Sally Gaze is getting away to the country.
Lots of people have a very set idea as to what life, or ministry, in the countryside is like – usually people who have never lived or ministered here! Sometimes their image owes more to The Archers than reality, but the fact is that rural contexts are very diverse and the countryside is changing very quickly indeed.
A conference I'm involved in at the beginning of May will explore discipleship in these contexts. Those booking for making and growing disciples in the countryside were asked to let us know a little more about their own settings and the variety is amazing. One minister's parish covers 350 miles and includes ten distinct communities: four islands, five villages accessible by road and one by sea on the mainland. In a classic understatement he says, 'The traditional parish model cannot provide a model of ministry that enables mission and innovation to be developed.'
It's also interesting that there are recognisable differences in what people think of as a rural setting. A lot of places that describe themselves as rural would not be seen as such by others in more remote areas; there are real regional differences being played out against the same backdrop. Many of the 'rural' areas surrounding the London belt for instance would not be seen as such by many working in far flung areas of England, Scotland or Wales. That's fine; we wouldn't say one 'urban' context is exactly the same as another simply because it's urban. The same is true of the countryside.
In a major cultural shift in recent years, many people – whose families have lived and worked in the same rural area for generations – can no longer afford to live there. Instead others move in from the towns; some settle well, but others have a very different approach to life and the area they inhabit. This means there can be several 'villages' within a village as the very different communities live side by side but appear to have very little else in common. The challenge as we minister in these situations is to share the good news of God's love with all of the people in the area, whether they are long-time residents or newcomers.
Some ministers, seeing the unity of the church as being vital to mission, are concerned that the development of fresh expressions of church is something that will lead to further segregation, but I believe diversity is good for unity. It is as we listen to people – and honour their different needs and preferences – that we communicate the love of God.