Over the past two decades, there has been a resounding call on my life and others to revitalize small to mid-size churches, particularly in rural communities. The challenges and triumphs of shepherding in these settings have shaped my understanding of that kind of ministry. Unique joys and hardships attend small-church ministry. In the pursuit of revitalization, we find solace in the unwavering faithfulness of God, as stated in Deuteronomy 7:9, assuring us that He remains steadfast in both good times and trials.
Two biblical principles guide effective shepherding in churches in small towns and rural communities. First, shepherds must go to the people, thoroughly immersing themselves in the lives, struggles, and successes of the community (1 Cor. 9:19-23, Matt. 9:10-13, Prov. 19:17, Rom. 12:15, 2 Cor. 8:1-4). Dr. Harry Reeder picked up on this when he wrote, “Our mission is not only the message of the Gospel and the call to evangelism, enfolding and equipping of God’s people, to win, to train, and to send people into the world to serve Jesus Christ in every sphere of society, but the second thing is we’re to do it by embracing the Great Commandment (emphasis added), which is ‘Love the Lord with all of your heart, your soul, and your mind and then, in light of that, to love your neighbor even as you would love yourself in loving God with heart, soul and mind.’ That then leads me into the public arena, not only with the message of the gospel, but with the truth of God’s Word because I love my neighbor. This involves not only preaching the gospel but also embodying the truth of God’s Word in the public arena.”
Second, the most critical care shepherds can provide to their flock is the administration of the ordinary means of grace. Relying on the Word of God, shepherding in small towns (and anywhere) addresses the root problem of sin (Isa. 3:9, Matt. 22:36-40, Rom. 3:23) and makes known the redemptive work of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-9, Rom. 4:4-6) and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13, Gal. 5:16-25, 1 Pet. 1:2).
Going into the Community
Shepherding in small churches requires a willingness to connect with the community at a personal level. The call to embrace the Great Commandment is a call to love and engage with the people in the congregation and the wider community. This activity involves sharing in the joys and sorrows, struggles and successes of the people in the community. The shepherd becomes a living embodiment of the gospel as an ambassador of Christ, demonstrating God’s love through active involvement in the lives of those he is shepherding.
Applying the Great Commandment within the context of pastoral ministry promotes a holistically reformational approach. This begins with the proclamation of the gospel, urging shepherds to immerse themselves in the entirety of God’s Word. This must be more than a mere intellectual commitment: we are called to embody the truth of Scripture. As the man of God deepens in his love for God, this affection necessarily overflows in a profound love for his flock and neighbors.
The comprehensive nature of the Commandment compels shepherds to venture into both private and public dimensions of community life. The shepherd’s presence in the community makes a difference in the lives of those under their care as he demonstrates in a small-town setting what it looks like to bring the gospel to bear in the lives of his flock’s nominally Christian or otherwise unbelieving neighbors, relatives, and friends.
Shepherds engage with their communities’ real-life struggles, triumphs, and complexities in this comprehensive approach to ministry. The shepherd is not a distant figure, detached from the daily experiences of the flock. Instead, he becomes intimately acquainted with his congregants’ challenges, forging genuine life-to-life connections. Sincere and Spirit-wrought heart-obedience to the Great Commandment catalyzes a reformational mission, compelling shepherds to be both preachers of the gospel and living embodiments of God’s love in the broader sphere of human society.
Administering the Ordinary Means of Grace
The ordinary means of grace occupy a central place in the matrix of shepherding God’s sheep, setting a rhythm for spiritual community that nurtures, guides, and sustains the flock. We rely on the Word of God, which alone addresses the problem of sin, the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. These ordinary means are the ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer, vital spiritual fellowship, and rightly ordered discipline, serve as the instruments by which believers experience divine grace and growth.
The shepherd’s role in directing the flock to the means of grace fosters spiritual health, deepening relationships with God and fellow believers, and cultivating a community that thrives on the unchanging principles of God’s Word. In shepherding, the means of grace are indispensable tools of the Spirit to guide God’s sheep toward spiritual maturity, unity, and a profound understanding of their identity in Christ. As the world tells lie after lie about where people should find their identity, the Spirit speaks in Scripture (and by scriptural means) to impress the truth upon us.
In small towns and in rural communities, the ordinary means of grace look like:
- The Word of God: In small church ministry, reliance on the Word of God is paramount. Addressing the root problem of sin and pointing to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the shepherd guides the flock to the Scriptures. The Word becomes a source of comfort, correction, and personal transformation.
- The Table: The shepherd leads the flock to the Word and also to the Table. The Lord’s Supper, one of the Holy Spirit’s appointed means of nurturing spiritual growth and strength, serves as a means to build up, nourish, and confirm faith (Eph. 1:3, 1 Cor. 10:16). It is a tangible expression of unity and fellowship among believers.
- Prayer: Teaching the congregation to pray and praying with them is crucial. Prayer is a means through which believers experience the presence of Christ in their lives (Eph. 3:14-21). It fosters connection with God and strengthens the community of believers.
- Fellowship: As emphasized by David Mathis, the fellowship of believers is an irreplaceable means of grace. It offers the joy of receiving God’s grace through the support of others and the privilege of extending that grace to fellow believers.
- Discipline: Admonishing one another and practicing discipline, though challenging, is a crucial means of grace. It involves speaking the truth, encouraging one another, protecting the peace and purity of the Church, and safeguarding an environment where sanctifying grace can flow freely (Eph. 4:25, 1 Thess. 5:11).
Shepherding in small churches and rural communities demands a comprehensive and truly reformational approach. By going to the people and administering the ordinary means of grace, shepherds faithfully follow the Great Shepherd of the sheep. The call to embrace the Great Commandment and rely on the Word of God is the foundation for a thriving community of believers. As shepherds immerse themselves in the flock’s lives and guide them with the ordinary means of grace, they pursue the biblical vision of a vibrant, growing, and unified body of Christ in small-town, rural communities.
 David Mathis, “The Forgotten Habit: Fellowship as a Means of God’s Grace,” Desiring God blog, April 30, 2023, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-forgotten-habit.