Finding ways to connect with people who don't have a church is tricky in any setting. For the most part, reaching people who are not part of the church is relatively universal. But there are two unique things that must be acknowledged:
In a rural setting, most of your community knows about your church. In lots of small towns, the vast majority of people are friends with or related to a member of your church. What does that mean? In order to reach people in your community, you need to create a new impression of who your church is for them.
In a rural setting, smaller events can make a much bigger impact. In many rural communities, people are hungry for events to make connections or help their kids grow. It takes less money and less effort to connect with neighbors, as long as it's done strategically.
So then, what do we do? I believe that we can leverage "big days" to connect with neighbors to invite them to be a part of our ongoing ministry. Here are a few thoughts to guide your thinking:
Figure out what your big days are. Churches generally have 4-5 Sundays a year where they will see significantly more people than any other time. Christmas and Easter tend to be two of them. Mother’s day, town reunions, or events like confirmation can bring larger crowds. By identifying when you will meet more people, you can begin to plan for how you'll make an impression on neighbors.
Ask what your community is looking for. I was serving in the county seat of a county with a population of about 4,000 people. As Easter approached, I realized that the community didn't have any major kids’ activities on Easter weekend. We committed to creating an event that gave parents a place to bring their kids to hear the story of Easter and pick up some candy while they were at it. We invited everyone who came to the Easter Egg hunt back for church the next day! The event doesn't matter, just that you're making a positive impact on the people in the community.
Be ready to invite. How can you get the word out? Small town newspapers often love to have stories to write about. Meet the staff writer and send them an email about what you're planning for a big day. Social media can share what you're doing. For about $40 you can get a box of postcards made and hand them out to your congregation to share with neighbors, friends, and others. Your church members likely won't remember to tell others about your events unless you cue them.
Don't be afraid to fail. The only way to really figure out how to connect with your community is to try. One year I thought a class on teens and technology would be well-received. Two people showed up (both grandmotherly members of my church). It turns out, parents liked being with their kids. Sometimes we swing and miss, but if you're not failing, it might be time to risk a little more.
Get follow-up information. At our Easter Egg hunts, 60+ community kids would show up. We asked parents to "register" their kids - a postcard that had the kid's name, age, and a parent's e-mail address. When it came time for VBS, we invited all those kids to show up. In August, we asked them if they would like to be a part of Sunday School. A couple of families at a time, people began to engage and the ministry began to grow.
Big days are the times that more people are thinking about church than any other. You can open your front door wider and send a clear signal that the congregation would love to welcome it's arms to your neighbors.