By Pastor Joe Epley
Small towns are a lot like cars. When maintained properly, they can last for years. The trick with cars is to give proper attention to each moving part at the right time. It is to see the needs of the vehicle and be proactive in meeting those needs. It is also important to make sure too much attention is not given to one area over another. To give you a mental picture, imagine pouring engine oil into the car until it overflows into a puddle on the floor, ignoring a flat tire while oil cascades down the driveway, wasted.
Like cars, small towns are made up of dozens of moving parts. Local businesses, non-profits, community recreational entities, and school systems all operate and overlap simultaneously. In the midst of this complex web of community elements, we find rural churches and rural youth ministries, which can often feel overwhelmed or unsure of how to best impact students. In this part of our rural youth ministry series, I want to address how to properly care for our small towns, how to look at the whole picture of our various rural communities and find which spot needs attention. In doing so, I hope our youth ministries can succeed in reaching students by meeting real needs in their communities.
If you fit the profile of most rural volunteers or paid youth staff I have met, you frequently juggle several obligations, family needs, jobs, titles, roles, and functions within your small town. You may find yourself having limited nights to spend doing youth ministry while you are busy working with the PTA, or sitting on local boards, or doing half a dozen other tasks that are integral to small town life. Upon moving to my small community of 1,700 people, I distinctly remember wondering how I was going to handle having so much extra time on my hands. Not long after that, I unintentionally found myself with more to do than I could have imagined and had little time to spare.
In the midst of this rural hustle and bustle, one question then becomes paramount: How do we best reach the students of our community? There are often not enough resources to spare to allow the task to be done inefficiently, and not enough energy to justify trying every new strategy or doing endless events in an attempt to reach people. In addition to this strain on resources, it can be incredibly overwhelming to contemplate doing more, leading to a bit of resignation as we wrestle with our limitations or abilities to minister to students. Another common temptation is to settle for “good enough”, and while we may be accomplishing something, we can often miss out on greater impact.
In the interest of keeping things practical, I want to focus on a few principles of car maintenance that will also keep our ministries running well, and will help us be a working and contributing part of our greater community.
1) Do some scheduled maintenance.
We know that cars require scheduled maintenance (regular oil checks, tire checks, and certain parts that need replaced every 50,000 miles or so), and sudden maintenance, which arises when something breaks. While both are important, for the sake of planning, it is easier to focus on scheduled maintenance than it is to predict problems.
That said, I think many of us need to analyze our small town. Let’s look at the whole picture, and figure out which part needs more attention. Often, small towns are doing many things exceptionally well, and as “part of the team”, we have the opportunity to find areas people are not already taking care of. You may find that sports programs and local scout troops are handling after school activities pretty well. You may discover that your town’s businesses have partnered to handle homecoming week at the high school. You may notice that the schools and a few non-profits are working quietly in the background to produce scholarships for students.
In the course of your analysis, you may also find that no one is partnering with the school on an after-prom party for students, or that no one is helping teens and families with basic needs. You might discover that many students need tutoring and there is no one around to provide a consistent service. You may learn that there is a shortage of substitute teachers that are able to personally step in and help address this need. Getting the whole picture of our town helps us see gaps. These gaps become tangible ways we can meet needs in our communities, which then become opportunities to reach students with the gospel.
2) Figure out what needs the most attention.
We hope this is never the case, but sometimes cars have multiple needs, with multiple lights flashing on the dash highlighting areas of need. Sometimes, it is best to figure out what needs the most attention and do that first. In the same way, after we have identified needs in our community, we begin the process of figuring out which one is the most important for us and our youth ministry to tackle. Jesus had a knack for this. He lived His life with an awareness of the big picture of humanity’s greatest needs, but frequently moved from town to town and person to person by listening to the Father’s specific leading. Mark 1:35-39 describes one such moment where Jesus withdrew, prayed, and followed God’s leading in how to best meet the needs around Him and fulfill God’s will for His life. In the same way, we must become intimately acquainted with prayer in order to clearly see how to proceed.
3) Get the job done!
Once we have a clear understanding of an issue, and a specific direction on what area to tackle first, our next job is to get it done! When working on cars, there are definite moments where a “one-hour job” turns into a whole afternoon of frustrated trips to an auto parts store or many false starts that create a sense of frustration. However, getting the car running and keeping it running is a big enough motivator to navigate the frustration. The main questions are: What do we need to do to get the job done? What resources do we need to gather? Whose wisdom do we need to lean on? How willing are we to keep trying even with a couple setbacks? Is the need big enough to demand your time and effort? The answers to these questions are key in determining how we will do youth ministry successfully in our communities.
Small towns are a lot like cars. They have a lot of moving parts that demand attention. Instead of covering an area that is already being maintained or spending our energy on areas where needs are being met, we can better utilize our limited time and resources by finding an unmet need and filling it. Meeting one community need effectively opens the door for new relationships with students. These relationships then provide open doors for the gospel. It is my hope that by taking care of one overlooked area in our communities, we can have a greater impact on students in the long run.
To read part one of Joe Epley’s series, “Principles for Rural Youth Ministry” click here: “Principles for Rural Youth Ministry: Making Blind Eyes See.” For part three, “Principles for Rural Youth Ministry: Crab Claws and Candy Ships.”