area with whom he had gotten acquainted through business contacts who did not seem to have any church relationships. He succeeded in persuading his young people to make a house-to-house canvass within a five-mile circle of his church. After the study had been made, he had the names of forty-four families who claimed no church connections. He announced this at the next meeting of the board. As he mentioned the names one by one, a board member would say, “Oh, but I know that his father always attended church” or “Why, his grandmother belonged to the Bethel Lutheran Church,” and so on. They did not think there was work to be done, when there was plenty of it. This is a problem that will face many who wish to undertake the work of rural evangelism.
LACK OF ENTHUSIASM
Another problem which must be faced is the lack of enthusiasm on the part of many members of the church. They may be outstanding members of the congregation in certain respects, they may be good leaders in other things. but they cannot be interested in the task of evangelism. This is no doubt true in city churches too. Probably the only churches in which you will find that this is not the case are those which contain only first generation Christians. They have just newly experienced the redeeming grace of God. They have recently come from a life of sin and are filled with the joy of salvation. They realize very keenly the need of others. But in most churches, and surely in most rural churches, which generally have a long history, it is inevitable that one must meet the problem of a lack of enthusiasm. This must be made a matter of prayer. The need of the people ought to be clearly presented to those who are lacking in evangelistic zeal. They ought to be reminded of the tragic end of these people if they do not come to know Christ. And their responsibility to shed light in this world must especially be pointed out.
LESS EDUCATION IN RURAL CHURCHES
In the rural church in which the pastor or evangelism committee is striving to inaugurate or advance a program of evangelism there is another problem which must be met. It is a fact that in rural areas the people do not have as much education as members of an average city congregation. Schooling is not looked upon in quite the same light. It is not necessary to have a high school or college education in order to plow a field. And thus there are still young people who end their formal education with the eighth grade. And such people are strongly inclined to think that they are not qualified to do the work of witnessing. They will hesitate to volunteer for making contacts with those who do not know the gospel of salvation in Christ. These people must be encouraged to do this work. One way to do this is to show them that Christ chose disciples who were not highly educated and used them for his work.
FAMILIARITY A HINDERANCE
In rural areas it is generally true that a man knows his neighbors much better than the city-dweller does. They have possibly livcd next door to each other for many years. They may even have worked together. Some are inclined to be hesitant about speaking to their neighbors about Christ just because they know them so well. It is true that this will be difficult if they have Dot spoken to their neighbors about such things before. And yet, every advantage is theirs, just because they know their neighbor so well. They are in the best position to determine the proper time to approach their neighbor and what approach will be the most effective. The advantage that such a person has ought to be made clear to him, and he should be given encouragement to make use of this advantage. His obligation should be made clear too.
Many other obstacles will surely be faced in the endeavor to enlist the aid of members of the church in the program of evangelism. But their aid is indispensable. The minister cannot do the work alone. That has been one of the roost serious mistakes that have been made in the past. There are still many in the church who believe that when they have a minister they are paying him to do their witnessing for them. But lay workers are a necessity. Someone has said that you cannot win a war with only the graduates of the military academy. That is very evident. But thousands of ordinary fighting men are also needed. In the church of Christ this is true too. The ministers cannot do it all. If the task is left to them, it surely will never be completed. They should guide the program. They should lend their leadership and support. But laymen are needed. Of this both city and rural churches must be convinced.
THE LACK OF OPPORTUNE TIME
There is another problem which is faced in the rural church in getting the work of evangelism done. Those who are unchurched or who are neglecting their church membership altogether must be contacted. Calls have to be made. Members of the church will be needed to make most of these calls. In the city church there are usually several members who are available in the summer time. They can go out just before and just after supper and make these con tacts. They have jobs which give them this free time. And this is possibly the best time to make contacts in the city. The summer is surely much better than a cold winter day. And the evening of the day is possibly the best. too, because then the whole family is likely to be at home. But this is a problem in rural evangelism. For the farmers are not available at that time of the year, nor at that time of the day. Many of them work from sun-up to sun-down. And the people on whom they would call are also busy at such times. Possibly the month of August is best. because then the farmer is not nearly so busy as otherwise.
FAILURE TO WELCOME VISITORS
I have been in city churches of our denomination whose members were not very friendly. They did not go out of their way to make a visitor feel welcome. Yet as a rule, I imagine, the city churches will be more friendly, and will make visitors from the community feel more welcome at the services than is usually the case in a rural church. The members have a convenient way of standing in a circle and talking to each other, with the result that a visitor sees only their backs and hardly dares try to enter the circle. This is something that must be eliminated. A fine practice is to have a welcoming committee greet the visitors before the service. Perhaps it would. also be well to have a rotating committee of people who. make it a point to seek out the visitors after the service and make them feel welcome. If they have once been contacted and the contacts resulted in attendance at the worship service, everything ought to be done to see that such people are not discouraged by a Jack of receptivity on the part of the members of the church.
PAST NEGLECT MAY REQUIRE EXPLANATION
Because of the failure of many a church to begin the work of-evangelism as soon as the church was established, there may be another: problem which will have to be faced, Those who are contacted by the church will want to know why the church has not been interested in them before. They have. lived in the same place for several years already. The church was there all that time, and yet no one from. the church ever came before to talk to them about their soul’s welfare. This is something which must be faced. Those who make the calls must explain that the church has failed in this duty up to that time. They must make it clear that now, however, the church is concerned about their eternal destiny.
RURAL MEMBERS OF CITY CHURCHES
Churches which are located in a city may have a responsibility toward the people living in the rural area. Some of these churches have several families living in the country. If the work of evangelism is practiced in such churches it will likely be limited to the area immediately around the church. And thus it will be confined to the city alone, while the rural area is neglected. A survey completed in 1952 covering two small cities and an entire county in Wisconsin indicated this. The more flourishing churches were located in the two small cities. Their outreach and contact with people within the city limits was highly commendable. In fact, in the one city of 5,000 less than 8 per cent of the total adult population was without a church. The rural area of the same county in which these two cities were located showed quite a different picture. Almost one third of the adult population had no church membership. The opportunities were there, but were not grasped. Such churches have a tremendous task facing them. They should put forth effort to reach the unchurched in the rural areas surrounding them.
When considering from an objective point of view, it may seem as though the solution to the problem of the unreached is a fairly simple one, even in the rural areas. To install a progressive leadership in the local church, develop an attractive program, and invite the unreached apparently should result in a satisfactory solution. This, however, is not the case. Today it is much more difficult to persuade the unreached among us that they should affiliate themselves with the local church than it is to take the Christian church with its claims into an area where it is relatively unknown. Most of the unreached people in America today have a general knowledge of the work of the church. Many of them have relatives in the church. Others have had parents that were members of the church. Consequently they are well acquainted with the ethical standard of the Christian church. Often they conduct themselves within the influence of this standard. Upon being contacted for the church they will say that they are just as good as the people who attend church and consequently they do not feel any particular need for, or attraction to, the local church. Someone has very pointedly described such people as being inoculated with Christianity, and consequently immune against it. This has been called the post-Christian Age. This problem is found in the rural area and in the city situation alike.
THE PROBLEM OF DISTANCE
However, there are problems in the field of rural evangelism which cause special difficulty in pursuing the work of evangelism. The people are not found by the thousands in a couple of city blocks as in Harlem. They are scattered. Many of the people are quite isolated. Some of them are located at considerable distance from the church. They may use this fact as an excuse for not coming to church. They say it is too far for them to come, though often this is seen very clearly to be an excuse, since they do not find it too far to come to do business during the week. True, the isolation of the people in the country does make it a little more difficult to make calls on the unreached. But this is not an insurmountable difficulty. They can be contacted by mail from time to time, if necessary. Their neighbors can then make the calls. One will not be able to make quite as many calls, but they can and must be made.
DIFFICULTIES IN CONNECTION WITH SUNDAY SCHOOL AND D.V.B.S.
The Daily Vacation Bible School and the Sunday School are put to good use by many city churches. In this way unchurched parents are contacted through the children and frequently brought into the church. The Sunday School cannot be used quite so effectively in a rural situation just because, in some instances at least, the children have to be brought from quite a distance. If they are to be picked up and brought back after church there wiII scarcely be enough time to do that. Daily Vacation Bible School is usually held soon after school is dismissed for the summer. But this probably would not work out quite so well in many rural areas, because it is just at this time that the farmers are very busy, and can use the children at home. For that reason Daily Vacation Bible School should probably be conducted in the rural areas just before school begins in the fall.
THE PROBLEM OF POVERTY
A real problem which is faced in the rural evangelism program is the extreme poverty of some of the families which are to be contacted. They live on small, poor farms. They can barely eke out a living. Some of them cannot even do that. They have difficulty getting enough money to buy their food and other necessities of life. One family that I contacted told me that they would come to church as soon as they could afford to buy clothes that would be fit to wear there. This is a problem. But with the help of the diaconate of the church it can be solved. Here is a wonderful way to use some of the stagnant money in our benevolent funds—a wonderful way to show the mercy of Christ to those who are in need.
The extreme poverty of some of the people results in another problem for the church which would do the work of evangelism in the rural areas. Because some are not able to make a living on their farm, they are compelled to work in the city in order to supplement their income. The father tries to work the farm a little and hold down a full-time job in town. It is very difficult to find a time when you can visit him. During the day he works in toWD, and at night when he gets home a great deal of work is waiting for him. So he has to work into the night as well. In addition, sometimes the mother works too. It is extremely difficult to try to contact such a family for Christ. But in such a situation, the evangelistic worker must adapt himself to the situation, and look for the rare occasions in which there are breaks in such activity. Perhaps in such circumstances it would be best to make the calls on a Sunday afternoon.
LACK OF EDUCATION
On the rural field more often than in the city, it will be noticed that the subjects of evangelism are lacking in formal education. The truth of the gospel must be adapted to their needs and to their ability to understand it. But here the versatility of the gospel is seen very clearly. The truth of Cod’s Word should be put in such a way that it can be understood even by those who have very little education. In presenting the necessity of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation one can explain the passages of Scripture which are not so deep and involved. We can turn to such passages as those which refer to the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats. These things will probably be easily understood by those who are working with fields and livestock. This is by no means an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, those who are lacking in education may often be more easily reached with the gospel than those who have had considerable schooling.
Such people, however, may present another problem.
That is the matter of their assimilation into the church after they have manifested an interest in the gospel. Especially will this be true if the church is a city church. Those who are lacking in education may feel out of place. They may feel inferior. They are not as good as the rest of the members, they think. And thus, there is the problem of making these people feel at home. I’m afraid that in the past many churches have somewhat failed along this line. The fact that our Church is known as a middle class Church does not make this problem an easy one.
SHIFTING FARM POPULATION
The work among rural people is becoming increaSingly difficult because of another fact. The economic situation, especially as it affects the farmer, has a bearing on this. Many people cannot afford to own their own farm. More and more farmers are renters. It is simply too expensive to go into fanning on their own. The result is that those living on farms in such a situation do not stay in the same place very long. There are more and more renters, but there is less and less permanence. This makes the work of evangelism more difficult because it often takes a great deal of time before a person is brought by the Spirit of God to a saving knowledge of Christ. Although this is true, the church must nevertheless minister to the spiritual needs of these people, even though they may be living on a certain farm for only one year.
FAMILIARITY WITH THE FAULTS OF CHURCH-MEMBERS
A problem which faces the evangelizing church, no matter where it is found, is that many of the members themselves are a hindrance to this work, because of the discrepancy between their profession and their conduct. But I believe that this is an even greater problem in the rural situation than in the city because the unchurched person in the country knows where his neighbor goes to church, and he links the person with that church. For that reason, he is likely to be prejudiced against the church. It must be painted out to that person, that those who are in the church are not perfect, and do not profess to be so. It should also be stressed that individual believers are dissatisfied with their own lives because there is so much sin in them.
These, then, are some of the problems which cause rural evangelism to be distinctive. These are some of the reasons why rural evangelism cannot be carried out in exactly the same way in which it is done in urban areas. These problems must be looked upon as challenges to prove the effectiveness of the gospel. Let us remember that the Word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword. Let us be like the apostle Paul who says in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation.” In the face of these problems let us go to God in prayer and ask him to help us solve these problems, and to so guide us that we may find the satisfactory answer in each case.