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J.D. Vance – An Insightful Discussion

On Monday night Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, led a discussion with J.D. Vance, the author of the extremely popular Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book is a powerful telling of Vance’s own story of growing up in extremely dysfunctional homes, yet moving upwardly in society to become a Marine, college graduate and Yale-trained lawyer. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it, especially as a way to begin to understand a group of people not usually in contact with anything approaching a healthy church.

Here are a few of the highlights of the conversation.

Rural America: Is Anyone Listening?

I suppose as the citizens of the United States begin to digest the results of Tuesday’s election a lot of us will don the appearance of political pundits. Given the historic upset of the Presidential race there will, no doubt, be an endless flow of commentary, dissection, and analysis. If you’re an armchair politician it might prove fascinating if not also a bit entertaining, but if you’re looking for a measure of peace and quiet it seems this campaign season will not fade so quickly into silence.

I’m not a political pundit or intellectual scholar. Of course, after last night I’ve lost confidence in political “science” and the opinions of the experts. Nevertheless, any reflection I might add to the noise may prove to be superficial or, at worst, completely wrong. While I didn’t support either of the major candidates I cannot help but think last night was a stinging indictment of—maybe even a victory over—the political, social, and media elite. The mainstream seemed completely unable to comprehend what was happening and, to his credit, NBC’s Lester Holt noted several times: “This is because of us.” After hours of wrestling with results the one comment that stuck with me was how […]

Rural and Small Town Ministry

I hope you won’t mind if I indulge for a moment in some shameless self-promotion. Recently, the denomination I belong to and the one most affiliated with Gentle Reformation, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, held its quadrennial international conference in Marion, IN. As a father of five children, a pastor with some teaching responsibilities, and one who is a fairly energetic socialite, the week was exhausting but filling. One of my personal highlights was being able to speak at a workshop on the topic of rural and small town ministry. See! I told you it would be a moment of shameless self-promotion.

For the last three years I have been pastor of Winchester RPCNA in Winchester, KS. Our small community boasts of a whopping estimated population of 535 people. Even before becoming a pastor there was a soft spot in my heart for rural and small towns. Having grown up in southern Minnesota both my wife and I have been aware that in these areas it can be difficult to find Christ-centered and gospel believing churches. Where they do exist their continuance is often threatened for lack of people and resources. We should do what we can to maintain […]

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 […]

So Andy Stanley Thinks I’m Selfish

I am a pastor of a relatively small church. Well, if statistics are correct it would be more accurate to say our congregation is just under the median size of churches in the United States. Nevertheless, we aren’t big. We have no marketing budget. We’re not on the cutting edge of anything. We don’t have an endless list of programs. We’re not into flashy or snazzy youth groups. We’ll never  have a large administrative staff. Also to be quite honest, we’ll probably never see our membership skyrocket. But we do concentrate on those things that matter most–preaching, sacraments, prayer, and fellowship.

I love my church! My wife and I have frequently commented to each other how grateful we are that this is the church our children will always call home. They know everyone and are known by everyone. They have adults of all ages who love them fiercely, invest in them deeply, pray for them often, guard them carefully, and encourage them sincerely. I can honestly say I wouldn’t want it any other way.

That’s why I was, at least in part, so shocked (even offended) when I heard mega-church pastor Andy Stanley denounce those who prefer or choose smaller churches without […]

Harvest Eyes

I grew up surrounded by the cornfields of Minnesota and now I live encompassed by the ones in Kansas. Truth be told, they’re my favorite landscape. I know some people prefer the mountains of Colorado or the seacoast beaches. I’ve even met some people whose preference lies in cityscapes—I still can’t figure that out. As for me, I love the rolling green hills blanketed by a sea of golden tassels trembling on stalks of corn. And as summer slowly yields to autumn the silks, shucks, and stalks begin to turn varying degrees of brown as the dry out. To the unknowing eye it may seem the corn is simply dying. But to those who have harvest eyes it’s a good indication that the corn is ripe for the picking.

It’s remarkable to me that this is the way the greatest evangelist who ever lived saw people. I’m not writing about Wesley or Whitefield, Moody or Graham, but of Jesus. Everywhere Jesus went he saw a field that was ripe for the harvest. It didn’t matter where he was. Jesus evangelized in the high-population urban centers of government, commerce, education, and religion. He also spent time in those tiny out-of-the-way villages—a great […]

Growth in the Rural Church

It was once quipped that trying to turn a rural church around is harder than reaching a group of practicing Muslims. Gloomy as it may sound, rural churches are facing some unique challenges, especially as it concerns membership. The allurement of the city and the agricultural mechanization of the last fifty years has left rural America in a steady decline. The church has felt the effects. I don’t think too highly of statistical research, but both Barna and Pew have suggested that the overwhelming majority of rural churches have, at best, no increased growth and, at worst, decline.

Despite such gloomy sentiments it seems the rural church can grow. A couple of years ago W. Scott Moore assessed growth patterns in rural churches that had experienced a significant increase in membership by those who were previously unchurched. And guess what? He lived to write a book about it!

So how does one “grow” a rural church? Of course, growth is ultimately dependent on the Spirit alone. Paul reminds us: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). So perhaps it should be asked: what are unchurched people looking for in a rural church? Surprising as it may seem, […]

The Rural Church Potential

“In short, I like living in a small town. The urbanites may say that this is sentimentality, but I refuse to let the word frighten me. I believe that small-town life has values that should be preserved if they possibly can be. After all, the human race has spent the greater part of its existence in small communities, and I doubt if we have outgrown the need for a comprehensible society.”

That was written by Granville Hicks, a twentieth century intellect who was allured to small-town living. In 1946 he could already see the coming decline of rural America. “Has any small town,” he wrote “a future in this age of industrialism, urbanism, and specialization?” That didn’t stop him, however, from celebrating the lasting values of community. He even survived small town living to write a penetrating and winsome sociological commentary on rural life titled, Small Town. This American classic isn’t a how-to for rural ministry, but, it may surprise some, his perceptive awareness of society is very beneficial for the country church.

Let me just come out and say it. Either explicitly or implicitly, the modern church seems to place little to no value on the rural church. I get it. […]