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Rural churches pose some hard questions

In September the Clare Valley in South Australia is a pocket of vineyards set in a huge expanse of green fields of wheat, barley, and bright golden fields of canola. This year it was the setting for a conference on rural ministry entitled ‘Recapturing Passion for the Local Church’. About 130 lay and ordained people attended the conference and they included 25 New Zealanders.

Rev Jan Fogg from Taranaki’s Hawera and Stratford Methodist Churches says the conference opened her eyes to the importance of supporting our smaller rural churches. They can be a vital source of strength to their communities in increasingly difficult times.

Questions Jan thinks the Methodist Church of NZ should consider are: Do we value our rural church?

How can we provide more resources for the rural church?

How do we as church respond to the social cost of shrinking populations in rural areas?

“Embracing change comes more slowly for rural folk. Rural and small town people are strong supporters of ‘local’ and much less so of moves toward being ‘regional’

“Some rural parishes struggle to find money for ministry and the idea of themselves as being ‘agents of ministry’ can be a challenging for rural folk. There is often not the same investment base in the smaller rural town parishes as in the city churches. But the people work very hard fundraising to maintain the supply of funds.

“Rural churches often support people whose lives are made difficult for whatever reason. In the recent history of New Zealand, we have not seen farming areas as places of hardship but they are becoming so. Many rural congregations began life in communities where farmers had a very hard physical struggle to establish themselves.”

Jan says the conference itself was very enjoyable. Participants shared worship, talked together in small groups, ate, and engaged in a range of activities in Clare and the surrounding countryside.

“We enjoyed the hospitality of the local community through our billets, and the welcoming function at which the mayor presided.

“The conference was planned and led by the local churches of the Uniting Church of Australia, but was a great example of ecumenism in action as participants included people from the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Assembly of God, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches.”

Topics the conference addressed included Environment and Church, Sharing the Land – Indigenous Issues, Life in a Fishbowl – Living in a Small Town, Rural Poverty, Community Development and Motorbike Ministry.

“I was struck by the number of times ‘water’ came up in our conversations,” Jan says. “I realised how the outback Australian farmers are really operating on the edge. One farmer had been in drought for 13 years. Coming from Taranaki that was mind-blowing!

“I saw with new eyes the meaning of water as life-giving and the joy of finding life-giving springs in the desert. I was able to find new understandings in the images of water from the First Testament and the spiritual significance for our faith journey.”

Jan believes the influence of globalisation is insidious and it is having a detrimental effect on farming and rural communities. The Church can be caught up in this trend; as resources dwindle we begin to concentrate them in urban areas.

She challenges this. ‘Small’ may mean a clearer understanding of discipleship and a more urgent realisation that each person is a vital disciple in their small community. In cities, there might always be someone else to do a task. In the country it can be very clear that if I don’t do it maybe it simply won’t be done.