the shape of leadership

Reaching and Revitalizing Rural America

Overcoming misconceptions, and answering the call

We live in a world of paradoxes.

As in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, it is the best of times and somehow also the worst of times. It appears to be the age of information and knowledge, yet proves to be an age of foolishness. It is an era of belief and a time of faithlessness, a season of light in a world of complete darkness, a spring of hope amidst the winter of despair. This seems to be the narrative of many churches in America, but especially in rural America.

The story of rural America is one of grit, resourcefulness, independence, craftsmanship and sheer determination. It is the story of community, lifelong relationships and family bonds. This image holds a nostalgic place in many hearts.

Those who live in, or have spent significant time in, rural areas may have witnessed its endurance — the warm-heartedness of neighbors, the firmness of family values, the closeness of relationships and community. There are still examples of this today throughout rural America. It is a wonderful narrative to embrace and catalyze in ministry and mission, an ideal worthy of aspiration.

But it is not the full picture.

There is another story of rural America, and it is much more troubling.

J.D. Vance called our attention to this last year in Hillbilly Elegy. It is a story of a struggling, aging, diminishing and sometimes decaying culture. It is a story of limited resources in communities abandoned by a population that has clambered to its cities. It is a story of losses in industry, government, philanthropy and even the church. It is a story of growing poverty and challenges with healthcare and addiction. It is a story of dramatically disintegrating family structures. This story is also part of the picture.

Facts are our friends. And sometimes facts are hard to hear.

Statistics validate the more negative perspective, even more so in recent years. Rural churches are at a crossroads. They are facing paradigmatic shifts, which, without the Spirit’s guidance, will lead to the dying of many more churches.

After decades of near invisibility in the shadow of the urban mission enterprise, the term “rural” is rising again into the public consciousness. This was especially apparent in the last presidential election, which seemingly gave voice to many who were largely absent from the public discourse in the media.

Generalizations and caricatures must give way to true understanding. We must see the myriad people in rural America as more than just a distant demographic. They are individuals and communities with real opportunities and challenges.

Particularly as the Church, we must look with clear eyes and with the mind of Christ. When we hear the term “rural,” we should think of a unique group of diverse individuals made in God’s image, broken as we all are by the Fall, and in need of the redemption that only Jesus offers.

It’s easy to look where we don’t live and make assumptions that are both inaccurate and dehumanizing. It’s worse when assumptions become judgments. And it’s most concerning when we develop our mission from them. Here are three problematic misconceptions:

Cultural Homogeneity

The first misconception is that rural America is basically all the same. In truth, the rural landscape represents millions of people with as many individual stories. They live in diverse communities, each with their own cultures formed by geographic boundaries, local industries, regional history and more. Each of these communities makes a unique contribution to the national tapestry. Each also has unique struggles.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies rural as the 15 percent of our population (over 46 million people) who live on 72 percent of the land. The vastness of the geography alone creates massive diversity!

Within this diversity are complex economic issues that are important to understand when looking strategically at mission and ministry. Some rural counties are scenic retirement and vacation destinations. These areas are often a blend of abundant wealth and abject poverty, where industrialism has given way to the service or tourism industry.

Rural counties in America’s “breadbasket” tend to be static communities that maintain agriculture as an economic engine. These counties may be remote and isolated.

Areas within the Rust Belt between the mountainous Northeast and Appalachian South have suffered massive job losses with a declining industrial base. These counties have seen a dramatic shift within a single generation as coal specifically, and industrial opportunities in general, declined in America.

Additionally, rural areas are home to multiple ethnicities and increasing cultural diversity. Hispanics comprise approximately 9.3 percent of the rural population, and African-Americans account for just over 8 percent. Ethnic diversity in rural areas tends to cluster geographically, depending on language resources (such as ESL training), housing developments in proximity to schools, and familial ties.

Rural areas in the Southwest have higher numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans. In some rural counties, these ethnic populations are considerably higher than their overall national average, bearing witness to the increasing need for a different view of rural communities than our past or fleeting perspectives have painted.

In recent years, we’ve accepted the concept that every city has its own unique personality and socioeconomic areas within its geography. When we move from city to city, we can tell we are in a different place. The people, food, local industries and interests tell different stories — and point to the need for different outreach approaches. From New York to Nashville, Tennessee, to Denver to Los Angeles, local stories, pains, struggles and history inform mission.

The truth is, every place is like that, no matter how big or small. To paint any people with a broad brush is not to see them for who they truly are.

Knowing that a place is rural does not mean you know its heart or its needs; it simply means you know its broadest classification. Stopping there would be like hearing someone’s name, then assuming you know them intimately without asking any further questions.

Rural communities have distinct cultures we must get to know, one community at a time. We cannot go on mission in a community if we don’t learn its complex history, understand its present reality, and desperately long and labor for its future to thrive with the hope of the gospel.

Idyllic Life

The second misconception is that rural America is doing fine, while the inner cities alone are in decline. Though the general population of rural communities is diverse, there are challenges that are increasingly pervasive and common among many of these people groups. This is due in part to national trends in population migration.

Over the past century, the U.S. has seen ongoing urbanization. In 1900, roughly 35 percent of the population lived in metropolitan areas. Today, that number is 86 percent. Urban sprawl has overtaken many formerly rural counties, transforming and reclassifying them. Fewer than 50 million people currently live in the 1,976 counties that remain classified as non-metro today, and the collective population within those counties is shrinking.

The result is a smaller American countryside comprised of slower-growing counties with a reduced and stagnant economic potential. Despite a resurgence of jobs and rising wages since the economic downturn of 2008, recovery in rural America is slower. In fact, rural employment rates remain below pre-recession levels.

A 25 percent decline in rural manufacturing caused 700,000 jobs to disappear between 2001 and 2015, with many of these jobs moving overseas. The jobs that do exist offer significantly lower salary rates than those in urban places.

Rural areas are also lagging in education and healthcare. Even as national education levels increase, there is a widening gap between the number of urban and rural dwellers with college degrees.

The Demographics Research Group at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia reports that since 1990, college graduates living at the center of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas soared by 23 percentage points, while in communities 30 miles away, the rise was merely 10 points. The gap grows as one continues to move further out from the city. This is due in part to the relocation of those who obtain degrees to find more economic opportunity.

Rural residents also tend to be older and sicker than their urban counterparts. When wealth and college graduation rates are lower in a community, it limits overall financial access to preventative healthcare. People with lower incomes simply don’t see a doctor when they are not (yet) sick. This is not the only cause of overall health decline, however.

After adjustment for age, we still see that the level of accidental deaths in rural areas is 50 percent higher than in cities. High-speed traffic-related accidents explain some of this, but so does opioid abuse and overdose deaths, which are highest among poor and rural populations.

A 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate is higher for farmers than veterans. There are many possible reasons for this, but it seems the mental health of our rural brothers and sisters is in as much peril as their economic, educational and physical health. All is most certainly not right.

Altogether, this does not bode well for the future. If the trend continues, it will not only lower the rural population but increase its dependence on urban growth and economic well-being for supplementing the needs in the country. There will be fewer rural wage earners to support those who depend on them, including children and retired family members.

To paint any people with a broad brush is not to see them for who they truly are.

And a community’s shrinking population is not just a demographic and economic challenge. It also means the culture is in danger of dying. The ethos of a community is dependent on its collective memory. Places become what they are because of the people in them. Families pass down traditions from one generation to the next, and a town’s character forms.

What happens when the people are gone? Their memories and shared experiences go with them. Some areas may experience a revitalization of sorts, with a new character and culture forming in place of the old one. But for many, the town’s soul quietly disappears, leaving a shell of former vitality. This can be disconcerting for the remaining people who live and work there. They aren’t just selfishly pining away for the good old days. They are grappling for their center of gravity.

This is the antithesis of the notion that rural America is doing fine. Our rural friends are not experiencing an idyllic lifestyle in contrast to urban struggles. In reality, rural America is in a perilous position — perhaps in greater danger of decay and decline than many cities. This requires the urgent attention and prayers of Christians. If we want to be on mission, we must take these challenges into account and approach them with understanding and empathy.

Gospel Saturation

The third misconception is that rural America doesn’t need another church. The migration trend toward urbanization has defined church planting for the last century. As people continue to move into the cities, urban church planting remains important. However, that does not negate the desperate need for churches in rural areas.

In his book, Small Town Jesus: Taking the Gospel Mission Seriously in Seemingly Unimportant Places, Donnie Griggs writes, “Small-town America has fallen apart. Maybe it is not directly because of our focus that has primarily been on urban centers. That is certainly debatable, but what is not debatable is that small towns are just as in need of great leaders and great churches as any big city is. Is this a surprise to us who believe Jesus is the only hope for all people everywhere?”

Many small communities have multiple church steeples rising high into the sky, but what about the average attendance in their pews? One excellent tool that answers this question is The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), which maintains the U.S. Congregational Membership Report by county and compares it with U.S. Census data. A quick look at rural zip codes through this tool reveals that the number of people not attending any church in rural counties is much more significant than many of us would guess.

Research shows that, regardless of geographic location, life-giving congregations and mission-minded, energetic churches that are active and engaged in their community are still needed in every rural county. A “Christian presence,” particularly one that is about nominal identity rather than engaged participation, is simply not enough in rural America. There is a need for church vitality with a missional focus. The so-called Bible Belt and other rural areas are not even close to reaching a gospel saturation point.

But let us not despair. There is a great opportunity for us in rural America, as there is an evident need for preaching and discipleship. The rural church is not the cul-de-sac of a marginalized mission, but an important pipeline for the strengthening of the Church in all of America.

These statistics may seem discouraging, but they represent an opportunity for the Church. We should interpret them as a call for another Great Awakening — one that embraces the potential and steps out in obedience, faith and expectation. We must also remember that just because the facts seem grim does not mean there is an absence of good.

People living in rural communities are image-bearers of God. In many places, you will find the remaining individuals locking arms and caring for one another with genuine depth, sincerity and love. This is an expression of the gospel, and when these attitudes are redeemed under the Person, work and lordship of Christ, there is no telling how mighty and impactful these communities can be. But it will require a countercultural movement that intentionally invests in rural communities.

Going on mission doesn’t mean arrogantly barging in with expert advice from the outside as if we have all the answers. It means learning the questions and problems, becoming a part of the community, and seeing the beauty that comes from relationships in such a setting.

As the challenges mount and people start going into these areas, we cannot just stand back and encourage the work with distant shouts. We must strategically create systems of support. Just as we looked to the big cities and began to think together about how we could reach them 100 years ago, we must do this now for small towns.

The expertise to reach these areas often comes from within them. It takes a unified effort of the Church — both inside and outside rural America — to bring together the knowledge and resources to advance God’s mission.

The voices of those who have a passion for reaching rural communities are beginning to coalesce, and this is a good thing. We are forming a missiology that has a heart for the vast territory we refer to as rural in our country.

Models of Hope

Multiple voices have articulated a burden for this area, and they are no longer distant and inaudible. Many of these leaders grew up in rural areas and have answered God’s call to return and minister there.

In his book, Transforming Church in Rural America: Breaking All the Rurals, Shannon O’Dell writes, “For centuries, the rural church has been isolated and insulated from the greater Body of Christ by the sheer realities of geography. Those days are gone. There’s absolutely no reason that we cannot be networking together as leaders — those who are resisting the urge to settle — by sharing resources, encouragement, wisdom, and vision. We do not have to do it alone anymore; together we can do so much more and do it so much better.”

O’Dell pastors a church in Bergman, Arkansas, population 407. His church is now the hub of a rural church network spanning 13 facilities throughout Arkansas and Texas, with another campus in Russia.

Pastor Jon Sanders is another church planter and pastor who’s waving the flag for rural ministry and church planting. In April 2009, he and his family left Peoria, Illinois, to launch a ministry in Flandreau, South Dakota. That year, Jon received a call from God to reproduce life-giving churches in rural communities across South Dakota, the Midwest and the world. Utilizing Facebook Live, The Rescue Church now meets in five communities and has started an online training course, Small Town, Big Church, to help support and equip other rural pastors.

Bryan Jarrett, lead pastor at Northplace Church (Assemblies of God) near Dallas, is a voice of influence and encouragement for the rural church. At the first annual Rural Matters Conference last September, he challenged leaders and pastors representing more than 16 denominations and networks to change how they think and talk about rural churches.

Jarrett has seen firsthand the impact life-giving churches can have in rural areas. That is why Northplace Church launched the Water Tower Network in 2012. This ministry helps support and train rural leaders and pastors. Jarrett sees clearly the challenges, but also the astronomical potential, in rural communities and is determined to reach the forgotten fields of North America.

Organizations like OneHope and the Assemblies of God, and the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, have begun to call together rural church planters and leaders. One major struggle of the rural church-planting movement is that most of the known and celebrated resources and authors are coming out of cities and urban contexts from the past 100 years of urban focus.

Mainstream church-planting resources are often unhelpful, and rural church-planting strategies are markedly different from strategies for any other context.

However, with more than 48 million people in rural America, there is an emerging and encouraging movement to plant churches in rural areas. Specialized resources for rural church planters are being developed. In April 2017, the Billy Graham Center launched the Rural Matters Institute. This organization is providing the support, training and community for those working in non-urban contexts, in partnership with other faith-based organizations.

Since 2003, Convoy of Hope’s Rural Compassion has been partnering with community leaders, organizations and churches to provide training and resources to help meet needs in rural places.

“I’m consistently awestruck by the depth of poverty we see in rural American towns,” says Steve Donaldson, senior director of Rural Compassion. “I’m equally inspired by the determination and grassroots solutions in those same towns.”

In smaller communities that lack essential resources, the local church has the opportunity to be the Church in a way that is highly relevant and deeply needed. Christians belong in the space of need and desperation because we carry a message of hope that is vitally needed in those contexts.

The rural environment provides a space to add an increasing impact with a much smaller footprint. In the city, even churches that are growing can struggle to feel relevant amidst a crowded field.

In rural areas, when a life-giving church is planted, everyone knows, and many are impacted by even small opportunities for service and assistance. A growing church in a shrinking town will not stay a secret for long. And its work may even help a community find life again.

It’s time to set aside misconceptions and embrace the facts — no matter how hard they may be to hear. The Holy Spirit is directing our hearts to the divine purpose of engaging in this opportunity for rural ministry. We must trust God for His harvest, believing He will turn the tide on darkness. Statistics point to pain and struggle, but we know of a story that will wipe away all tears.

We can’t just cognitively know these communities. We must love them as Jesus does. We must see the challenges and seek to meet them, as Jesus saw our desperate need and met us where we were. We must acknowledge the pain and walk with people through it, as Jesus identified with our pain. We must be willing to put down roots and make ourselves part of the community, just as Jesus became one of us.

To deliver the message of Jesus, we must go. We must be and live as sent ones.

It won’t be easy. But now is the time.

How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 edition of Influence magazine.


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