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Reflections on the Project on Rural Ministry as a Senior: Building a Future Generation of Active Members in a Local Church

Mikayla Gainor

I have been blessed to be involved with the Project on Rural Ministry for the past three years. I was first introduced to this ministry by a classmate during my sophomore year and went on the first ever PRM ICO service trip that spring. I participated again the following year and finished out my senior year by co-leading the trip with two others. It has been exciting to see this ministry grow from the beginning and to watch relationships develop as a result of it.

My passion for PRM has also grown through my involvement as the writing intern during the past year and a half. It has been a joy to connect with pastors from different regions and learn more about their lives and experiences in ministry. The more I have seen the vision of PRM lived out firsthand, the more I have grown in understanding and believing in the importance of PRM’s mission: to glorify God by learning from and serving local rural pastors with mutual encouragement in the faith. PRM has been largely influential in my own pursuit of ministry post-graduation, and it is something I will miss greatly about my time at Grove City College.

Gainor, second from left, and a team of students lend a hand in Waynesburg, PA during the 2023 PRM Spring-Break trip.

Developing a Heart for the Local Church

PRM has played a large role in shaping my heart for the local church, and I know that it has done the same for other students as well. Each pastor we met has been a testimony of God’s own faithfulness and heart for rural places. Many pastors have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice much in order to invest in their communities – financial stability, property, comfort, and familial support to name a few. They chose to follow God’s call on their life even when they didn’t have all the resources or details to know how it would work out, even when they foresaw loneliness and a long road ahead towards building trust, and even after some rejected the initial call to ministry. One thing they all share in common is a fierce passion for making the gospel known and a desire for their sheep to be restored to the Great Shepherd. It is impossible to witness this deep love for God and for people and not have one’s heart softened with a similar desire to participate in Kingdom work through a local church.

Although rural churches vary in size, many of the ones I visited were smaller than the one I grew up in. It was inspiring to see nearly every member in these churches play a part in serving both their congregation and surrounding neighbors. Though the laborers were few, they were active and dedicated members who didn’t think twice about using what God had given them to meet a need. Many of these congregations operated as though every part of the body truly was necessary for the body to function as a whole.

Being raised in a generation which often views church through a consumerist lens – as an organization which serves to meet my personal spiritual or social desires – my teammates and I were often challenged to reconsider the purpose of church and our own participation in it. How should we, as college students living in a temporary and constantly adapting reality, think about our relationship to the church? In what way is God calling us to participate in his ongoing work, specifically through a local church – even now? On the other hand, how can a church reach out to and seek to integrate younger members so that they too can flourish as growing members of the body? What are we, as the body of Christ, missing out on when we limit our perspective on and participation in this God-designed gathering? The local church is a small glimpse of our future home, and when it thrives, we experience a joy that fuels our longing for the day when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Additionally, throughout the three ICO trips I went on, I encountered numerous congregations from different denominations. As a college student learning to live on my own for the first time and figuring out what is important in a church, it was valuable talking to so many people who came from backgrounds that were different than mine. Not only was I exposed to various approaches to ministry given the contextual needs of a particular community, but I was also challenged to consider what is most important theologically. What does it look like for faithful followers of Christ to love one another and serve together when they begin with differing theological beliefs and practices? Furthermore, what are the true non-negotiables of the gospel and how can they best be communicated to different communities?

In conversations with other team members, we were confronted by our previous ideas about the meaning of church and what is actually necessary. There is not simply one right way to do church – especially when you evaluate the specific circumstances of a given community – and there is ultimately a greater need for unity among the body of believers than for doing things the same way if we are to reach the lost. While believers have a duty to live in alignment with Scripture, the hope of the gospel and the church’s efforts to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of their community should not be lost among the weeds of peripheral issues.

Discerning and Following the Call to Ministry

Most of the pastors we talked with shared about their call into ministry – specifically, their call to ministry in a small rural context. Many of them discussed how they had dismissed this idea at first, but they all shared about the incredible work God had done and was doing now as they continued to faithfully pursue this call. We heard countless stories about how God used their persistence to establish trust which eventually became the foundation for personal invitations into Christian community and a relationship with God. As mentioned previously, many of them gave up more comfortable lives in less challenging areas, and all of them have sacrificed much because of their obedience to the call to die to self. Their motivation is sustained in part by their deeply embedded belief in the power of Christ to transform lives, as well as a grave understanding of the consequences that ensue from a life lived apart from God. In places where there is deep physical and spiritual depravity, the gospel carries more tangible weight as their only hope. These pastors are appropriately focused on the “goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14), and they have a clearer vision of the glory of our future inheritance that carries them through hardship.

Though they may not always see the fruit of their work, especially given the long-term nature of relational rural ministry, it is incredibly inspiring to see their enduring faithfulness to what God has called them to. As observers, my teammates and I stepped into a singular moment of their ongoing work in ministry, but we had the vantage point of seeing their successes from the past 10, 20, or 30+ years. This provided an invaluable framework and vision of hope for us as we considered how the Lord might also use us in different avenues of ministry both now and in the future.

The pastors’ willingness to obey also pushed us to question whether or not we would do the same when the right opportunity came. I asked myself, “If God asked me to, could I really surrender my desires to his will? How far would I go, and how much would I be willing to give up for the sake of the gospel?” I remember one conversation with Mike Haddox who told us that we would soon have many opportunities presented to us. As college graduates, we would certainly have options that offered financial stability and success according to the world’s standards. But he warned us that “smart people often end up in ‘nice’ places and ‘nice’ churches because they believe the lie that they ‘deserve’ it.” He encouraged us to pray that the Lord would break our hearts for the right things so that we would be ready to follow the call to serve where He needed us and trust in Him to provide the way. While God may in fact put us in places that are more attractive on the surface, we need to evaluate where His Spirit is really calling us and what forces are competing for our attention in the decision-making process.

Gainor and members of one of the original PRM-ICO service teams gather for a meal in 2021.

Conversations like these were at the forefront of my mind in the past few months as a senior praying about where God wanted me next. I had the same convictions, and I witnessed the fruit of many pastors’ obedience, but would I allow my intellectual convictions carry over to decisions that majorly impacted my life? Could I really turn to God for my daily bread and trust that He alone is enough? I am grateful for how these conversations have shaped and encouraged a more abiding trust in the Lord. Seeing the big picture through a well-seasoned life in ministry has given me faith to more readily believe in God’s promises and follow His guidance in my own life.

Looking Forward

What a gift it is for students and pastors alike to partner in the work of the Kingdom and mutually encourage one another through PRM. As students humbly open themselves up to receive what the Lord has for them, they are richly blessed by observing the devout faithfulness of rural pastors and gleaning wisdom from them through honest conversations. As pastors generously invite students to participate in the long-term ministry they are immersed in, they are encouraged by witnessing the enthusiasm and curiosity of younger believers who desire to grow and are eager to offer an extra set of hands. There will be even more opportunities for students to connect with rural congregations in the future, and it will be exciting to watch this unfold.

Members of the 2023 PRM-ICO Appalachian Cohort team.

Not only does PRM aid in connecting students with congregations they can support, but it also plays a unique role in building up the future generation that will go on to serve as active members of their local church – wherever God has them. The hope is that as students encounter compelling stories of transformed lives, wrestle with new ideas or theological differences, and experience meaningful Christ-centered community, they will take what they have learned and allow it to shape the way they live so that they too will be a light in whatever community God places them in. I am thankful for my time with PRM, and I look forward to seeing how it continues to grow and produce change – beginning with individuals and extending to communities as a whole.

Mikayla is a writing intern for the PRM and a senior majoring in Psychology and Biblical and Religious Studies. She is from the Chicago area.