In the State of North Dakota alone, there are at least two hundred small towns with a population of five hundred or less. The majority of these towns are in areas in which there are no churches. This situation is probably repeated many times in other rural areas of America. Such territories present an opportune field of inexpensive evangelism for young workers desiring experience.
The worker must always keep in mind the different outlook in life that country people have in contrast to city dwellers. Above everything else they are practical-minded. They are continually dealing with material things. Their limited educational and cultural background makes them unaccustomed to thinking in the abstract. Hence, the outstanding quality needed is simplicity—though simple expressions are not necessarily shallow expressions. One can be simple and yet deep, as witness Christ's ministry. Mrs. E. G. White says of Him:
"They [the people] marveled at the spiritual truth expressed in the simplest language. The highly educated were charmed with His words, and the uneducated were always profited. He had a message for the illiterate ; and He made even the heathen to understand that He had a message for them."—The Desire of Ages, p. 254.
Some of us younger men, just out of college, feel obligated to proclaim the gospel in five-dollar words and sixty-dollar questions and answers. There is a strong temptation to display our newfound erudition. Country folks will doubtless offer many compliments on our "good speech," but let us not be deceived. Despite compliments to the contrary, men who speak "over the heads" of the audience are not making a good speech. Such are not transmitting the gospel; they are simply exhibiting the gospel. It is a poor exhibition, at that, as one of the cardinal Christian virtues is a humble and unpretentious spirit.
In sparsely settled districts the audience nearly always runs less than a hundred, perhaps only by a handful at times. Under these circumstances it is a definite commitment for anyone to come to the meetings. The less those in attendance can be made to feel that they are committing themselves, the better. It is essential to remember that everyone knows everyone else within a radius of ten or fifteen miles. It is hard for individuals to take their stand in front of all their worldly friends. Because of this, public expressions are difficult to get. In a small audience with all well acquainted with one another, an ill-timed attempt at a public expression may prove disastrous and close the door to many a heart.
The Tent as Advertising.—In country areas a tent or tabernacle is usually preferable to a hall. In such communities the mere presence of your tent or tabernacle is one of the best interest-getting sources of advertising. Such advertising, based on the easily whetted curiosity of country people, is short lived, however, and must be supplemented by other advertising. This advertising is best when in a simple and natural form. The biggest source of advertising should come from the meetings themselves. Rural people are known for their independence, and are likely to rebel against high pressure in any form. City people might be attracted by a barrage of clever advertising, but the people in "four corners" might become suspicious of such attempts and be repelled.
Questions and Answers.—One Way Of making the services themselves a good means of arousing and maintaining interest is to use the questionand-answer service. You may not get many questions, but people are always interested in listening to questions and answers. Therefore, I have come to the point where I tell the people that the questions answered are those that someone attending has asked, or questions that have been asked in my ministry. The advertising aspect of the questionand-answer service is excellent.
Soul-Inspiring Music.—Good music is an important source of advertising. Because of an interesting and soul-stirring musical program some farmer may phone his neighbor and invite him to come to the meetings. And in telling his neighbor he may be telling the ten or fifteen other families who are "listening in" on the party line. Such homespun advertising is unequaled by high-pressure paid advertising in any form. The ever-present tendency to gossip in such a community can work in your favor.
Adventist Nucleus.—For the first night I make a special effort to get all Adventists to be present, even though they may live forty or fifty miles away. In the last town in which I conducted an effort, the first night produced a crowd of 132 people, and over one half were Adventists. Because of the great distances, the next night there was only a handful of Adventists, but I had an audience of 138. Nothing succeeds like success in getting a crowd, even if it is prearranged ! So try to get a large opening crowd, and make the most of its advertising value. The foremost question in the minds of the potential country audience is, "Was there a big crowd?" At first the sermon, the music, and the personality of the evangelistic group are secondary to this seemingly all-important consideration.
The County Newspaper.—If you are working in the county seat, advertising in the county newspaper is good. Otherwise, it is a good idea to use handbills. But with the foundation laid by the newspaper approach, a person can sometimes work in another part of the county later on. However, if an evangelist has all his advertising in the newspaper, the readers can sometimes tell our denomination just from the sermon titles. Here is a real challenge for us to devise new, fresh, and intriguing sermon topics. It is a good plan to run an article in the newspaper announcing the opening meetings and the subject for the first night.
The Jury Trial.—I find the presentation of the change of the Sabbath by jury trial adaptable for country evangelism. Interest can be built up on the Sabbath question by use of the question-andanswer service. Here again it is a good plan to make use of the county newspaper. I have a short article telling of the jury trial and list it under a disguised title. The disguised title does not reveal the question to the rest of the county, but still advertises the meeting. We usually have all our advertising material printed by the county newspaper office. The editor will usually put an article on the front page with little or no alterations. This free advertising heightens interest in the meetings. Although not everyone receives the county newspaper, everyone that does get it reads it thoroughly.
A deeper sense of the importance of the jury trial is impressed upon the minds of the people when they see it written up in the newspaper. There may be some in a large city who have their suspicions about the honesty of the jury trial, but in the country such suspicions are impossible when everyone is personally acquainted with the members of the jury. The jury-trial service thrusts them and their neighbors into the midst of an exciting drama which is in marked contrast to the somewhat monotonous and lonely life on the farm. In this way a lasting impression can be made on the minds of the people.
Personal Visitation.----A large share of the work in thinly populated districts is made up of personal visits. Our visiting is not without its problems. One will almost invariably get a warm reception socially in the homes, but that does not include a warm reception spiritually in the heart. Remember, these people crave a fuller social life. Your visit in their home helps to satisfy that craving. Much time and effort can be lost by not taking this into consideration at the onset. Be quick to discover whether their interest in you concerns salvation or merely association.
The farm or ranch is a financial social unit. Usually a strong sense of family loyalty prevails. Although women won equal rights with men many years ago, they are not taking advantage of it in rural areas. Therefore, regardless of the husband's interest, or lack of it, take him into consideration. A short visit or a friendly chat can do much in allaying the growth of any jealous or unsympathetic feelings later on. Doubtless during the course of time you and your meetings will be discussed before the children. Take advantage of their innocence and note well their reaction toward you. Their reactions are a barometer of the true feeling of the parents toward you and your message. If you are visiting at mealtime and are sincerely invited to dinner, by all means stay if you possibly can. The people will almost invariably ask you to say grace whether they ever do or not. Thus you are having prayer at their home at their request, so make the most of it.
Help at Chore Time.—A visit made at chore time need not hinder your progress. Always have your overalls and boots in your car. Put on your work clothes, go into the barn, and assist wherever you can—or try to at least. You may think such work lowers you in the sight of these people. But actually it exalts you. Remember, country people are practical-minded, and they judge a person by the standard of his willingness to work. Mrs. E. G. White says:
"It will not detract from the dignity of a minister of Christ to be awake to see and realize the temporal burdens and cares of the families he visits, and to be useful, seeking to relieve them where he can by engaging in physical labor."—Testimonies, Vol. III, p. 558
Such helpful activity will bring you closer to the people. It will brighten the monotonous part of their day and add to their enjoyment of your visit. If you can get them to appreciate you, they will appreciate your message.
Many times when visiting, you may want to be sure that your interested person is clear on some part of the message. I have often asked whether there were any questions about the things presented at the meetings. But since thinking it through, I have decided that such a question is an insult to the person's intelligence. He silently reasons, "Of course, there are no questions. Do you think that I am so stupid that I did not understand what you were talking about last night ?"
To avoid such an opposing line of thought, my wife usually asks me some question about the meetings and I answer it. The person involved sees at once that even the minister's wife did not fully understand the entire subject, and he feels free to ask questions that reveal his lack of comprehension. Thus questions and misunderstandings can be cleared, and the truth allowed to take a firm hold on the heart.
Through it all be yourself, humble, sincere, and sympathetic. We are told concerning Christ: "Had it not been for the sweet, sympathetic spirit that shone out in every look and word, He would not have attracted the large congregations that He did."—The Desire of Ages, p. 254.
No one will be attracted unless the real spirit of Christ is present. Your work in country areas will no doubt be done in an off season when people have plenty of time—time to analyze, synthesize, and scrutinize all your words and actions. In all probability they will talk about your visits for many long hours after you are gone. They can tell the diamond from the highly polished glass. They can read your character. Do not underestimate a farmer's ability to understand human nature.
It is a real joy to work in sparsely settled areas. Finding a job with the Sabbath off is no problem here. This increases the possibility that both husband and wife may come into the truth together. There is no joy like the joy of seeing a whole family take their stand for God and thus establish a citadel of truth in the byways of this world.