Around seventy delegates attended the second “In a Big Country” conference on rural ministry held at Dingwall Free Church on the 18th June 2022. The conference was facilitated by the Rev. David Meredith, Mission Director for the denomination.
The event this year was kept to a tight three-hour timetable but managed to include some interaction and discussion along with two main talks by Rev. Ivor MacDonald and Rev. Neil Lachie MacDonald.
Delegates were also able to choose two from four optional seminars. Dr Hannah MacLeod led a seminar on the spiritual and compassionate response to social challenges and needs, particularly in the light of the recent pandemic. Rev. Iain MacAskill discussed entrepreneurial approaches to rural ministry. Dr Ann MacRae spoke on the challenges and opportunities of village church life and Rev. David Meredith on verbal and non-verbal communication of the gospel to make maximum impact in rural settings.
Ivor MacDonald challenged the church to contextualise the gospel for a rural context as it has done for the urban context. A healthy gospel church can contribute to life in a rural community, serving as a key hub connecting the population with schools and community groups. Low-key and long-term evangelism can overcome barriers of social caution, resistance to change, or the memory of our past failures. Ivor was critical of giving priority to cities and urban areas in ministry if this was done without proper regard for the needs and claims of rural areas. The cultural mandate from Genesis should not be used to disregard small and rural situations. He argued that while most cities have some access to the gospel there may be a greater need in country areas. Our work and ministry must be rooted in and responsive to the places we serve, seeking a place for Christ in the heart of the community. He gave several examples of good practice in rural ministry from around Scotland, reminding delegates that “the gospel is your brand”.
Lachie MacDonald spoke about the significant social and moral changes that have transformed rural communities over the past century. But from a Biblical perspective, there was “nothing new under the sun”. We may lament the passing of the old ceilidh culture, communities working together and a vibrant oral tradition of story and song, which often went along with a meaningful church connection. Moving forward from 1922 to 2022, despite technological and cultural changes, the word and worship of God was and should be essentially unchanged. Our future as rural churches should not be a choice between assimilating to this world or a kind of stealth-Christianity. Following the pattern of Philippians 3:13-14 and Deuteronomy 8, the modern church should love the best of the past, and live actively engaged in the present world while straining towards the future with a biblical church culture.
It was inspiring to meet delegates and hear stories of churches making and training disciples in our village churches. There were also warnings to shake off small dreams and an unhelpful “village mentality”. The Lord Jesus spent much of his life in villages, and even after returning to the glory of God, he remembered his village and called himself Jesus of Nazareth. The vision cast by the conference was to ensure that rural areas do not reject the Son of God today, as sadly so many did in Jesus’ own rural life and ministry. Smaller churches can and do serve as incubators for future leaders and feed positively into the life of urban churches.