“Looking out for the small things”

Anvil journal of theology and mission

“Looking out for the small things”:1 the pedagogical and missiological gifts of rural churches

by Clare Watkins

One of the joys of any qualitative research, but of theological action research in particular, is that it is, in principle, open to surprise. While we had in our project an overall aim of exploring discipleship, learning and growing in faith, we knew that by working with co-researchers in a variety of sites across the country we would be listening in to questions, concerns and realities that we may not have anticipated. In this project we are still thinking and writing about certain questions around clergy and laity, normativity and learning, and the multi-faceted issues of agency in faith learning, in ways we could not have imagined before hearing from our research participants. Another area that struck us, and for which we were largely unprepared, is the realities of discipleship and learning in rural areas. It is this “discovery” from our research that I want to reflect on a little in this article.

While a focus on rural churches was not an original priority in our basic research question, we were nonetheless aware of that basic need in qualitative research to be concerned with context. In a large, national project such as ours it was clearly important to hear from a range of locations, differentiated by both type and geography. We were intentional, then, about seeking to work with an organisation specialising in rural ministry and committed to resourcing rural churches.2 In addition, working with a Regional Learning Network was important to the work; and in finding the Wales Learning Network receptive, we also found ourselves working with a second site much concerned with rural areas. These two research sites increasingly enabled our sensitivity to similar dynamics in areas of research that were not obviously or in fact “rural”. It is not that there were rural churches with things to learn for their context, and then (sub)urban churches with their own learning; rather, as this article will set out, there were things that surfaced in the rural communities that actually had powerful resonance with realities encountered across our site, though often in less clearly revealed ways. The “smallness” of rural Christian discipleship retuned my own thinking to look in different places for the signs of learning, growth and the graces of following Jesus across contexts. I have become convinced that there is powerful learning to be received from these rural communities for the mission of the church wherever it is carried out.

In arguing this position, the main part of this article will be concerned with describing areas of learning from rural contexts, which, I believe, can be gifts for deepening mission and faith learning more widely. These gifts are described under three headings: cultures of conversation, chat and connection; numbers and knowing what counts; and the receiving of time. In order to give a little context for these themes, however, I will begin with a brief critical account of the place of the rural in missiology and ecclesiology today.

The valorisation of the urban and the rural as problem in contemporary church thinking

After Mission-Shaped Church was published nearly 20 years ago,3 there followed sometimes heated debates in the Church of England and further afield as to the implications of the “mixed economy” of fresh expressions, church plants and “traditional” forms of church. Pioneer ministries, about which many readers of ANVIL will be more knowledgeable than I, and which have been well-supported by CMS and doctoral researchers at the University of Roehampton, have contributed significantly to these debates about mission, new ways of being church and the place of “received” forms of church. I am not going to rehearse these debates here. However, early on there was a particular response to these movements and conversations from rural churches – perhaps most immediately from Sally Gaze in her Mission-shaped and Rural.4 While Gaze’s interesting work, drawing on her own considerable experience of rural ministry, is broadly supportive of the vision offered in Mission-Shaped Church, she recognises that a great deal of what that publication stimulated was discussion and practices within more urban settings:

There are lots of stories of exciting, resource-hungry, big projects, with dedicated teams of professionals that seem so far from the rural situation that country people like me feel we could never emulate them.5

Yet, as Gaze goes on to point out, fundamentally the missionary call is shaped not so much by a specific ecclesiological vision, as by God’s plan and promise for a particular context. To understand what mission calls us to in a rural setting, as with any other, requires the careful discernment of cultures, and participative inculturation.6

In the good number of years since these publications, it still seems to be the case that the missiological wisdom of rural Christian life plays second fiddle to the bigger, more visible urban and suburban church projects of the various denominations. Many of these particular churches do have stated concern for rural Christian communities: the Methodist Church in Britain recognises rural settings as a particular aspect of mission and evangelism;7 and both the Church of England8 and the Catholic Church in England and Wales9 are developing strategies for rural ministry and mission. At the same time, much of these initiatives seems to engage with rural settings as in some way problematic and especially challenging – a sense exacerbated by the marked number of closures of rural Methodist chapels in the last decade, and the increasing number of multi-parish benefices in the Church of England’s country ministry. Yet even now it is reckoned that 40 per cent of church attendance in the Church of England takes place in rural areas,10 against a backdrop of only 21 per cent of the general population in England living in such areas.11 The nature of church and mission that is lived around these statistics is particular and fascinating – but also, I would suggest, under-researched and ecclesially neglected.12 What literature there is in this field still seems to present mission and Christian faith in rural settings along the same generic paradigms of church growth, and what distinctive strategies might be needed in the village settings where there are often tiny congregations and few professional and monetary resources.13 What I have come to see, however, through our research on discipleship and faith-learning is that the rural experiences of faith and growth have their own distinctive wisdom – a wisdom much needed, in fact, by the “richer”, bigger centres of Christian life.

Gifts from the rural churches for mission and faith learning

For the remainder of this article I want to illustrate from our research project the three significant gifts for mission and faith learning from the lived experience of rural Christians and their communities. Each of these gifts individually raises questions for the ways in which we speak about and practice handing on faith, whether through evangelism, witness or teaching and learning. Taken together, I argue, the account given of these rurally grown gifts suggest that there are some fundamentals of human faith learning and Christian living that can be seen here more starkly and vividly present, precisely because they arise out of situations that are less ecclesially heavy, less “well-resourced”, less “strategic”. They invite us, rather, to attend to the “small things” as the places of the Spirit’s prompting and the growing of faith and discipleship.

Cultures of conversation, chat and connection

As is evidenced across the sites of our research project, and witnessed to in a number of other articles in this ANVIL edition, the significance of conversation for faith learning and mission is a major theme across our work. In the rural contexts, however, the nature of this key theme is thrown into particular relief as its integration with the ordinary patterns of daily life and relationship are evidenced. It was not so much that conversation was discovered to be the best way of learning, but rather that faith was being grown and shared through the established practices of talking together. In these smaller communities, even if it couldn’t always be said that everyone knew everyone else, there is, nonetheless, a tangible sense of connection, daily recognition and greeting. As one of our participants remarked:

Now, one of the things I learned was that farmers feed you. The old-fashioned way of learning through conversation around a table is pretty key in rural life. The integration, the knowledge of who’s who, the fact that there’s often a familial link as well. Be careful who you talk to. They’re probably related to somebody. That kind of thing opens up doors for life skill learning through conversation around meals. (Alice)

The witness from more rural settings was very clear that such daily chat, including with those outside your immediate household, is a staple of activity and shapes the day. It isn’t so much intentional as an ingrained part of the social culture. This is the way that learning happens in a village, commented Michael, through “the gossip around the well or the gossip in the pub”.

One important aspect of this culture of daily conversation, alongside its “ordinariness” and properness to rural living, was the way it changed the perception of “church” and “wider society”. This was especially well expressed by one respondent, Kevin, with a long experience of working in rural ministry. He spoke of not really “getting this sacred–secular divide thing”, and how it really didn’t seem to work in rural settings, “Because when people say, well this is church and this is community, I think, yes, it’s kind of both.” This was rooted for Kevin in the kinds of relationship that rural ministry threw him into – not the expected norms of minister and congregant, but rather those of one villager among the rest, all be it one with a recognisable social and, for some, religious role. In a startling way it was clear to Kevin that it was his job to support and recognise the conversations of the wider community around him, rather than expect to be the one always spoken with, or at the centre of important talk:

… when I started off as a probationer minister, it became even more obvious that people didn’t talk to me, as this newly qualified minister. They talked to the people who washed up in the WI and went to the pub and they met in the shop, who they knew went to the church and the chapel. And it was my job then to support them within that process. That’s how I ended up in rural ministry, and I’ve done it ever since.

The rural community is, already, a community in conversation, chatting and sharing and knowing each other. The Christian mission is not to bring these relational gifts to that community, but rather to celebrate, support and nurture them, working with and learning from the connections that already exist and which extend beyond the ecclesial boundaries. We cannot simply look at explicitly church or chapel activity as a measure of what is going on in Christian life. As Kevin puts it, “We’ve got to get beyond the numbers thing to actually look at what the engagement is. I’ve always found that with rural churches, because they’re so much more linked in generally… a lot of the ones in Devon were really linked up with family, with community.”

This emphasis on quotidian chat and connection also goes some way to explaining the ways in which the excellent resources and programmes were – and, significantly, were not – used by the rural communities we worked with. Many church leaders and rural officers valued these resources, but more for the ideas they might spark than as simply applicable materials, to be put to use in their published form. Courses and programmes weren’t seen to fit the realities of sometimes very small and ageing Christian communities, for all the helpful insights they might contain. What was more likely, in both the Wales Learning Network and national rural networks, was that particular people in these organisational teams would be valued for the advice over the phone, the helpful conversation, the local visit. The personal and conversational remained the staple and effective means of sharing the things of God, in ways deeply and properly embedded in the day-to-day realities of people’s lives and work.

Numbers and knowing what counts

In speaking of the importance of relationship and quotidian connection, I related how Kevin spoke of this, commenting that “we’ve got to get beyond the numbers thing”. In churches whose increasing managerial preoccupation is with institutional decline, all too often the smallness of the rural congregations that gather on a Sunday is cause for alarm, and also reason for rationalising resources, moving personnel and investment away from such places to where there is a critical mass of people. On a business model this is, of course, entirely understandable; but, as our respondents were keen to express, such a reading of numbers in rural settings risks missing the heart of the type of mission and discipleship that is flourishing in just these settings. Not only that, it fails to understand the special graces and gifts that accompany such small numbers, both in terms of small faith gatherings, and the relative smallness of the local communities themselves.

If it is the case that the personal, relational and daily conversational are key parts of mission and discipleship, then the smaller community can be seen as having distinct advantages over larger gatherings. This was vividly described by Alice:

The thing is, James, if I were retired and I could choose any church to go to, I’d go to one of these little churches because that’s where they know me, that’s where I know them. That’s where I can have intimate conversations and personal conversations. That’s when I come up face to face to people and see God in their face and hear God in their story. If I go to a church with 50 or more people in it, what do you offer me? Better singing? A screen to look at? So, this assumption that these people want that bigger church is an arrogant assumption. If a farmer is in a field all day on his own, every day, why does he want to be with 200 people?

When we consider all the strategies and resources invested in mission by our churches, this witness calls us more fundamentally to consider what could be more compelling for the learning of faith and for the evangelising of hearts and cultures than being in a community where you can “see God in people’s faces and hear God in their story”. And if this is a key way in which the Spirit touches people, then perhaps we should be nurturing smaller, located communities rather than longing for larger, packed churches.

There have, of course, been many attempts – more and less successful – in encouraging small groups as a part of faith learning and discipling in urban and large church settings.14 However, I want to suggest that what we are seeing here in rural settings is something a little different. These are not intentionally formed small groups, organised as part of a parish or congregation’s strategy for learning and discipling. Rather, what is being referred to by our respondents is the natural experience, authentic to their way of life, of getting together to talk about things with people you know and share that way of life with – a way of life that is primarily outside of explicitly church activity. It is in these contexts that a particular kind of readiness for thinking and learning can be experienced, even while it takes by surprise and is unintentional. Patricia describes this:

I think if you’re happy and comfortable in a situation, you take in a lot more than if you’re anxious or whatever. And the group we have, the coffee and conversation in [another congregant’s] house, with just a half a dozen of us, that’s a really nice group. It’s only a small number of us and we can share things. And we’re just talking about what’s happened during the week. Different people’s experience and you think, I never thought of it from that point of view before.

In fact, it becomes clear that “numbers” need to be thought of differently in rural contexts. For if we simply measure numbers attending church, we will miss the power of the connections, conversations and simple presence of even the tiniest number of Christians in a small, rural community. Alice’s conversation with an urban ministry colleague highlights what is at stake here:

We number crunch, don’t we? Talking to one presbyter, he was in a city. He said, this Messy Church you’re doing, how many to get, Alice? I said well, we’ve only had two, and I can’t believe how many we got. We got double figures. I was really amazed. You got 90? No, we got 10, and I was really pleased. In fact, I think I’d done three at the time, and I said something like we got 10 and then we got 15. And now we get an average of 15, 16. He said, why are you bothering? Pack up and go home. How many do you get? [I asked] He said, I never get less than 30. I said well, the population in the village of children is 12. So, I get more than 100 per cent of the population. What’s your population? How many children in your school? We number crunch wrong. It doesn’t mean it’s not right to do it [Messy Church] because we get 15 children or 14 children. It means it’s absolutely right to do it, because that means the percentage of children in that village, they’re all hearing God’s story at some stage. All of them. Every possible child. We just count our numbers wrong.

“We number crunch wrong.” When the managerial assumption is that it is large numbers that will be impactful, or better enable learning and growing as disciples, there is a failure to recognise the wisdom of these rural experiences. Nor is it, I suggest, just a matter of counting differently in relation to village settings, as distinct from urban and suburban churches. If we take to heart what is being learned and nurtured in rural communities, we will begin to recognise something more fundamental about the local, and the essential nature of the existing local relationships as the basis for conversations about life and faith. The faith learning builds from and is intertwined with the growing of the person in the relationships, work and social engagement of their everyday. There may be an occasional delight in the big event, the professional music, the excitement of numbers and that’s OK; but I suspect that in terms of a rooted faith, and a daily growth-in-ordinary, we might be better to attend to the ways in which rural communities care for people in more domestically scaled numbers, enabling conversation and relationship to develop in more humanly quotidian ways. I am reminded of one of the responses to our survey to rural church officers, where one respondent named as their “best example of learning in a rural context” the experience of communion preparation with a “group” of just two people. What they witnessed to in this experience was a profound unlocking of personal potential and growth in learning. When asked what they thought made this possible, the answer was clearly about the relationships and conversation enabled by such “smallness”: this was “not a course, but discussion space; and it was driven by the individuals taking ownership for their own learning”. Such personal attentiveness, however, cannot be manufactured from the right course, training or technique; the gifts required are different, and one of the most important, our research informs us, is time.

The receiving of time

More precisely, this third gift of learning from rural churches concerns our relationship with time. What has already been described – about connection and daily chat or conversation, and about the gifts of smallness and the interconnections that can follow – all depends for life and effectiveness on a certain kind of inhabiting of time. This should not be read in terms of some romanticisation of the rural as occupied by places less characterised by stress, busyness or long working hours; indeed, all these things are very much a part of rural life, today and historically. Nonetheless there seemed to be an openness to spending time with others, in conversation and hospitality, that found its proper place in the particular rhythms of rural work and life. Earlier we saw how one of our research respondents spoke warmly of the kitchen table and the shared meal, recognising them as places of traditional conversation and learning; this was further elaborated on in something said by another respondent, Cathy:

So there’s a huge wealth of faith there that I think they would find hard to speak about, and yet it’s there. It’s so rooted, you think you’re privileged to go and have a cup of tea with them… There’s a lot of tea and cake. You could advance tea and cake, that could be the resource, tea and cake. Tea and cake and time.

Very often, as discussed in other articles in this ANVIL edition, church leaders and educators reach for the course, the programme, as a way of further enabling learning and growing in faith; and these things do have their place for some – rather a few, in fact. For most it is “learning moments” that really count for something as they reflect on how they have learned and grown in faith. Learning takes place in life’s little moments of epiphany, of glimpses and senses of something of grace, of God. As Sarah describes it:

But yeah. I mean, I think in in everyday life, there are times when you… It sounds really cliche, but you go for a walk or something, and, [it’s] like really pretty or really lovely, and you kind of think maybe there is a God, you know, like that. Yeah, that does sound really cliche, but you do. I kind of experience those moments in time, like, in time and space and outdoor life. And yeah, and I do experience those moments with kids as well. Like, they do something and I’m like that’s lovely and so pretty or, you know, yeah, and that does feed my faith.

This “momentary learning” alerts us to the significance of our attitude to time in the practices of and theological reflections on mission and faith learning. It seems to me that the understanding of time upon which more formal learning is predicated sees time more as something to be committed, carved out, “found” and “used”. We are called to “make time” and “take time” to attend to our learning. Yet it was Cathy’s identifying of “tea and cake and time” as the “resource” that was needed, that resonated most authentically for many of our rural reflectors. This was a living of time that seems to come from a place of the inhabiting of the time given – a graced receiving of time, as gift rather than a limited commodity.

This reading of time and its place within faith learning and mission has significant practical consequences. We need to learn again what our missionary foremothers and forefathers knew – that it may take a lifetime of faithful service and love in a place to build living relationships in the Spirit of the kind that can really enable others to encounter Christ in their midst. Accompanying people is, by definition, a long-term commitment, with rhythms closer to those of the domestic and familial than to the schedules of the school, university, factory or business organisation.

Concluding reflections

In 2022 I had the privilege of attending the Methodist Church’s Learning Network Conference, not only sharing some of the wider insights from this research project, but also taking part in conversations around learning, mission and the visions of the Methodist community in Britain concerning these matters. Helpfully, there were concerns raised by a number of those attending – all expert practitioners in their field of Christian learning – about our project’s emphasis on the affective, the everyday, the personal learning and accompanying growing in faith, which so many of our participants attested to. What happens to the normative in such subjective learning? Aren’t these accounts all rather “vague”? How can “we” (professionals/clergy/“experts”) ensure that what was taking place in people’s everyday faith growing was “good learning”, and not “bad learning”? These are important questions and there is a well thought-out response to them to be included in our writing further about the project. But what struck me at the time, and is especially pertinent to this article, is that it was those committed to working in rural areas who more readily understood the “hidden” learning and faith development of the small things of everyday. For the rural churches, it was not more training, resources or strategy that was sought, but rather central investment in time and people, and a recognition that their work does not lend itself to the metrics so often used to reductively describe the “success” or “failure” of church life.

When asked to reflect on “the spirituality of the church of the future”, German theologian Karl Rahner famously remarked that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he [sic] will not exist at all”.15 In saying this, Rahner argues for the significance of the deeply human and personal encounter with God in all things, seeing this “mysticism” as an often hidden, even individual, relationship with God and God’s world in Christ. Such a living of faith is developed

not from a pedagogic indoctrination from outside, supported by public opinion in secular society or in the Church, nor from a merely rational argumentation of fundamental theology, but from experience of God, of his Spirit, of his freedom, bursting out of the very heart of human existence and able to be really experienced there, even if this experience cannot wholly be a matter for reflection or be verbally objectified.16[15]

The spirituality of rural mission and learning I witnessed and was enriched by spoke of precisely this “mysticism” for Rahner’s future, and our present, church. It suggests a “simple” matter of being alongside people, receiving and living the time needed for the building of authentic relationship, so necessary for conversations in the Spirit. I am left wondering why so much of “church management” finds this simplicity, and its very human demands and graces, so difficult to nurture. I have a hunch that Rahner is right and that our future life as Christians, wherever we are, will depend on precisely these gifts of rural mission and discipleship.

About the author

Clare Watkins is reader in Ecclesiology and Practical Theology at the University of Roehampton. A Roman Catholic, lay-woman theologian, committed to teaching and research in the areas of ecclesiology, sacramental and practical theology, Clare has a particular concern for working in ways that contribute to the integration of academic theology and faith practice, for the good of both. A co-originator of “theological action research”, Clare is now director of the Theology and Action Research Network (TARN), director of the UK Network of Catholic Practice-Engaged Theologians and principal investigator on a theological action research project exploring the realities of faith learning. She has worked with a wide range of church providers of adult formation, as well as with agencies of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and international ecumenical bodies. Her latest book, Disclosing Church: An Ecclesiology Learned from Conversations in Practice (London: Routledge, 2020), reflects and develops these varied concerns.

More from this issue


  1. This quote is taken from the presentation of Bridget Down, West of England Learning Network, to the 2022 Methodist Learning Network Conference. ↩︎
  2. Arthur Rank Centre, https://arthurrankcentre.org.uk ↩︎
  3. Graham Cray, ed., Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context (London: Church House Publishing, 2004). ↩︎
  4. Sally Gaze, Mission-shaped and Rural: Growing Churches in the Countryside (London: Church House Publishing, 2006). ↩︎
  5. Ibid., x. ↩︎
  6. Ibid., 27–. ↩︎
  7. See “Rural Hope,” The Methodist Church, https://www.methodist.org.uk/ our-work/our-work-in-britain/evangelism-growth/rural-hope/ ↩︎
  8. For reports of rural mission and growth related to the Renewal and Reform movement, see “Reports on Rural Mission and Growth,” The Church of England, https://www.churchofengland.
    org/resources/rural-mission/reports-rural-mission-and-growth ↩︎
  9. See “Rural Issues,” The Catholic Church: Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, https://www.cbcew.org.uk/rural-issues/ ↩︎
  10. “Reports on Rural Mission and Growth”. ↩︎
  11. Official Statistics: Key Findings, Statistical Digest of Rural England,” Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, https://www.gov.uk/ government/statistics/key-findings-statistical-digest-of-rural-england/key-findings-statistical-digest-of-rural-england. This percentage rises to 35 per cent in Wales – see “A Statistical Focus on Rural Wales: 2008 Edition,” Statistics for Wales, https://www.gov.wales/ sites/default/files/statistics-and-research/2018-12/080515-statistical-focus-rural-wales-08-en.pdf. ↩︎
  12. Curiously the essays of Steven Croft, ed., Mission-Shaped Questions: Defining Issues for Today’s Church (London: Church House Publishing, 2008) offer no sustained discussion of the particularities of rural communities, and often speak of “the parish” in generic, composite ways (e.g. 168–70), which fail to differentiate demographic differences. ↩︎
  13. For example, see James Bell and Jill Hopkinson, Shaping Strategies for Mission and Growth in Rural Multi-Church Groups: A Summary of Key Findings and Implications of Recent Research (London: The Church of England, 2017), https://www.churchofengland. org/sites/default/files/2017-11/shaping-strategies-for-mission-and-growth-in-rural-multi-church-groups.pdf; Rural Affairs Group of the General Synod, Released for Mission: Growing the Rural Church (London: The Church of England, 2015), https:// www.churchofengland.org/ sites/default/files/2017-11/ gs-misc-1092-released-for-mission-growing-the-rural-church.pdf. ↩︎
  14. In the Methodist context we would mention especially the work of Roger Walton, Disciples Together: Discipleship, Formation and Small Groups (London: SCM Press, 2014). See also Anna Creedon, Do Small Groups Work? Biblical Engagement and Transformation (London: SCM Press, 2021). ↩︎
  15. Karl Rahner, “The Spirituality of the Church of the Future,” in Theological Investigations 20: Concern for the Church, trans. Edward Quinn, ed. Paul Imhof (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 149. ↩︎
  16. Ibid. ↩︎

Learning faith

ANVIL 39:2, November 2023

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