I’ve been in lots of rural churches over the years. The ministry style and mindset is totally different. However the goal for youth leaders is the same - to love Jesus and love kids.
Here are some generally unique aspects of youth ministry in a rural church setting.
1) It’s cyclical. At one point, there are a group of kids, which attracts other kids. Then a few years later, there aren’t any children for a while. It comes and goes. A typical scenario is a girl or guy in their late twenties, with two or three children of their own, talking about when they were in youth group – how many kids were around. There are often two or three other families in this age group attending the church and in a few years, their kids will be the youth ministry and the parents themselves will most likely be leading it. It only takes one kid to begin the process – they will invite if there’s something to invite to.
2) It’s intergenerational. In a rural church, intergenerational activity happens naturally and doesn’t have to be forced. For the older generation, anyone younger then them is welcomed. I was invited to a church once to take part in youth ministry evening event. At the time, I was 21. Everyone at the event what older than me. What they considered “youth” was people in their twenties. I was recently at another event where though it was a “youth weekend” at a church with an average worship attendance of 50, basically, the whole church was in attendance helping with the event.
3) It’s people driven, not program driven. It’s all about the people who are there. There aren’t as many rules in rural youth ministry. Many times there have been kids who are out of high school, yet still connected. Or, there is the one kid who is in 5th grade or 8th grade and is the only one – he or she is often pulled into the other age group by default.
4) Kids are missed. If a kid isn’t there, they are noticed. Students are missed – when you have smaller number, it’s more likely you’ll be noticed if you’re gone. If you have dinner with your family of 5, you probably wait for all 5 to get there to pray. If you’re having a dinner with 250, it’s much more likely you’ll pray and begin eating not knowing who isn’t in the room at the time. The same principle applies to rural youth ministry. This aspect is not unique to rural youth ministry – in many settings where the attendance is greater, small groups make it possible for students to be missed.
5) Students are treated like people – not as students. Because the smaller number, students are invited to engage more deeply and more quickly. They have opportunities to sing in the choir, read scripture, take part in leadership and generally serve in the life of the church. Not that non-rural churches don’t treat students as people, it’s just that there’s a difference in the amount of leadership roles they are actually invited to participate in.
6) Rural area kids are just as busy as suburban and urban kids. It’s a misnomer that rural kids have less to do. Often, they have more to accomplish – their backpacks are just as heavy, their school work is just as complicated, and their socials calendars are full. In addition, they are typically more tightly woven with their family and community – taking on civic and personal responsibilities at a younger age.
7) Count your advantages. Don’t have a “poor little ole us” attitude. There are things that a rural church, smaller youth ministry can do that will shine! You’re able to meet in homes. You’re able to pay for every kid go to camp. You’re able to take trips on a regular basis. You’re able to “know” students, their families, their history and their issues. Take hold of advantages and make a difference for Christ!
Watch out for these pitfalls: At times, rural youth ministry counts too much on close knit relationships and misses opportunities to reach out to new students in ministry. Second, pastors and leaders also need to guard against small thinking. Finally, you must not compare yourself – if the only birds to sing were the largest, most successful birds, most forests would be dreadfully quiet. We need every corner of the earth filled with churches and ministries of all styles and sizes – reaching people for Christ.
Every ministry setting is unique. Each church needs to intimately know the people of their community and their region, then seek to meet needs, reach out, and ultimately, be the light of Christ in their corner of the world. Your church is gifted with the right people for this right time in history to accomplish extraordinary things in the kingdom!