I love small towns. I hate small towns. Small towns offer life on a manageable scale. when one has a need, he knows who to call to meet it. Unless the need is for anonymity. In a small town, one is always on stage.
Most Christian congregations were planted across time with an intention to serve a particular place, a parish. It was expected by both ecclesiastical authorities and community leaders that the place would continue to be much the same for generations to come. Until well into the current century this expectation held up, for the most part.
He certainly didn’t set out to do so. He probably didn’t intend to do so. It may have been more a consequence of change than a cause. However, community boundaries in rural America have been redrawn. The Wal-Mart town has become the dominant community across the landscapes.
Lyle Schaller has alerted us to the emergence of the 60-mile city. He notes that the freeway system in and around cities has spurred a sprawl that allows people to live as many as 30 miles or more from the city core, and yet actively participate in the life of that city.
The economic plight of people in rural America has garnered growing public attention during the 1980s. Those who worked in the cotton mills and the sewing factories of the rural Southeast, the oil field workers of the Southwest, and the once prosperous farmers of the Midwest and the Great Plains and the timbermen of the Pacific Northwest—these have fallen on hard times.
Scarce is the country funeral where Psalms 23 is not read and commented upon. Usually, it is perceived by family and friends as a summary statement of the stockpile value around which the life of the deceased was organized. The Psalm affirm the life lived in a vital, experimental relationship with God, both in the good times and in the bad.
I see my task as representing the most common social institution in rural America, the 200,000 churches. They count among their adherents 80 percents of the residents of non-metropolitan America. Most of these congregations were in place by 1920. Their founding mission sprang from the Jeffersonian dream of a nation peopled by yeoman farmers and shop-keepers. The plan called for the placement of a settlement about every six miles across the nation.
Baptist Missions with the poor of America, “the plain people,” the people of the land, is a story of empowerment. Where other denominations sent missionaries to the poor to do good things for them, we sent missionaries that empowered and entrusted persons from their own ranks to be their pastors. This strategy was deeply grounded in our Baptist heritage–our central doctrine was the “freedom of God” which means that God is free to call whom he will to proclaim the Gospel.
I was raised on Lum and Abner. With a touch of Bob Burns. And a daily dose of Little Abner. One of my early childhood memories was attending a live show of L & A at the Palace Theatre in KC. My image of Ozark people was one of poor and ignorant people. Lazy, shiftless, violent, and drunken were added to my stereotypes. The God of grace has dealt with me and my prejudices in this wise.
The nightly news tells us that Dow Jones averages are up. The news from Wall Street is positive. Our coastal cities brag of being revitalized. The newspapers in Nashville, Atlanta, and Charlotte speak glowingly of commercial development. But the shoe factory in Glenville, West Virginia, is closed. So is the giant tire plant in Miami, Oklahoma. Chemical plants up and down the Mississippi and around Donaldsonville, Louisiana, are shut down.
NOTE: This is not a promotion for buying a computer, VCR, and a satellite dish for your church. Rather, it is a call for our churches to seriously consider how to position themselves for very significant social changes which are now in process. These changes are typically labelled “The Information Age.” Basically, it means that as we move into the 21st century most working Americans will be providing a service rather than producing a product or growing food and fiber.
I moved to 35447 in January when I became the bivocational missionary for the Pickens Baptist Association. Carrollton, Alabama. About 1,000 people in town. 20k. In the county. 12/8. It is 30 miles either to Tuscaloosa or to Columbus to shop in a Walmart. Appalachia and Blackbelt. Forestry and poultry. Some cattle ranching. Governmental service. Transfer of payments. Commuters.
The white clapboard meetinghouses with spires puncturing the sky of New England, modest red brick tee-shaped structures with wrap-around cemeteries across the South, grey rock and stained glass transplanted European village churches across the upper Midwest, earth-tone adobe chapels in the southwest–such are the images of the rural church across America. Reality is far more diverse.
What comes to your mind when I say “rural community?” To mine comes a collage of rural communities and churches where I have worked and worshiped. No one of them is typical, nor does my collage encompass all of the types of rural communities one can find in our land. But by sharing with you my experiences briefly, we will come to have a clearer focus upon our subject and some common elements will emerge.
Rural America has changed significantly in the past 30 years. Anyone who has been involved in the life of rural and small town communities is very much aware of this change. Certainly in any gathering of pastors of rural churches one hears long refrains about change. Some places are growing, many are declining–all are changing. The Church is being affected. How does one make sense of all of this?
1. About as many people live in rural America—60 million—as ever.
2. While rural farm population has fallen since 1920 to less than 6 million, during the same period rural non-farm has grown from 20 million to 55.6 million people.
Few of us in the rural South live more than 30 minutes by car from a Walmart discount center or superstore. Here we find a greater variety of consumer goods for less cost than most rural mainstreets ever offered.
We have all thrilled at the stories of the planting of growing, evangelical congregations in the great cities of America. We have all been challenged by the magnitude of reaching the cities for Christ.