In a recent article Anthony Bradley, professor of religious studies at The King’s College in New York, drew attention to the “deadly crisis in rural America.” Citing analysis from The Washington Post and studies from the National Center for Health Statistics, Bradley noted the unusually high rate of suicides in rural areas. Such statistics, he believes, evidence the hopelessness, despair, and depression found in the same. Without giving any answers, he asks the provocative and necessary question: “Do conservative Protestants care? Have we traded off reaching hurt people with redemptive healing and hope for influence and power in places where Christians can have an ‘impact’ and ‘influence’ the culture? […] Why are evangelicals more excited about planting churches and missions in ‘alpha cities’ among artists, creatives, and professionals rather than the rural areas where people are suffering?”
As a pastor in rural America these questions resonate deeply with me. It is well documented that small town America rarely looks like Mayberry, and a lot like “Methland.” The crisis we witness in these areas is a crisis for the church. After all, hopelessness, despair, and depression can only be interpreted, mitigated, and worked through by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, it is these areas that are becoming a veritable wasteland as Protestant churches are closing their doors in great number–not to mention those churches that are Evangelical and Reformed. If we will not abandon these areas to the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and to the “cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12), we are going to have to think hard, work strenuously, and sacrifice extensively for the sake of the gospel in rural areas.
So, what can be done? It’s easy to identify problems, but it’s another to move toward a solution. As one who feels strongly and passionately about the potential and place of the rural church, let me offer a few suggestions that will, perhaps, move a little closer to a solution–:
First, we need to acknowledge the value of the rural church. While I could count on one hand–even then I wouldn’t need all five fingers–the number of people I have met who seemed vocally opposed to the idea of rural ministry, on the whole I’m still suspicious that many don’t see a particular need for it. From the megaphone emphasis on the city, to the deafening silence from the publishing world, to the modern church’s craving for influence, impact, and celebrity-ism, to comments that have been made, I don’t think it’s uncharitable to reach the conclusion that some outside of the rural church see little value to it. But, in an effort to be an equal opportunist (or offender!) it’s not those outside the rural church who concern me most, it’s those inside. For instance, as I have read, visited, and conversed with rural pastors and churches, a hallmark struggle is that motivation and drive have been replaced by apathy and complacency. All too often there’s a paralyzing self-pity that has flushed out gratitude for what Jesus is doing and could do through the gospel. The result, as I have seen it, is little vision and even less mission. Or, as another example, I have interacted with parents who speak of their rural community as a good stepping stone or training ground before their children get to the “real world.” Some have acted like the real world–fallen in Adam, under God’s curse, ruled by Satan, and in bondage to the dominion of sin–exists out there and not in here. Aside from being a complete delusion, that’s no way to get anyone to value the ministry of the church whose only task is to make the glory of Christ for salvation known.
Second, we need to focus on the work of revitalizing the rural church. In the last decade there’s been such a strong emphasis placed on using people, time, and resources for church planting. That’s not a work to be condemned but greatly commended. Unfortunately, gains in planting have often been nearly-equaled by losses through closure. I remember hearing of one small church who concentrated efforts on planting a congregation in a nearby city even if it meant “dying in childbirth.” I have to admit being perplexed as to what good that would accomplish. One should not have to lead to the other. In his book From Embers to Flames, Harry Reeder wrote: “The Great Commission work of the apostle Paul was not just ministry to the unreached places and people, but also a ministry of revitalization.” That’s the reason Paul left Titus in Crete (Titus 1:5), it’s why he took a collection to Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 9:12-15), and why Jesus, by the hand of the Apostle John, sent the letter to the seven churches in Revelation. God has revealed himself to be a God who is engaged in strengthening that which is growing weak and giving life to what is dying–spiritually and physically (Romans 15:27). Many rural churches–with waning budgets, old buildings, empty pews, aging congregations, and small economic potential–are close to closing their doors. As eager as we are to plant new churches we need to be eager to revitalize the old! Of course, that work should begin with the local congregation itself. Renewing, for instance, its priorities around a biblical understanding of the ministry (even at the cost of smashing the idols of tradition!). But the broader church can be a great encouragement by lending time, people, and resources to help revitalize.
Third, we should sacrificially serve the need of the rural church. To date, I have met exactly three people–two pastors and one non–who have been determined to serve the rural church. That is to say, they weren’t there because of mere circumstances, or from a lack of other opportunities, or simply trying to make the best out of their location, or because of some antecedent necessity. They had a burden for the rural church and intentionally put themselves in a position to sacrificially serve. Maybe I’m completely ignorant but that seems rare. And it is look, at least to me, to be oddly disproportionate with the people I have met who want to serve in church plants or congregations in big cities–or wherever else is trendy, in-style, or being mass marketed. Now, I know you’re not supposed to question the “call” of God on someone’s life, so I’m not trying to disparaging–even if I disagree with the way we usually speak of “calling.” But, and I mean this in wider application than just the rural church, there does seem to be a correlative relationship between what’s fashionable and where God is supposedly leading many people. I digress. Nevertheless, I hope that people might actually see that sacrificial service in a rural church is a viable option. Again, this needs to begin with those already present. A great starting point is with our children, and developing in them a concern for the needs of the church over educational and economic priorities. After all, those best equipped to reach the hopeless, despairing, and depressed of a rural community would be those whom God has already placed in a rural community. But others as well–from seminary students to young adults to retirees–who want to be expended in the service of Christ should consider the many needs a rural church has and the limited potentials to fill those needs. Simply put, you could be the one to sacrificially serve the need of such a church. And while I can’t guarantee it for everyplace, I’m pretty sure Winchester, KS will still better than Jonah’s Nineveh.