How’s the church down on the farm?
By Althea Campbell
Rural people realise viability is not judged by numbers or money. A church is viable when it has a mission in the community. This was the message Rev Robyn McPhail gave 118 people from 35 rural and urban South Island parishes at a forum on rural ministry in Methven on May 22.
The aim of the forum was to look at the rural situation and hear how community groups and congregations are responding.
Mayors and deputy mayors from the Ashburton, Selwyn and McKenzie districts set the scene for the forum and group discussions added to the picture of a region facing rapid change.
For example, a slump in the 1980’s saw a considerable number of farmers leave their land in the Ashburton District but during the 1990s irrigation increased and dairying expanded more than three times. This has brought about change from long-term family holding. Nowadays people coming into the district only stay four years at most. In one place the change to dairying saw three-quarters of the parish members leave.
Conversions to lifestyle blocks have brought population growth. But people on lifestyle blocks often have work and social activities in Christchurch or Ashburton. They may attend some social activities at the local church but not services.
Communities like Tekapo and Twizel are coping with the influx of tourists and lifestyle blocks. This has tested their ability to respond with services, roads and other amenities. In Tekapo the cost of accommodation is so high workers live outside the area and are not available for church activities.
Change has also brought benefits. Primary school rolls in some districts are now back to pre mid-1980s levels, and there has been a rapid expansion of the service industry. Growth allows better social, health and recreational facilities but can put pressure on existing infrastructure.
Parishes are learning how to respond to the changes by turning outwards to the community. Ideas for reaching newcomers include a welcome pack with local and church information, and social events such as community dinners and flower and craft shows. Nearly everyone puts emphasis on “food, festivals and personal invitations” as the key to community integration.
The small Uniting congregation at Waihao decided to make itself a home for Christians of all denominations. Another makes a point of maintaining a cradle roll for the whole district, not just parishioners. It sends cards and has Christmas events for all pre-schoolers.
One parish holds church on Thursday night to help meet people’s availability. In Burkes Pass the historic church bulding has been restored and is available to the community for celebrations such as weddings.
There is a need to change thinking and support small parishes. A key is team ministry. Hinds Co-operating Parish has had local ministry since 1999. Worship is led by a team and giving has increased so there is more money for mission.
To end the forum South Canterbury parishes led an innovative worship session. It was based on their belief in the value of a story, “un-churchy” language, images grounded in everyday rural life, and giving people opportunity to participate and not just listen.
Robyn McPhail concluded, “A church is viable if it has a mission in its community. A church has the resources for mission if it has people who want to work together to share the gospel.”