I pastor in a rural church.
This is not surprising given the fact that the United Methodist Church started in the United States of America as a rural church. Circuit riders rode to the frontier outposts of a new country that was just beginning to expand. We planted churches where these frontier places were. These Methodist circuit riders rode for miles just to reach the people because they believed so passionately in the power of the message that they were bringing to impact these frontier communities. They wanted to change lives.
Fast forward to today. The rural church in America is in trouble. In 2009, the United Methodist Church reported that 60% of our churches in America are located in rural communities. Between 2000 and 2009, the United Methodist Church closed 3,400 rural churches. At Annual Conference, we close rural churches every single year. Our rural places are drying up. I live in a place that has shrunk so small that I was told the other day we have lost our “town” designation. We cannot be called a town anymore. Our official designation is a “village”. We are a farming community where most of the farms have been bought up by companies. We are a farming community that only grows two crops because mass production of your fruits, vegetables, and milk has been taken over by major corporations. The community is full of out of work blue collar oilfield workers. The way of life that once supported this community is fading away.
I remember attending a pastor’s conference with Dr. Len Sweet and he showed this video of Avicii’s Wake Me Up. I remember my reaction after the video versus everyone else’s reaction. All the other pastors agreed with Len Sweet’s assessment. The girls had to go find a community where they fit in with people who looked like them, had the same tattoo as them. The rural areas are seen as old, yesterday, Mayberry, slow, and backwards. The rural areas are blamed for racism, sexism, and every other ism. The rural areas were blamed for Trump. How many times I have heard or read if only the people in the rural areas of the country were more educated then they might do the right thing. I was aghast. I said this video paints a troubling picture of rural life vs. urban life. One is bad, one is good. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy.
Years ago, I would have thought myself to be crazy too. Ask any young seminarian in seminary today where they would like to serve. I would guess the answer would be in a city (or at least a town). I began ministry in the city. I served as an associate at one of the largest churches in our Annual Conference. I lived in the third largest city in our state! I had a virtually unlimited budget to do anything I wanted to do. New lighting, done. New sound system, done. New video productions, done. New website, done. Coffee bar, done. Personalized Yeti Cups, done. State of the art Children and Youth Building, done and done. I was a part of all these things. They were amazing accomplishments, and for the most part they did the right thing. They got more people to come to our church. It was incredible to dream about possibilities in this setting. I never imagined that my ministry would bring me to a village, but it has.
Ever so improbable, I am a rural church pastor. One of the things that I have been reading now are various essays from Wendell Berry. The other day I read a passage from Wendell Berry, “The modern mind longs for the future as the medieval mind longed for Heaven. The great aim of modern life has been to improve the future—or even just to reach the future, assuming that the future will inevitably be ‘better.’” As we push for the future at a blistering pace, our lives have become more mechanized. For every connection we have made online we have lost connections to our neighbors. We have traded real community for virtual community.
The thing that amazes me is that rural church ministry is all about community life. I know everyone. I know the teachers at the school, the sheriff, the grocery store workers, the post office workers, the baker, the farmer, the Hispanics that own the Mexican restaurant, the banker, the doctor, the nurses, the lawyer, and the inmates at the prison. I know them all. By Name! They know me too! By Name. I go to football games, baseball games, and softball games. Not because I have someone playing any of those sports, but because that is where the community is. I know absolutely nothing about a rodeo, but I have worked at one the last two years!
What I have found in the rural church is a real connection to the community. Whether they go to my church or not, I am a pastor to them. I am not saying that this doesn’t occur in urban or suburban settings. I am saying that I didn’t discover this until I became a rural church pastor. The best thing that I can do for people where I serve is continually reconnect them to Christ and to their community. I do this over and over again. Inside and outside the church. Building relationships, nurturing relationships, and sustaining relationships.
Maybe this is the lesson that comes from the rural community. How do we build real and meaningful relationships? One of the best ideas to come from the neo-monastic movement was the idea of stability. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “We learn to dwell with God by learning the practices of hospitality, listening, forgiveness, and reconciliation—the daily tasks of life with other people. Stability in Christ is always stability in community” The rural life teaches us how to connect daily with those around us. It is all about stability in a culture that has become mobile. How can we return to the model of a church for a world that creates virtual connectedness, but doesn’t offer any real rootedness? Maybe in this new frontier the United Methodist Church must explore.
Stephen Fife is an Elder in the Louisiana Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. He serves as Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Columbia, LA. Currently he is studying spiritual direction and mindfulness therapy. Stephen blogs at leadmindfully.org and wesleyanway.org.