Beyond Change- Overcoming the Barriers to Small Rural Church Revitalization

Allen F. Wachter, George Fox University


Many of the rural churches of the Free Methodist Denomination in the Northeast region of the United States have experienced substantial stagnation and/or decline of their attendance rates over the past five years. This begs the questions, "What is preventing these churches from being revitalized so they too can be used as vessels to grow the Kingdom of God?" Though many obstructions to kingdom growth1 exist, this study focuses on the following five barriers: resistance to change, under-utilization of spiritual gifts, relational dysfunction, apathy, and lack of love. The source of these barriers was discovered through personal observation and experience in pastoral ministry as well as conversations with other denominational leaders. These same five barriers were further identified in part through a comparative study of eight opposing quality characteristics of a healthy church as defined by Natural Church Development in Color Your World in Natural Church Development. They are: "empowering leadership, gift-based ministry, passionate spirituality, effective structures, inspiring worship services, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, loving relationships."2 The question was asked, "If those are the quality characteristics of a healthy church, what could be some of the barriers that prevent those quality characteristics?" Due to the limited scope of this dissertation, the barrier of "overcoming the resistance to change" became our primary focus. We found that resistance to change causes people to become inactive and their thinking becomes paralyzed, self-centered and apathetic toward outreach and Kingdom growth.3 We claim that innovative engagement, such as story-telling, can revitalize the rural church. A number of different factors and values influence decision-making and participatory processes.4 These include legal, organizational, financial and socio-cultural factors, as well as the influence of different interests from numerous actors (clergy, board of administration members, congregants, --··- -· community). The challenge then is to provide a product that will cause the "actor" to "psychologically become invested" in the concept. This investment should result in recognition of a barrier and then willing engagement of a behavior to change it. Specifically, this innovative engagement can be accomplished by speaking to the common people in language they understand with images to which listeners connect and understand so that the barrier is removed and revitalization can occur. Rick Chromey in his book, Energizing Children 's Minist1y in the Smaller Church, says the means of conveying the message of Jesus to the post-modem world will be through story telling. 5 I am proposing that we can reach people in the rural church of the Free Methodist people through a print media which resembles orality, even in its printed form. This printed media is allegory. The Track Two artifact is an allegorical story, a fable, which addresses the issues of resistance to change. The book entitled, The Dance of the Bees, 6 tells a story about a worker bee who engages with her hive whose leaders are resistant to change. This same bee comes up with a method to prevent the destruction of the hive from a threat of a honey badger by creatively overcoming the community's resistance to change. This book will be the first of a series of books; each addressing one of the five barriers to revitalization of the Northeastern Free Methodist small rural church.