Billy is a pastoral intern at Hope Church (PCA) in Hot Springs, Arkansas and also a high school agriculture teacher. He has a wife, Kassi, and a 2 year old daughter.
Rural America needs the gospel. This statement may seem obvious, but I would like to take a closer look at the needs of small towns and how the church can respond.
The plight of rural America
My first ministry position was as a part time youth minister at a rural Southern Baptist church in Lincoln, Arkansas. For 2 ½ years, I labored in a town of 2,200 people that is known for its history of apple orchards and chicken farms. The culture is rooted in the agrarian traditions one will often find in the rural south. Everyone either is a farmer, related to a farmer, or descended from a farmer. The celebration of holidays could be in the town square or surrounding a bonfire in the pasture. Does this bring fond memories from your upbringing? If not, maybe this reminds you of the lyrics in a country song or scenes from “The Andy Griffith Show”. Unfortunately, this is not how you’ll find many rural communities from day to day. A combination of many factors has led to a crisis in our heartland. I have personally witnessed the methamphetamine crisis tear apart families and communities like a tornado. Alcoholism, opioids, domestic violence, and child abuse have desolated many small towns. By no means is this new. Rural communities have always had issues, but I believe these issues have been ignored in favor of a nostalgic or idealistic perception by those who live in or come from these smaller communities.
The covenant of works ethic
The church I served in will be celebrating its 100th birthday in a few short years. During the near century the church has been in operation, it has done fantastic work in the community. The local food pantry is supported by 15 area churches and supplies food and clothing to approximately 1,800 people every month. Unfortunately, the amazing charity done by many churches in small towns all over the country can lead some to believe that they are made right by God because of their good works. It can be very easy for some to believe that their ability to avoid certain sins grants them right standing before God. We see this attitude reflected in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In this story, there is a Pharisee and a tax collector in the temple praying. The Pharisee prayed loudly, informing everyone (including God) of his virtuous character and good deeds. Meanwhile, the tax collector beat his chest and confessed his sin before God. Jesus says that the latter went away justified. Often in our rural churches, we have people patting themselves on the back for being upstanding members within the community. In small towns where everybody knows everyone else, it is easy to fall into the trap of self-righteous Pharisaism. We are so prone to import a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” work ethic into Christianity. Hard work is valuable and admirable in many ways, especially in an earthly economy. The problem is when we import that work ethic into the heavenly economy. Not many believers would argue that we can buy our way into favor with God, we solved that problem 500 years ago. Why then are we so prone to think we can gain merit before God based on the good things we do? Popular evangelical churches have muted the message of the imputed righteousness of Christ in order to amplify a message of a 12 step “sinners anonymous” rehab program.
The role of the church
If the church was not established to make bad people good, then what is the church for? Often, church leaders can fall victim to the idea that a pastor is, first and foremost, a self-help guru. The sermons about the power of God to save sinners are substituted for the sermons about the power of you to fix yourself. Rural America steps on this rake so easily because we are surrounded by the idols of self-made people. The gospel that rural folks need to hear is not that you can do it, but rather that Christ has done it for you. The Pharisee and the tax collector needed a righteousness they did not have and could never achieve. The chairman of the deacon board and the single parent former addict need to hear the command to rest in the imputed righteousness of Christ. This was the message of Christ to the fishermen in Galilee and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Church leaders are called to be shepherds of the flock. Shepherds do not put sheep through a rigorous physical training program. Instead, shepherds lead their flocks to still waters and lie down in green pastures. Like Christ, our one true shepherd, pastors as undershepherds are to guard and protect the flock as they dwell in the house of the Lord.
The focus of reformed church planting efforts “for the city”
It is also well known that Nazareth was perceived to be a backwards rural town. Many people in the days of Jesus wondered, “what good can come from Nazareth?” You see, a long time ago people from large urban centers assumed that people who were born and raised in the countryside were poorly educated and not worthy of consideration. We are so prone to have that very assumption in our conversations around church planting. Let’s take some time for self-reflection as we examine our church planting strategies. Agencies and committees seem to be influenced by missional, neo-Kuyperian philosophies of redeeming the culture rather than redeeming souls indiscriminately. Rural folks already feel ignored by Washington DC, Hollywood, Wall Street, and other forms of elitism, they don’t need to be ignored by the theological ivory towers as well. The gospel message is to go out to the highways and the hedges. The gospel is for all y’all.