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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Rural Compassion

Empowering churches in America's impoverished communities

By Christina Quick
Oct. 24, 2010

Traveling by air, it’s easy to see how rural the nation is. Between metropolitan destinations, mile after mile of farmland and open spaces spread out like a vast patchwork quilt. If this is the fabric of America, the homes and churches dotting the landscape are the stitches holding it together.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 75 percent of the nation’s land is rural. About 50 million people, or 17 percent of the population, live in these areas.

From the window of a plane, country settings — with rectangular fields in various tones of brown and green — are idyllic. But up close, shades of sorrow emerge. Increasingly, rural communities struggle with many of the same issues plaguing the inner cities. Poverty, homelessness, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and domestic violence tear at the seams of even the most bucolic places.

“So often we think of these issues as being urban,” says Steve Donaldson, president of Rural Compassion. “Yet if you look at the poverty list in the United States, many of the poorest counties are rural.”

Founded six years ago, Rural Compassion is dedicated to meeting the needs of rural communities by equipping the churches that serve them.

Rural poverty rates routinely surpass those of metro regions, according to USDA reports. Over the past two years, the nation’s economic woes hit rural populations particularly hard. In 2009, rural regions in the U.S. had higher unemployment rates than the cities, according to the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Many small communities are dependent on a single industry. When that industry fails, social services and new job opportunities can be scarce.

Rural residents have suffered the effects of the housing crisis as well. According to the HUD risk index, the risk of foreclosure at the start of 2009 was highest for rural homeowners.

All this has impacted rural churches, making it difficult for many to stay afloat, let alone provide tangible assistance to hurting people. That’s where Rural Compassion comes in. Staffed by a team of Assemblies of God U.S. missionaries, the organization partners with churches to help them respond to needs in their communities.

“Rural areas have been the backbone of our Movement,” says Donaldson, noting that a third of AG adherents in the U.S. live in rural communities. “Now a lot of rural churches have fallen on difficult times.”

From providing special training and educational material for pastors (through a partnership with Boys and Girls Missionary Challenge) to organizing outreach events similar to compassion events held in larger cities, Rural Compassion offers tools and resources to help small-town churches share the love of Christ.

“Rural Compassion doesn’t come and give you the vision,” says David Schaal, pastor of Carroll First Assembly in Iowa. “They come alongside you and help you fulfill your God-given vision. Rural Compassion empowers us as pastors to once again dream big dreams for our communities, without always being worried about the budget. Because of this, we have been able to minister in ways that were prohibitive in the past.”

When Schaal’s church held a community outreach earlier this year at a city park, Rural Compassion provided shoes to distribute to attendees.

“We want to lift up the rural churches and help them discover what they can do to make a difference in their communities,” Donaldson says. “The culture is different in a rural community. It takes working through the local people, and that means the local church.”

With assistance from Rural Compassion, churches have given away school supplies, fed the hungry, provided free childcare, organized literacy fairs, established libraries, refurbished community centers, encouraged local social workers and even replaced barbed wire fences.

“Most people would never think about it,” Donaldson says. “But if you’re a farmer with livestock and your fencing gets destroyed by a flood or tornado, getting a new fence can be a tremendous help.”

Steve McBrien, pastor of Oswego Assembly of God in Kansas, says it’s a common misconception that most people living in rural areas are churchgoers.

“Rural America is more in need than most people realize,” McBrien says. “People would be surprised to know that many of today’s young people growing up in small towns are not being reached with the gospel. We’re in danger of losing a generation. There are a lot of kids in the rural areas who have no idea who Jesus is.”

Last year, Rural Compassion partnered with Oswego Assembly to give needy students backpacks loaded with school supplies. In addition, Rural Compassion has provided food for the church’s feeding programs. The congregation distributes groceries on a monthly basis to people in the community who have lost jobs. The church also serves a free meal each Wednesday evening prior to services.

Training provided by Rural Compassion has helped McBrien develop new ideas for reaching the community. Among other things, plans are in the works for an after-school program.

“We always minister in such a way that we’re working alongside the local church,” Donaldson says. “We believe when the church has the Spirit of God moving in it, it should make the whole community a better place to live. We want to empower churches to make an impact where they are by meeting both physical and spiritual needs.”

Rural Compassion and Light for the Lost have helped a number of churches host appreciation banquets for local firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers. Light for the Lost provides special Bibles designed for firefighters and law enforcement officers.

“Our fire chief commented that in over 20 years of serving the community of Carroll, no church, nor any other organization, has ever done anything like this for them,” Schaal says. “They reported that they had never felt so loved and appreciated.”

Rural Compassion also runs a thrift store in Ozark, Mo., which it uses to train other churches interested in starting similar nonprofit businesses.

Donaldson says a primary mission of Rural Compassion is to encourage churches to think outside the walls of their buildings and find ways to venture into their rural communities to reach the lost.

“Rural Compassion has facilitated hands-on, life-giving ministry through the local churches of Iowa,” says Tom Jacobs, Assemblies of God Iowa District superintendent. “God has used them to breathe a fresh wind of His Spirit into the lives of our pastors as they seek to reach their particular harvest fields.”

Bryan Parker, pastor of Covenant Assembly of God in Kingman, Kan., says rural communities, such as his town of 3,000, are a vital mission field.

“We feel we have been led by God to this church,” Parker says. “Our mission is not simply or automatically to go where the most people live, but to go where the Holy Spirit leads and directs. Small towns are often overlooked as a mission field, but the Spirit sees the needs and calls us to work in the fields of small towns. God is calling and equipping men and women of all ages and of varied experience levels into small, rural communities.”

CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer. She attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Mo.

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