top of page

The Need for Personal Discipleship in the Rural Church

September 16, 2023 -- Derek Van Ruler


“When I wake up in the morning, and the alarm gives out a warning, and I don't think I'll

ever make it on time. By the time I grab my books and I give myself a look, I’m at the corner just in time to see the bus fly by.” This theme song from the 1990’s tv show Saved By the Bell captures the feeling most pastors experience each week.

As the week begins, the task list fills up, and many of us wonder if we will complete the list by the time the figurative bus flies by. This is definitely true for the rural pastor, lacking adequate staff to aid the ministry.

Unfortunately, to alleviate this problem, many pastors look for strategic ways to shrink

their list. And the easiest place to cut is time with people.

As they say, the show must go on, and it’s the pastor’s role to ensure that show does go on. So if a pastor misses one element of a Sunday service, an email awaits him Monday morning. But if the same pastor fails to meet with his people, few notice. Sadly, this is a fatal flaw. A pastor is to keeps watch over souls as one who will give an account (Heb 13:17). If you must choose to eliminate an item off your list, ensure it’s not time with people. Pastor, I want to encourage you to reconsider, spending regular time with your people rather than accomplishing the next administrative task, for three reasons:

1) Discipleship is Biblical.

Near the end of his own life and ministry, Paul encourages his young protege, Timothy,

to focus on discipleship, when he states, “And what you have heard from me in the

presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others

also” (2 Tim 2:2 ESV). After years of ministry, Paul knew the best method to further

gospel proclamation is through personal discipleship. Additionally, Paul shares his own

example of discipleship when speaking to the church at Thessalonica. Here he

describes that he shared not only the gospel, but also his very life (1 Thess 2:7-12).

Lastly, even our Lord Jesus, who would probably win every preaching award, if they

existed, spent the majority of his ministry discipling 12 men, pouring out his heart and

soul to these men, knowing he would build his kingdom through their ministries.

2) Discipleship is Personal.

The preached word, faithfully expounded is a powerful experience. However, much is lost in the process of preaching. Applications tend to be broad, focusing on the entire congregation. People can easily dismiss the preacher’s message or believe the pastor is speaking to their neighbor in the pew. Only when a pastor sits across the table, or walks next to a congregant is he able to personally apply God’s word to that congregant’s life. Here is where the rubber meets the road. In fact, Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” This sharpening takes place best in the context of daily relationships. It’s in the the daily, personal ministry that the old adage comes alive, 'they don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.’ For those in rural ministry, this adage takes on a whole new meaning, as most congregants have a hard time trusting a pastor, especially if he is an outsider, until they know he cares. But as a pastor sits with his people, talking about life, and applying the Bible personally to the joys and sorrows of a particular congregant, that congregant feels heard, cared for, and loved. It is in these moments, trust is built. It is in these moments, congregants sense the words from the pulpit on Sundays have purpose and meaning in their life throughout the week. And it is in these moments, congregants can honestly struggle, ask questions, and begin to take the faith-filled steps of obedience God is calling them to take.

3) Discipleship is reproducible.

Most pastors long to see their congregants grow. Regrettably the only vision many

congregants have of the Christian life comes from a description and example found in

the pulpit. We know that pulpit ministry is not the totality of life. People, especially those

in rural settings, need flesh and blood examples of how to live the Christian life. These

personal examples, allow congregants to grasp a clearer picture of how the Scriptural

truths on Sunday connect with the mishaps on Monday. These examples also provide

the average member with a picture of the ministerial role they can play. Most of our

members will not become pastors. Many will never preach. A majority won’t even lead a

Sunday school class or small group. But the call for Holy Spirit empowered disciples is

to make other disciples (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). By meeting with congregants, pastors

you provide an example of ministry that is reproducible for your people. As you sit with

members, you show what it is like to take a passage of Scripture and apply it to life. You

give a picture of the kind of care and concern every member should express for one

another. And you are able to challenge men and women to fulfill the call in Titus 2:1-10

to train those younger in the faith. This kind of discipleship is more practical for the

average member to engage and fulfill, ensuring every part of the body plays their

important role in the life of the church.

There is a lot to do. Each week the task list expands beyond our limits. The temptation

is to cut people to pull off projects. Pastors, please don’t buy that temptation. Discipleship is not a second class ministry task, nor a strategy to increase the size of your church. It is central to your job! Spend time with your people and help them become better image bearers of Christ.


Derek serves as the lead pastor of Sunbury City Church in Sunbury, PA. He comes by way of California, where he developed a love for Dodgers baseball and bacon cheeseburgers. Derek is a D.Min student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and volunteers as chaplain for the local fire department. You can also find Derek in leadership at 4th Level Discipleship, an organization he started to help local churches grow in the area of discipleship. Derek is married to Alecia, and they have two boys, Raymond and Donovan.


bottom of page