If the recent election has taught us anything, it is the antithesis of Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that catapulted the then Illinois state senator to the national radar screen: the dividing lines are not between Red State and Blue State America, but between urban and rural America. So many from the working class went relatively unaccounted for in both national and state polling, so much so that we’ve arguably just experienced the biggest presidential upset since the infamous “Dewey defeats Truman” headline of 1948.
Therein is a lesson for the church, as well. I grew up 1.5 miles outside the city limits of Bowling Green, KY, a city/county/university region of roughly 100,000 people at the time, but I’ve spent the last 9 years pastoring in rural areas, first in agricultural Larue County, KY, (population 14,000) and currently in industrial Hancock County, KY and Perry County, IN, where we have church campuses (combined population of 27,500). During this past decade, I’ve met some great people in these settings, folks who I consider to be “salt of the earth,” but I’ve also had to adapt much of the city-oriented methodology I’ve been taught over the years to work in the contexts where God has placed me.
My situation is not unique. In fact, of the roughly 50,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the vast majority of these congregations are located in rural areas. Even as people continue to migrate toward the cities at one of the greatest rates in recorded history, the “backbone” of our denomination, including Cooperative Program giving and on the ground resources, continue to reside in town and country rather than metros and suburbs. Most of the aspiring pastors graduating from our seminaries will more than likely spend a significant amount (it not all) of their ministry within these secluded settings.
Yet, the availability of educational resources to rural pastors is relatively low. Take a trip to a Lifeway bookstore or browse through Amazon and see how many books or studies offer assistance to the country or county seat church. Pastor’s conferences frequently advertised as “How to Turnaround Your Congregation” or “Ministering Within Your Community” address the needs of hipsters and urbanites while neglecting those serving the rural South and the Rust Belt. While I am incredibly thankful our mission boards are making a major push to infiltrate our cities with gospel witness, I’m also concerned that many of the 8 out of 10 churches that are stagnant or in decline in our denomination will be left behind, because the tools offered to them don’t fit within their respective mission fields.
I want to call our pastors, seminary professors, and denominational leaders to consider marshaling resources for churches outside the freeways and beltways. There is much untapped potential within these communities. Seminary students who are aspiring to move to a church located next to a Starbucks (and I get it): consider the regional impact you can have on a church off the beaten path. If the congregation you pastor can by God’s grace experience revitalization, could you not offer assistance to other churches within your association, churches that may not otherwise merit attention? What if God used you to not only shepherd your own congregation, but to offer life support to churches about to close their doors nearby? That’s what happened within our context along the Ohio River. A sister SBC congregation in Perry County, IN, was about to fold, but the Lord graciously worked a partnership between us so that we were able to relaunch it as the Indiana campus of our Kentucky congregation. We’ve gone from 12 to 70 in about a year in a county where that church was the only SBC presence for 19,000 people. There’s work to be done elsewhere.
Believe me, I understand the appeal of the glamorous lights of the city and the convenience of the suburbs, and there are times when I strongly miss living in that type of setting. When I look to the ministry of Christ in the Gospels, though, most of his shepherding took place in the out of the way, backwoods paths of Galilee, yet out of those communities disciples were reached who carried the salvific luster of salt and light to the regions beyond. I don’t know if there’s another Billy Graham out here, waiting to hear that message, but if he is, I intend to find him. God uses people like that to turn the world upside down.