Great Commission, Rural Edition

It’s hard to believe that sabbatical was a year ago: my family spent the fall of 2016 living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, spending most of our time in a cabin near Fancy Gap, Virginia (pop. 237), then coming down a few hundred feet in elevation to spend weekends with my parents in Pulaski, VA (pop. 8,837). While we were there, we split time between ELCA and Southern Baptist congregations — and got a taste of the challenges facing small town churches in rural settings… and of the passion and dedication of the Christian clergy and laity committed to serving such congregations and communities.

That’s a topic my wife understands much better than me. She grew up as a Lutheran pastor’s kid in one small town Iowa, and her brother is now a pastor in another. As usual, the lecture I gave yesterday on the British Agricultural Revolution was a matter of the blind leading the blind — at least, the suburban teaching the suburban about farming.

Methodist church in Battle Center, Iowa
Battle Center (IA) Methodist Church – Creative Commons (TumblingRun)

But knowing Katie’s family and spending time in the Blue Ridge has made me appreciate a bit better the joys and frustrations of ministry in such settings. I don’t mean to idealize those churches, but I’ve realized how invisible they can be to those of us whose idea of ministry and mission is shaped primarily by suburban megachurches and urban church plants.

As it happens, this week the Billy Graham Institute sponsored a two-day Rural Matters Conference in Texas. Pastors and other speakers reflected on the issues facing rural communities, and how churches can be both revitalized and planted in those contexts. “We need to change the way in which we see rural towns,” wrote Rural Matters director Wes Holland earlier this summer. “This takes spending time in the community while praying for an open heart and a clear mind from any predetermined views we might carry. We need to stop seeing small church, small town as a stepping stone but instead as a solid rock to build the house of the Lord (Matthew 7:24-27).”

But if you want to get the lay of this particular land, I’d recommend you start with “Great Commission, Rural Edition,” the cover story in the September/October issue of The Covenant Companion, for which religion journalist Bob Smietana visited rural churches and interviewed pastors in Nebraska, Kansas, and California. Here’s a taste of Bob’s insightful article:

September/October issue of The Covenant Companion
By the way, the “500 Years and Still Reforming” article (top-center, over the O in the magazine title) is by yours truly… I’ll let you all know when it comes available online

Popular perceptions of rural America vary widely—from images of God’s country, where everybody goes to church and loves Jesus, Mom, and apple pie, to scenes of despair and decay, where populations and services are declining and drug use and unemployment are increasing. The truth is somewhere in between.

Some rural communities are struggling. Some are thriving. Some are growing while others are shrinking. And while most people in rural America say they believe in God—many never darken the door of a church.

Indeed, small town pastors like one in Riley County, Kansas told Bob that “there are more people they’d like to reach. One of the big challenges is connecting with those who don’t attend church even though they believe in God and say they are Christians. ‘There are a lot of people we could be reaching,’ [Pastor Dwight] Diller says.”

But despite the challenges and raging debates over topics like immigration and racial diversity, Bob found these pastors hopeful. Brad Thie of Duke Divinity School, who oversees students interning at small town churches across the border from where we spent sabbatical, told him that pastors used to view rural ministry as “a place you served time until you went somewhere more important.” But more and more they consider staying: “They find themselves overwhelmed by the love, the experience of community, and the giving nature of people who live in those spaces.”

Read Bob’s full article here, and check out the essay that follows by Elisabeth Fondell, a North Park University graduate who left her corporate job to move home to a farm in southwestern Minnesota, where she’s “witnessed anew the ways spirituality and landscape intersect.”