How can we be missionally effective in rural areas?

Pete Atkins, convenor for the Fresh Expressions training hub, identifies important principles for mission engagement in rural areas.

Every now and then it's good to summarise where we have got to in our thinking about mission – a kind of corporate reflection on practice. This year's Making and growing disciples in the countryside conference, organised by the Fresh Expressions rural round table, will be an opportunity for that gathered consideration of strategy and practice – both by those with area responsibilities and also those engaged in mission in a particular rural context.

The conference is taking place from 15 to 17th June at The Hayes, Swanwick. In preparation for that, I've been identifying what I now see as important principles – from a church leadership perspective – after many years of working to enable mission engagement in rural Lincolnshire. As a result, I have found myself looking at church culture and what seems to be needed in order to form, and deploy, effective rural missionaries.

The question in my mind is, What culture of local church makes for the release of effective, missional individuals into villages? Here are my responses so far:

1. A church which focuses on the worship of God in all aspects of its life together, not just when it gathers: where a living, immediate, immanent, committed, thankful, sacrificial and devoted love relationship with God is the heart of life as individuals and as a local body of Christ. This means a high value on prayer and the appreciation of the presence of God in all aspects of life.

2. A church where there is a high value on mission and the pursuit of a missional vision with an expectation of vision for, and call of, individuals to mission activity. This means having a corporate understanding of the ministry of all Christians to take part in the Missio Dei and an expectation that God will lead us in his mission on a local practical basis. Again, this means a high value on prayer and discernment and the development of each person's ability to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and discern where he is already at work. It means developing a theology and praxis of this – with storytelling key to spreading understanding in the church.

3. A church where there is an understanding that a prime place of growth as a disciple is as in the gospels; being part of a small group on mission with Jesus and in dependence on his leading and empowering through the Holy Spirit. Each disciple pursuing their vocation in community – with all the faith, collaboration, dependence and courage needed – makes for accelerated growth!

4. A church where there are high levels of encouragement, support, resourcing, interest, prayer, and equipping for those who follow God's call to participate in mission in their context – be that local geographical and/or network. This means creating appropriate levels of accountability with permission to explore local creative and imaginative mission avenues aimed at forming disciples and communities of them. It seems also to mean creating a church community that naturally loves and supports each other and feels to be family, and 'home', for those who are dispersed in their places of mission. For those in small numbers in rural contexts, it seems vital to be connected to a larger body or network for wellbeing and support.

5. A church where there is a high value on the establishment of the Kingdom of God, such that this transcends and transforms denominational – or other potentially partisan approaches – whilst not straining appropriate loyalties. This must be based in a love for the whole church, traditional and contemporary, established and fresh, and a desire for her to serve God and the people of our communities well and together. It means a willingness to engage, enable, include and work with Christians/church in situ but have a capacity for innovation and the creation of 'room to move'.

6. An appreciation of, and commitment to, the creativity of God as reflected in the possible shapes of new Christian community and how these relate to the present church and the mission of both. This means permission, encouragement and understanding the command of Jesus to form disciples and community as he leads. It also means a profound understanding of the fact that he is with us always.

Threshold Church

In 1996 GP Pete Atkins and his wife, Kath, planted a new church called Threshold, with a vision to strengthen church in the villages of their home county, Lincolnshire.

Operating along the cell church format, Threshold grew and in 2006 separated into four separate congregations. Three were based in a different village and one in inner city Lincoln. There is a bi-monthly meeting of all four.

The congregations draw members from 15 local neighbourhoods and range in size from 20 to 100 members, who gather together in village halls and Lincoln YMCA.

But for Pete and Kath, this is not the end of ten years' work. They have given each congregation the challenge of multiplying further through prayer and planning. 

We are vision driven,

Pete says.

The vision has always been to establish church in the rural situation, with a focus on neighbourhood planting rather than network planting.

Pete believes that the success of Threshold lies in discovering and training new leaders.

The key thing is that by the grace of God we have managed to multiply leadership,

he says.

They have given each congregation the challenge of multiplying further through prayer and planning

Those who have perhaps led a cell have also been on a 'Mission-shaped leadership' training course [now developed into mission shaped ministry]. Leaders meet together bi-monthly and in between are supported by regular contact with the main leaders of Threshold. The Atkins' own role has moved to supporting the main leaders, who in turn support cell leaders.

All our developments are consistent with our original vision of seeing the kingdom of God re-established in the villages,

says Pete.

The leadership communicates this vision through preaching, through a slogan and by holding welcome evenings for newcomers to the villages.

Moments of multiplication, such as the division into four congregations, become opportunities to revisit the original purpose of the church.

By keeping in mind at every stage what they originally set out to do, the Atkins and the members of Threshold are achieving their aim of multiplying church.