Show Notes

With many rural areas declining in population, “growth” is an impossible goal. What should churches do instead?

David Blackwell returns to the podcast to explore a more “relational” model of ministry. With a keen awareness of the average rural and small church, Blackwell outlines a realistic approach to leading a highly engaged and mission-driven church.

David Blackwell has pastored Florence Carlton Church in Montana for nearly 20 years. His rural church reaches people from across their county with a variety of gatherings, expressions and outreach.

Fresh Expressions is a worldwide movement of everyday missionaries who want to see churches thrive in the places we live, eat, work and play by leveraging the creativity and endurance of the inherited church. To learn a simple five-phase process for starting a new expression of church go to freshexpressions.com/howtostart.

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Related Resources:

Season 1: Episode 6 – Cowboys, Crafts and Foster Care: Three Examples of Innovative Rural Churches with Allen Jessee, Chris & Jaidymar Smith, and David Blackwell

A special thank you to Alabaster Grace Ministries for their music.

Join our Facebook group: Rural Renewal Podcast Community

Email us: podcasts@freshexpressions.com

Interview Summary

“Not too many people dressed like that around here.” 

With these words, David Blackwell’s perception of ministry was challenged, marking the beginning of a transformative journey from a conventional professional model to a deeply personal, relational approach. 

This interview delves into the pervasive issue of how rigid adherence to traditional ministry models can create barriers between church leaders and the communities they serve, particularly in rural settings. David, who has transitioned from urban ministry to leading the Florence Carleton Community Church in a rural context, shares his insights and experiences. His journey is not just about changing clothes but about altering the very fabric of ministry to weave stronger, more meaningful connections within the community. 

Through David’s narrative, we explore the vital shift towards a ministry that prioritizes relationships over rituals, demonstrating how adaptability and genuine engagement can bridge the gap between church and community.

Embracing Relational Ministry

“Dave, not too many people, like, dressed like that around here.” David’s initial adherence to a professional ministry model, characterized by decorum and a strict schedule, gradually gave way to a more relational approach. This shift was catalyzed by an amusing yet telling interaction with a church member, sparking a journey towards flexibility, personal connection, and community engagement.

The Shift During COVID-19

“When Covid came along… it really wiped the slate clean for us.” The pandemic served as an unexpected catalyst for David’s church to reevaluate its ministry model. The forced pause on traditional attractional activities led to a rediscovery of the church’s roots in personal, one-on-one ministry. This period of reflection and change underscored the importance of authentic connections over numerical growth.

Discipleship and Community Engagement

“We desperately want them… to find a couple of close Christian connections that they can walk through lives with.” David highlights the critical role of discipleship in ministry, emphasizing that true success is not in numbers but in the depth of individuals’ relationships with Jesus and each other. He shares a three-tiered approach to involvement within the church: participants, workers, and leaders, each playing a unique role in the church’s life and mission.

The Importance of Qualities Over Abilities in Leadership

“Qualities trump abilities every time.” In rural ministry settings, the personal qualities of leaders often outweigh their technical abilities. David argues that authenticity, genuineness, and the ability to connect with people on a personal level are indispensable traits for effective ministry leadership.

Four Levels of Involvement

“Shoulder to shoulder ministry is part of our discipleship philosophy.” In the journey of faith, the path is walked in companionship, with each step reflecting a deeper engagement and commitment to the community and its shared beliefs. This philosophy can be broken down into four distinct levels of involvement, each designed to meet individuals where they are in their spiritual journey and encourage their growth and participation within the church community.

1. Seekers:

This initial stage is where individuals begin their journey, exploring the tenets of faith and the community’s practices. Participation at this level is often sporadic, with individuals dipping in and out of church activities as they start to find their footing.

2. Believers

Once a foundational understanding and belief are established, individuals move to this second stage. Here, they engage more consistently, possibly taking part in specific events or ministries a few times a year, such as helping with community outreach programs or seasonal church events.

3. Workers

This level signifies a deeper commitment, where individuals are willing to dedicate a significant portion of their time to the church, participating in its functions anywhere from 24 to 36 weeks a year. They might take on more regular roles, like teaching Sunday school classes or leading small groups, indicating a readiness to contribute more actively to the life of the church.

4. Disciple Makers 

The final stage represents those who have fully integrated their faith into every aspect of their lives, committing nearly all their free time to church activities and leadership roles. These individuals see their service not just as a duty but as a calling, deeply embedded in who they are. They are the backbone of the church, providing direction, support, and inspiration to others within the community.

This structured approach to involvement acknowledges the diversity of the congregation’s spiritual maturity and readiness to serve, creating an inclusive environment that encourages growth at every stage. It’s a model that values every contribution, recognizing that the collective strength of the community is built on the varied experiences and commitments of its members.

Shifting Your Ministry

“Qualities trump abilities every time.” David Blackwell’s journey from a polished professional facade to embracing the raw, authentic fabric of relational ministry speaks volumes about the evolving landscape of church leadership. Throughout the interview, David sheds light on the critical issues of disconnection and superficial engagement that plague many churches, particularly in rural settings. His solution—a shift towards a more personal, relational ministry model—reveals the power of genuine connections, adaptability, and the prioritization of discipleship over numerical growth. 

This narrative is not just David’s story; it’s a call to action for church leaders everywhere to reevaluate their ministry approaches, to place relationships at the heart of their mission, and to embrace the transformative power of serving alongside their community with authenticity and openness. 

Reflection Questions

  1. David described some of his transitions in ministry. How has your understanding of ministry changed?
  2. David discusses how qualities trump abilities. When you experienced this in your setting?
  3. In what ways can you encourage participation from all members of your congregation, regardless of their current life stage?
  4. David spoke about the necessity of prayer in discerning leadership and direction in ministry. How can you incorporate a more intentional prayer strategy to guide your decisions and leadership selections?
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Jeanette Staats
About the Author

Jeanette Staats

Jeanette has over 20 years of diverse experience in collegiate ministry, specializing in general oversight, staff coaching and development, children's ministry, and discipleship. She holds a B.A. in English with an emphasis in Professional Writing from Virginia Tech and a Graduate Certificate in Theological Studies from the John Leland Center for Theological Studies. She also serves on the board for The Ecclesia Network. Jeanette is an avid Hokie fan and rarely misses an opportunity to watch a collegiate sporting event.