Simon Mattholie, CEO
I recently caught up with Declan Flanagan, the previous CEO of RM, and asked him
some questions looking back on his time with RM. We also chatted about the future, and his hopes for RM and the rural church.
I began by asking him about the most rewarding things he recalls from working with rural churches?
"Three things come to mind. Firstly, I think the opportunity to discover the many ways in which God is working in the countryside; there’s no single blueprint for effective churches. Sometimes I found some great churches in unlikely places with unusual people leading them. I think the second one was being able to learn and share and the joys and challenges of rural church life; there was always something new to learn. Finally, I am always very impressed with the prayer, sacrificial service, and reliance on the Lord of many people working in the rural context. Sometimes this depth of commitment to Christ seemed greater than those I encountered in urban and suburban churches."
A sense of local call is incredibly important; prayer and sacrificial service is imperative, and a strong sense of call will keep you on your knees long after others have left.
"I think sustaining prayer over the long term is becoming more and more difficult for Christians, especially if we don’t see immediate answers or if the work is slow. The commitment to keep on praying is a demanding one. There can be a temptation to try other things apart from prayer; we look for human fixes because prayer is demanding."
Yes. And I think we live in an age of the microwave ping; we want everything quickly if not instantly. I don’t think we’re necessarily structured nor expectant to be in it for the long haul. But having said that, I think, again, one of the encouragements that I’m beginning to pick up is a reawakening of some of the monastic rhythms in the countryside. So, the rhythm of prayer, of hospitality, the study of scripture to mention but a few, are long term disciplines that can carry faith through times of difficulty. Rediscovering some of these rhythms and recognising that the benefits and results might take weeks, months and even years to manifest with the possibility that it might not be seen in our lifetime.
"Something that really has stayed with me a long after I finished my time with RM is that effective rural churches concentrate on one or two areas of ministry. They focus on quality rather than quantity. Trying to do everything is hopeless isn’t it? A good church should have children’s work – but what if it’s in an area where nearly everyone’s retired?"
We seem to suffer from the language of scarcity. We ask, ‘what’s missing?’ Rather than embracing the language of abundance, which is, ‘Who and what have we got and, in light of this, what’s God calling us to do?’
"I’m reminded of a village where the church closed, but some people started a group for retired folk with cake and coffee. Forty to fifty people came every week. They didn’t regard that as anything to do with church, as they’ve understood it for a long time. But little by little, the gospel is getting into the area. They became good at coffee and cake but didn’t try to do loads of other things that they weren’t good at."
I think helping churches recognise the one or two things that they are good at doing, is one of the gifts of RM. Turning to the future, what are you seeing, hearing, and sensing in these challenging times?
"I think many churches and mission agencies are very fragile, but may not always know it. And unfortunately, I think this is unlikely to be reversed."
So, we may lose some?
"Mm, unfortunately yes. I think another challenge is, post-COVID, many churches desire to return to how it was before. Leaders are tired, which I think is a big issue. Rather than a burst of fresh activity, why not first explore together what we’ve learned over the past couple of years and how might we now respond? I think you’ve said that well in several articles over the last year, but it is worth repeating.
"Linked with this, rural Britain is constantly changing and there are new opportunities if we have eyes to see, but challenges too. Where I am in Kent, there’s hardly any rural churches left. They went 20 years ago. Those that remain are replicating the church of the 1960’s and hardly note how the world has changed. So, they’ll become progressively more fragile."
The future of rural church is to my mind ecumenical, lay led and a mixed ecology of worships and styles. And I think that we need to wrestle with this. What does that mean for us? Perhaps it’s not all about doing new things but also rediscovering and reviving some of the old things that we’ve done before.
"Towards the end of my time with RM I did quite a lot of reading of what happened to the Church after the canon of Scripture was complete. What did discipleship look like at the end of the first century, when the church was forced underground? It seems to me that evangelism wasn’t decision orientated, it was discipleship orientated. Perhaps we need to reflect on this further.
"RM is a key player in thinking through appropriate mission strategies to reach a new generation in these changing times. I trust they’ll continue to do so, with an unwavering confidence in the gospel and a willingness to take risks."
Declan, thank you for your time.