Helping Rural America in Crisis

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.

10 Comments

  1. Phil Pockras May 25, 2016 at 2:22 pm #

    Excellent thoughts, Kyle. The general context for both our congregations is quite similar. I wonder if our home mission thinkers across our Synod have given thoughts like yours, and mine, much consideration, yet. I hope and pray that they will!

    • Kyle Borg May 26, 2016 at 10:59 am #

      Thanks, Phil!

  2. Marie May 26, 2016 at 9:36 am #

    After reading the quote at the beginning of this post I clicked on the link ready to disagree strongly with the article. What I found was actually a fairly balanced article on the neediness of rural america and the need for ministry there. I believe that the question he asks and the way he words it sets up a false tension between city and rural ministry and turns it into some sort of suffering contest. The city ministries I have seen and been a part of have not been exclusively ministering to “artists, creatives, and professionals”. They have often been caring for people in desperate poverty, the elderly who have no one else to turn to, the disabled, and many other suffering people.

    While I think this article is helpful I wish he had found a way to call people to rural ministry without discrediting the good work of city ministry.

    • Kyle Borg May 26, 2016 at 11:07 am #

      Marie, thanks for the comment!

      I’m not sure Dr. Bradley was trying to create a false tension. He gives kudos to Tim Keller and his fruitful ministry of drawing the attention of a generation of people to crisis in the city. I do think, like you noted, Bradley is looking for balance and looking for someone to voice the concerns for the rural church as Keller did thirty years ago for the city. I think it’s an ambitious challenge and a much needed one.

      Again, thanks for your thoughts!

      • Marie May 26, 2016 at 1:06 pm #

        Kyle,

        Thanks for your reply. What I was trying to say was that I don’t think that quote was the best one to use as an out of context introduction to the article. When I read the quote without the rest of the article it reads, at least to me, as disparaging city ministry. When I read it in the context of the rest of the article it was much less so.

  3. Steve Rockhill May 28, 2016 at 8:53 pm #

    All I will add is a hearty, Amen!

  4. Robin Monroe June 2, 2016 at 8:11 am #

    I think this is an excellent and thought provoking post. There are so many factors at play in both large cities and rural communities that sometimes I think they are completely ignorant of the existence of each other. One reason there is much less enthusiasm among people to serve in rural areas is that they don’t believe that rural areas can economically support a pastor and their family at a middle class level. I lived in a small town in North Dakota for a number of years and all those many decades ago each of the pastors in town were married and their wives were “pastor’s wives.” They did not have jobs apart from partnering with their husband to minister to the congregation they served. Today, many less women who marry pastors see themselves as or want to be a “pastor’s wife.” Generally speaking, small town America doesn’t have significant employment options for most women to have great careers this further discourages couples from seeking positions to minister there.

    The problems with “meth-America” are very real and largely unnoticed in large cities where they busily deal with their own problems of homelessness, drug addiction, human trafficking, etc. But the hopelessness of the youth in rural America is very real. They are growing up where there are few jobs that can support a family, the family farms are doing poorly so the only young people that want to stay on the farm are doing so for reasons other than financial reward.

    In the midst of all of this, however, there are a few solutions that can be worked out. First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a very large amount of grant money available for people who want to start businesses in rural areas that will employ locals at a living wage. And it may be that rural ministers need to cultivate relationships with some business people to develop an economic plan for their community that will begin to bring some hope back to rural towns. I believe that when people see that as Christian’s we recognize Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and realize that it is hard to evangelize people who are ‘giving up’ because it is so difficult to meet basic needs. Once those needs are met it is easier to engage people with the love of God; not only because they see us demonstrating God’s love toward them but because they have the time and energy to give attention to something other than basic needs and self-medicating.

    Second, I think that rural pastors should reach out to those who are working hard to spread the concepts of missional community, such as Verge Network and others. I don’t see any reason why it would be impossible to engage Christian artists, musicians, creatives, and others from the large cities to assist with rural ministry. Most people who are not engaged are only disengaged because they are not aware of the need.

    When I was a teenager in North Dakota, I was blessed by the Youth Group at the church I attended. The group was led by 3 single women that were school teachers and they all lived together in a very large house that they rented. Every week we met at their home where we cooked a communal meal together while listening to contemporary Christian music, and after eating and cleaning up we had a bible reading and discussed the portion read as a group, and then had prayer together. Half the kids that came were friends of the kids from church, eventually the un-churched kids became believers. It was never fast, it wasn’t without some drama, but it always happened. The Holy Spirit worked mightily in that group. The kids that were not from the church would never come to an event at the church, but they enjoyed the events at the home of the teachers even though in many ways there was far more gospel going on there than there was when the youth group did activities at the church.

    Third, I think we need to reach out to the ‘city and suburban’ churches in our denominations for assistance with funding rural pastor’s salaries to make them attractive to younger couples in the ministry.

    Well, I’ve rattled on long enough here. I enjoy this blog immensely and pray for the work you all are doing.

    In Christ,
    Robin

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