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Pastoring in a rural community: Challenges and triumphs

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.

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