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SHAPE UPStrategies for Health Awareness through Preaching and Empowerment
By Michael Thomas Scott, Sr.
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Dr. Michael Thomas Scott, Sr.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMinistry Focus
In a rapidly changing world of modern science, advanced technology, and the information age, many rural churches within America are drastically failing to face the many challenges of effective leadership within the 21st century. It is evident that the rural church, particularly within many African-American communities, is not equipped or prepared to provide the next level of ministry to a world in desperate and dire need of Divine direction and deliverance. As more individuals migrate from the inner cities and urban centers of society into the suburban and rural areas of the countryside, there is a tremendous ministry opportunity for the rural churches within these communities. It is extremely unfortunate that there is a lack of leadership, commitment, and understanding, in the areas of worship, educational ministries, technology, evangelism, community outreach and church growth within the rural ministry context. Preston Robert Washington, pastor of Harlem's Memorial Baptist Church, in his discussion on the renewal of the black church states that, "At the threshold of the twenty-first century, probably the most important question facing the pilgrim people called Afro-Americans is, Will the black church survive? This is not simply a rhetorical question; the church is the single most prominent and important institution in the black community. It is both terrifying and challenging to realize that as the church goes, so goes the community, the nation, and in large measure, the world." The African-American religious community is in need of restoration and renewal, particularly within the rural context of ministry, if effective transformation is to be brought about within the hearts and minds of the people.
Transformative Worship That Informs
One of the main challenges within the ministry focus of the rural church, is that a large portion of the congregants have lost sight of the true mission and primary purpose of the church: the worship of God through Christ. Transformative worship is an integral component to the concept of twenty-first century ministry and leadership. "One of the most important dimensions of the church's ministry is the experience of worship." With all of the challenges and obstacles that life in the twenty-first century will inevitably bring, people need to worship and experience a God that can and will empower them for leadership in every aspect of their personal lives. "The point of prophetic worship is to place people in touch with those transformative elements of meaning which give life new direction, purpose, vitality and strength." It is a sad commentary that many rural churches continue to practice worship methodologies that are ineffective in reaching the needs of people. There is a lack of holistic ministry within the worship experiences of many rural churches, which often results in a lack of commitment within the congregation and throughout the community. Effective outreach and community involvement is birthed as a result of a genuine love for and worship of God. "Churches often don't grow because their worship services are dry, lifeless, devoid of the passion and enthusiasm for the celebration of life that the Holy Spirit creates." If the rural church is going to do effective ministry in the twenty-first century, the congregants must be open to innovative ideas and approaches toward a worship encounter that addresses the needs of all people within the context, thus opening up the door for new possibilities in the area of community outreach. Dr. James H. Harris, pastor of Second Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia addresses the issue of worship that will change, transform, touch lives, and provoke Christians to go forth and do something meaningful within the local community, the region, and even perhaps globally:
The task of worship in the black church is to be true to our heritage and to God. When I look around urban and rural areas, I see people hurting and in trouble. This suggests that preachers and laypersons have an awesome responsibility in trying to do the will of God. We have to construct public worship in a way that will help change society to what we believe God would have it to be.
The twenty-first century worship experience is an encounter that involves the total transformation of heart, mind, body, and soul through Gospel preaching, meaningful music ministry, authentic fellowship, and genuine praise.
The educational ministries within many rural churches can be viewed as destitute due to the lack of participation, planning, and proper preparation. There is a lack of teaching and training going on within the rural ministry, particularly within the African-American church. It doesn't matter how large or small the congregation, there is usually a vast difference in church attendance on Sunday morning services in comparison to Bible Study, pastoral teaching nights, prayer services, and leadership training classes. "Neither Christian education nor education in general is a priority for the majority in the church. We are a preaching-oriented people, who display a marked lack of support for serious Bible study, workshops, seminars, and general training in spiritual and liberation development." Rural ministry is not equipped for the twenty-first century, due to the fact that many churches invest in large and spacious sanctuaries and areas for preaching and worship, neglecting adequate space and facilities for teaching, training, fellowship, and recreation for all ages. "Christian education in the black church, however, is often lacking in structure and overall systematic goals. Because the church has traditionally been considered a worshipping institution, it has often failed to develop proper facilities for educational ministry." Many rural churches are attempting to do ministry with outdated equipment and inadequate facilities. Many rural churches are still using "outhouses" and others don't even have the benefit of hot running water for hand washing and sanitary purposes within the restrooms. There is a great need for classroom and educational space in the rural church. Dr. Susan Johnson cook, president of the Hampton University Minister's Conference asserts that, "I don't think we're called just to build big churches and mega-churches, I think that we're called to make a difference in lives." Dr. James H. Harris asserts that, "the educational ministry of the church must understand its task in broad terms. This means that before we start discussing theology in any form, we need to meet people where they are. Some will first need to be taught to read and write. Yes, there are persons within the black church who cannot do either."
The rural ministry is not adequately prepared for twenty-first century ministry without the use of innovation and technology. Yes, even within the rural ministry context, the use of innovative marketing strategies, internet advertising, and computer technology is absolutely necessary for leadership in the twenty-first century. "Unfortunately, many people today still have antiquated notions about the church and find the idea of developing church marketing strategies sacrilegious. The church should not adopt the 'ways of the world' in spreading the gospel, objected one opponent of the idea." Church records and minutes need to be recorded and properly entered into the computer. For years, many rural churches have made it by "word of mouth." But with the availability of technology at ones fingertips and a fast-paced information age, there is no excuse for the church's reluctance to integrate computer technology into the overall ministry of the church. Children and young people should be able to come into the church to get assistance with homework and tutorial lessons on the computer. Rural churches need websites and email addresses, in order to become effective in reaching countless individuals who are surfing the internet "looking for love in all of the wrong places." Dr Susan Johnson Cook expounds on the issue of technology in the church:
For many that also means introducing technology into worship. Many of us who are baby boomers did not grow up using computers and being able to web cast, but we have a generation that we are serving that can instantly get a message to one another. So it's important to understand how to use that to the advantage of ministry and not see it as a hindrance, but as a help.
The integration of modern technology into worship and preaching, educational ministries, evangelism and church outreach programs of the rural context of ministry would greatly help empower rural church leadership in the twenty-first century.
Evangelism and Church Growth
Evangelism and church growth also need to be addressed within the focus of rural church ministry. Because of the fact that many rural churches are family oriented, family owned, and/or family operated, church growth is often retarded or does not occur at all. Many rural congregations are just not prepared for 21st century evangelism, church, growth, and community outreach because they often view the church as an "exclusive community." Carlyle Fielding Stewart III states that, "Too often the church excludes people from it fellowship and membership circles by immediately throwing up membership smoke screens and other hurdles which keep people out rather than inviting them in." Evangelism and outreach should be on the priority list of rural church leaders, because Christ has mandated this within the Great Commission. Interestingly, Preston Robert Washington states, "The making of disciples goes against the grain of most congregations and church leaders. Part of the problem is laziness. It takes time to make a person a committed follower of Jesus Christ." If the rural church is going to survive, particularly within the African American community, there must be a renewing of the mind and a willingness to carry the Message that God's love is for everyone.
A great tragedy of Christianity today, and a deterrent to black church growth, is the church's failure to invite people to belong to the fellowship of believers. Too often, a church is guided by a "members only" philosophy and fails to challenge people to participate in the celebration of Christ and his Kingdom. The Christian church has been accused of being an elitist institution whose outreach is limited to "card-carrying members." Many stories have been related about the ways church members shut off potential members by everything from being impervious to ideas from new and potential members to "owning a pew" and not allowing visitors to sit there.
Much teaching and training needs to be done within the context of rural ministry, to help congregants see the importance of evangelism and community outreach within the 21st century. Instead of murmuring and complaining about what the local church is lacking, there needs to be a concerted and unified evangelistic effort that is ongoing and effective in it focus. If only each Christian would begin evangelizing within their own homes and with their family members through "relational evangelism", a great transformation could be experienced in the church as a whole.
On the other hand, there are many rural churches that are attempting to do whatever they can to evangelize and grow the church, however, they often go about it using ineffective methods. Preston Robert Washington addresses the issues of churches attempting to assimilate what they have seen white evangelicals such as Rev. Billy Graham and Rev. Jerry Faldwell.
Another aspect of the problem is the false idea of evangelism that we have witnessed on television or watched in our churches during revival meetings. The call is made to become a Christian. The person comes forward, is voted into membership or signs his or her name to a card or pledge, and that's the end of it. Often the response was forthcoming in the first place because the atmosphere was emotion-packed or pressure-filled by well-meaning family or friends who pushed the candidate forward. But there is no such thing as a "quickie" Christian. A decision for Christ does not inevitably or automatically lead one to become a fully committed believer.
The work of community outreach and church growth is a serious undertaking, and is a vital component within the rural ministry focus. However, a commitment must be made on the part of the local church to step out of "the comfort zone" and the "church as usual" ideologies and begin to make disciples and become "fishers of men." Dr. James H. Harris challenges the black church to take evangelism to another level:
The black church is compelled to become an extroverted institution-one that will take more risks, demand more justice, and force blacks and whites to move beyond personal conversion to community transformation. To do this, it will have to change its focus of ministry. Rather than emulate the privatistic, personal model represented by modern evangelicalism, it needs to hear anew the great commission in Luke 18:29 and Jesus' message of liberation in Luke 4:18.
It sounds political and militant, but it is high time for the rural church to come up, come out, and come into a 21st century role in ministry. This will require channeling the same old Gospel message and mission through effective methodologies that address current issues facing rural American. If rural church leaders are going to be effective in reaching the masses of people that are migrating back home to their roots in search of a more peaceful and prosperous family life, then church must be willing to accept change in order to bring forth communal transformation. Dr. Susan Johnson Cook said, "What we are beginning to do is almost political. You have to listen to people and find out what their needs are and 'ministry' is meeting the needs of the people that are in your context, that you are serving. We respect the tradition and honor the bridges that have brought us over, but we have to use new methods."
Poverty in the Rural Communities
One of the problems is the issue of poverty within the rural community. Within the writer's current context, the church is located in the Northern portion of Accomack County, Virginia, which is ninety-three miles north of Norfolk, Virginia, thirty-nine miles south of Salisbury, Maryland, and approximately 163 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. The primary economic base within Accomack County consists of poultry, farming, and seafood industries. A large majority of the church members, if they are not disabled, are employed as production laborers at the two local poultry plants. In one of the poorest rural counties in the commonwealth of Virginia, one can see that there is a constant struggle with poverty in the black family. A large percentage of families within this rural county and its neighboring county of Northampton, do not even have the modern convenience of indoor plumbing. According to the 2000 U.S. Census report for Accomack County, Virginia: 25.9% of families with children under the age of five years old were reported as living below poverty level. The same report cited that 18% of individuals age 18 and older were living below poverty level, with 15.35 of individual senior citizens age 65 and older living below poverty level. Dr. James H. Harris speaks on poverty and the black church:
Poverty is real for most black people-now or regularly in the past. The church is responsible for teaching blacks that poverty is a direct result of the greedy, oppressive nature and policies of a society that puts personal gain ahead of community needs. In some cases, it is the result of misguided values and poor work habits, but for the most part, it is directly related to the economic system. The black church cannot ignore the question of poverty.
Excerpted from SHAPE UP by Michael Thomas Scott, Sr. Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Michael Thomas Scott, Sr.. Excerpted by permission.
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