Pastoring in a rural community: Challenges and triumphs

March 18, 2019

The minute that Todd Wright, pastor of Midway Church in Carrollton, Ga., walks in the door, it’s not hard to forecast that he loves life and loves doing ministry in his rural community of 26,000 people. From his cowboy hat to his cowboy belt to the farming style of his office, Wright loves Jesus and his rural community of Carrollton. He believes that he was created to do ministry in rural America and isn’t ashamed in sharing that God is at work there. He has been the pastor of Midway church for 22 years, and this is the story of the significant changes he’s seen.

Maina Mwaura: How did Midway Church grow into a large church in a city of 26,000 people? 

Todd Wright: To begin with, I felt the church had a great vision when I got here. However, they were inward focused. When I came to Midway, we were running 200, which is not a bad size for a church. After six months of being here, I made the decision that we were going to be outward focused. The first excursion in being mission-based came when I asked our people to pray and knock on every door in our community. In visiting those homes, it opened our people’s hearts to our community. The nearest community at that time was five miles away. It’s been amazing seeing those same people that we prayed for now are a part of our church.

MM: In your tenure at Midway, when did you see the turning point (growth, spiritually)?

TW: There were a couple of turning points. I can still remember constructing our first building. We were planning to build a church that seated 600 because we thought that we would never get bigger than that out here in rural Georgia. When we got part way through the building construction, we went through rapid growth and realized that we needed to raise more money to build—we had outgrown our soon-to-be building. We knew that we were seeing the hand of God. We knew that when we went through that growth period, we were going to have to change.

MM: You had a turning point in your ministry when you decided that you wanted to be the church that unchurched people would come to. What led to that decision? 

TW: It was very surreal moment and one of the most moving experiences in my life. In 2003, I was invited to speak at a church planting conference. During the conference, the state convention passed out demographic information to those in attendance. When I looked at the numbers, I realized that we weren’t reaching the unchurched. Our church at the time was booming, and things were great. I was in the church of my dreams, and it was exciting. When I saw the demographics, something inside of me said, We’re failing, instead of, We’re exceeding. I came to realize that we were growing primarily by church people. The Holy Spirit began to remind me that’s not what church should be all about.

I also knew that our church had to bridge the gap in becoming a church that was multicultural and multigenerational, which is very tough to do in a rural community. I knew we were called to do it, not someday, but now. I can remember driving back from the conference and crying all the way home. When I got back home, one of the steps that I took was sitting down with church leadership and sharing the vision that God had given me with them. We were filling up the building, but we weren’t reaching the unchurched.

MM: How did the church respond to the new vision God had given you?

TW: It was a tough process. When I announced the steps that we would be taking, some in the church saw it as a threat. I had a staff member who sent out negative and false information about me. During this time, we were also in the middle of a building campaign to build a new children’s building. I had pastors in the area who were talking about me. I can remember feeling very isolated sometimes. On top of that, my daughter had a good friend who died in our home due to her having a seizure.

MM: How did you survive it?

TW: It was five years of transition. However, we stuck to the mission and vision that God called us to. I reminded our people that we were on this journey together. I knew it was a turning point when I stopped hearing about the volume of the music and that I wasn’t wearing a tie. The biggest, most important change was when we started baptizing people almost every Sunday. That’s when I knew the shift was happening. I survived the transition by learning to live out hard obedience.

MM: What are some dos and don’ts of rural ministry?

TW: One of the dos is to love people. A sense of genuine love has to be the number one thing. Rural people can sometimes be more bold about their cultural preferences; they tend to wear them on their sleeves. They sometimes tie their cultural preferences to their faith, and that can be difficult for people who don’t understand. At times, those in a rural setting feel threats to their culture, making reaching out to them a challenge. In a rural community, it often helps to ask, “Is this a cultural issue or a biblical issue?” There is no difference in many cases to those in the community. So, my commitment has to be teaching the Bible and asking questions from them about why they think or feel certain ways.

MM: What are some overlooked concerns in a rural community? 

TW: Many rural pastors are bi-vocational, tired, and being pulled in many different directions. Pastors often feel mentally and physically alone because they are in areas where they are physically alone.

MM: What does faithfulness look like for rural church pastors? 

TW: After 22 years in the same church, faithfulness isn’t easier. Faithfulness is me, leading myself in my relationship with God. Faithfulness is making sure that I am walking in humility and making room for people who are different than me. Faithfulness is having the courage to deal with things as they come in order to advance God’s kingdom.

Maina Mwaura

Maina Mwaura resides in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Tiffany, and daughter, Zyan. He is a graduate of Liberty University and New Orleans Theological Seminary and has served on staff at several churches. You can find Maina‘s written work at mainaspeaks.com. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24