Ministry in Small Towns: Worth a Lifetime Investment

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There’s been a recent renewal of evangelical attention given to ministry in rural areas and small towns. The Vineyard’s Small Town USA Initiative plants churches around the country, and Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism has launched the new Rural Matters InstituteHelpful books have been published, including Donnie Griggs’s Small Town Jesus [read TGC’s review], Aaron Morrow’s Small Town Mission, and Brad Roth’s God’s Country, and articles about small-town ministry have appeared in WORLD magazine and on sites like The Gospel Coalition.

This renewed evangelical interest is part of a broader cultural curiosity about rural areas and small towns—the parts of the country largely responsible for the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

It’s uncertain whether this current interest (both from the broader culture and from evangelicals) will continue. So long as it does, what might be done to nurture it into an enduring and effective movement toward the millions of Americans who live outside urban centers? There are numerous answers to that question; but one of the most important, I believe, is the development of a theological vision for ministry in small places.

Theological Vision

Tim Keller has taught a generation of urban pastors the meaning and importance of theological vision. It’s “a middle space between doctrine and practice,” in which we reflect on theology and culture to discern how each shape ministry. It’s “a vision for what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.” It’s not a list of practical, specific how-to’s; it’s an approach to ministry that is translatable into different cultures and styles.

In developing a theological vision, Keller suggests we ask (among other questions), “Where are we located—city, suburb, town, rural area—and how does this affect our ministry?” Place matters a lot. A fruitful ministry will neither undercontextualize nor overcontextualize to its place. It will appreciate and adapt, but also challenge and confront.

Much of Keller’s theological vision for ministry is naturally keyed toward big places—urban and cultural centers. And it has yielded immensely rich fruit; Redeemer City to City has planted hundreds of thriving churches in major world cities. And yet a fruitful, enduring movement toward small places will benefit from a theological vision for ministry specifically tailored to those places. What’s needed is an understanding of how foundational doctrinal commitments will translate into small-place ministry values, which will then shape small-place ministry practice.

Avoiding Worldly Thinking

A major part of developing a theological vision for ministry to small places is coming to a better understanding of those places themselves. One good way to deepen our understanding is through an awareness of the often-flawed attitudes of our broader culture toward small places. Seeing clearly how our culture views small places falsely will help ensure our own instincts and actions don’t simply follow the culture’s lead, but are biblically and theologically informed.

In at least four ways, small places can be marginalized and misunderstood.

1. Small places are often forgotten.

In December 2012, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to a farm group in Washington, D.C. He warned of rural America’s increasing irrelevance in a rapidly urbanizing nation:

Unless we respond and react, the capacity of rural America and its power and its reach will continue to decline. Rural America, with a shrinking population, is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country.

A 2013 USA Today article noted the difficulties that national lawmakers from rural areas face in passing legislation to aid their own communities, since they’re so significantly outnumbered by politicians representing urban areas. As the state demographer of South Dakota noted, “Our rural people are not that significant. We don’t have the votes. We don’t have the voice.” Vilsack himself has often spoken of rural America as invisible and forgotten.

No matter how you interpret President Trump’s rise, it’s clear that his winning rural places was tethered to the feeling of rural people that they were indeed invisible and forgotten. Their desire to be seen and remembered was so powerful that they were willing to give their votes to a fabulously wealthy urbanite who promised to give them a voice. But even if for the moment small places are being remembered, that may be the short-term exception that proves the long-term rule.

To the extent Christians forget the small places, we fail them.

Evangelicals must beware of forgetting the small places. Such a shift away, in terms of ministry priorities, has been underway for some time. A 2016 Washington Post article observed:

As major ministries, conferences, book publishing, and church planting became centers of evangelical activity in urban and suburban areas in recent decades, evangelical leadership and priorities shifted away from small-town America.

We should all celebrate the gospel gains achieved through urban church-planting initiatives of the past 30 years. But it’s clearly the case that, in the move toward urban centers, the small places have been eclipsed. The city has a “cool factor” the countryside simply cannot rival. A 2016 Daily Beast article quoted one observer as saying, “Coming to New York [City] becomes the coolest thing in the world for pastors: You’re getting the very best to come.”

The most well-known pastors, authors, movement leaders, and conference speakers almost invariably live and minister in urban or suburban places, and it can be very difficult for them to be in touch with the unique needs of rural places.

In an important 2016 Christianity Today article, “I Overlooked the Rural Poor—Then Trump Came Along,” Tish Harrison Warren confessed her deafness to the “suffering and frustration of impoverished whites” in the “vast open reaches of the country,” admitting, “For many, rural communities and small towns are faceless places we road-trip through on our way to somewhere else.” Warren wondered whether urban evangelicals, in “our commitment to the city and snobbery about quality coffee, have forgotten the least of these outside the city limits?” With striking candor, she confessed a “conviction of sin” for her ignorance of—and indifference to—the small places.

To the extent that Christians forget the small places, we fail them. We cannot serve what we forget. A theological vision for ministry in small places, then, will begin simply by remembering them. We must read, study, observe, experience, participate. What are the contemporary realities of life on the farms, in the hamlets and villages and countryside? How do people in small places think about where they live? How do they think about themselves? Where must those views be endorsed or challenged? What are the unique dynamics of ministry in a small place?

A wealth of research, including sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s Small-Town America, and Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’s Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, provides fresh insight. But of course, it’s not enough to read. At least some of us will be called to live and minister in the small places, and to develop a theological vision from that experience. These places are worthy of long attentiveness, care, and respect. No person is too skilled, godly, or educated to devote his or her entire life to serving a small, unknown place.

2. Small places are often despised.

Wuthnow bluntly identifies some of our broader culture’s stereotypes: “Small towns are places where village idiots reside, country bumpkins gather, and rednecks tell bigoted jokes.” His description is not a joke—you can find this kind of attitude even in Christian circles. As one urban ministry book reads, “In order to win people to Christ and plant churches, Paul didn’t go to a haystack in the countryside.”

I understand the thinking that denigrates small places, because I shared it for the first 30 years of my life.

Strangely, Christians grasp the importance of sending our best young people to small places on the foreign mission field, but often feel differently about those who go to small places in our own country, as though they’re squandering their talent and education. A Time magazine article noted the warning one professor gave to a gifted seminary student considering a call to rural ministry: “Don’t go. You’re too creative for that.” Some Christians participate in what Michael Kruger has called “the arrogance of the urban” and Emmett Rensin has called the “smug style,” a mindset that disdains or caricatures small places as backward and unimportant.

It’s a view with a long pedigree (John 1:46).

I understand the thinking that denigrates small places, because I shared it for the first 30 years of my life. Though I grew up in a small town, I somehow internalized the notion (it was never explicitly expressed to me) that the farther I could get from my hometown, the greater a success I would be. Moving to a faraway city became my idea of making it big. And indeed, I made significant strides toward my goal, living and studying in distant, wealthy suburban areas and receiving an advanced degree from an overseas university. Then God called me to live and minister in a small town. In the decade since, I’ve come to more clearly see—and repent of—my sinful attitude.

We cannot serve what we despise. Developing a theological vision for rural and small-town ministry will include recovering a respect for these places and their people—an affirmation of Francis Schaeffer’s claim that there are no little people and no little places.

The Bible will help us here. It’s high time for a fresh assessment of the biblical view of small places. Eckhard Schnabel’s two-volume work Early Christian Mission (2004) and his subsequent Paul the Missionary (2008) provide evidence of both urban and rural elements in early Christian mission (including the small-town and rural focus of Jesus himself). More recently, Thomas Robinson’s major scholarly work Who Were the First Christians?: Dismantling the Urban Thesis (2017) shows the composition of early Christianity was likely much more rural than has been recognized. Christianity is rooted in a respect for the small, not a denigration of it. Jesus and his apostles valued and served those who were marginal, uninfluential, and despised by others. Indeed, that is who they were (1 Cor. 1:26–30).

3. Small places are often idealized.

Rural demographer Calvin Beale once wrote, “The countryside was a time machine in which urbanites could see the living past, and feel nostalgic or superior, as the sight inclined them.” Indeed, Wuthnow notes that large metropolitan residents often have perceptions of small places that fall into one of two categories: despising them or idealizing them. They think, Wouldn’t it be nice to live like people used to when nobody locked their doors, the air was fresh, morals were pure, and life was uncomplicated? Such views have been around for a long time. In 1802, a Maine woman named Eliza Southgate wrote to a friend, “Our novelists have worn the pleasures of rural life threadbare.”

Evangelicals have sometimes participated in this idealization. Some time ago, I read an urban church-planting book that referred to the “peaceful environment of small-town America,” naively obscuring the complex realities and deep brokenness of many small places. Another resource spoke of idyllic towns where one could more easily escape the city’s sinfulness and complexities. We must do better. We will not fruitfully serve what we idealize. If we don’t see the problems, we won’t address them.

A theological vision for ministry to small places will recognize the deep sinfulness, brokenness, and complexity of people everywhere, in places big and small. Our broader culture is increasingly aware of the rural problems. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, Joan Williams wrote:

In the huge red plains between the thin blue coasts, shockingly high numbers of working-class men are unemployed or on disability, fueling a wave of despair deaths in the form of opioid epidemic.

Hearteningly, some Christians are taking notice. TGC recently published a major piece on the opioid crisis and the substantially rural aspect of that crisis. To quote Eliza Southgate again, writing in 1802: “Let us judge for ourselves—we all have seen what the pleasures of rural life are, and whatever poets may have ascribed to it, we must know there is as much depravity and consequently as much discontent in the inhabitants of a country village as in the most populous city.”

4. Small places are often used.

Most small places are tiny in population and influence. People are scattered over the countryside, which makes it more difficult to rally them and advocate for political causes (which is why Trump’s achievement was so unexpected and impressive). Consequently, small places are more likely to be taken advantage of by larger, more powerful metropolitan areas than vice versa, even though the agricultural heartland continues to feed our country.

Serial short-term stays are exactly what small places do not need.

There’s another way in which small places are disadvantaged in relationship to metropolitan areas: Many of the young people who are loved, cared for, invested in, and educated in small places will eventually move to universities and cities, never to return. This one-way population flow has sparked urban renaissances in big cities, while creating what Carr and Kefalas refer to as an “unstoppable downward cycle” in many small towns. Young people leave, school enrollments decline, resources diminish, poverty and social isolation increases—and therefore, unsurprisingly, young people don’t want to come back. Carr and Kefalas note that when talented kids move away, “the investment the community has made in them becomes a boon for someplace else.”

We must beware lest we, in our own way, participate in the “using” of small places. Small-town ministry has long suffered from what might be called “youth ministry syndrome.” Seminary graduates minister in small places to prepare for what they really want to do: be a lead pastor in an urban or suburban church. They’re encouraged in this by those who advise them to get experience in a small place before moving to a bigger one. A friend told me he remembers someone referring to their small church as a “starter church.”

And Wendell Berry offers the heartbreaking testimony that in 50 years in his rural community, “many student ministers have been ‘called’ to serve in its churches, but not one has ever been ‘called’ to stay.” Instead, small, rural communities have paid for (and sometimes endured) the training of ministers who invariably go off to big cities. One of the two small churches in my hometown had a long succession of seminary students pass through, staying put until they graduated and a bigger church in a bigger place called them away.

While many reasons for leaving are certainly understandable, serial short-term stays are exactly what small places do not need. In interviewing small-town residents, Wuthnow found that, for them, the “most compelling aspect” of their community was that “things stay the same.” People in small places tend to place great value on longevity, trustworthiness, and depth of relationship—precisely what our system of “graduating” promising pastors to big places does not give them.

Keller rightly notes that in large churches, pastors earn the right to counsel by preaching well, while in small churches they earn the right to preach by counseling well. Counseling requires time, knowledge, and relationship. It can be difficult to live in small places, and God will call some faithful Christians to move from small to big places for a variety of excellent reasons (it’s certainly not an automatic mark of selfishness to leave). But he will also call some to stay long-term because of love.

No person is too skilled, godly, or educated to devote his or her entire life to serving a small, unknown place.

To the extent that we participate in our culture’s using of small places, we will fail those places. We cannot serve what we’re merely using. A theological vision for ministry to small places will see them not as means to a greater end, not as stepping stones to a more desirable station, but as places we want to be for the glory of God.

Worth a Lifetime Investment

Being aware of worldly ways of thinking about small places will spark a theological vision for reaching them. Small places are worse than we believe when we idealize them—they’re fractured, needy, and hurting. But small places are simultaneously better than we realize when we despise them. They’re worthy of our full attention and devoted service, if for no other reason than that millions of eternal souls still live in them.

To the extent that God’s people embrace small places through committed, long-term service, may we skillfully translate our doctrine into ministry values that will deepen our gospel influence in these places that God himself loves.

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