In the evening glow of the setting sun, I can stand on my front step and gaze down the street, taking in the full length and width of the community I am glad to call home. Fading letters that almost spell “Winchester” on the weather-beaten water tower—the sole object in our skyline—are a fitting reflection of a small town that is modest but not altogether unattractive. This rural community does not offer much economically. It will never be a place of significant cultural influence or worldly success. Nevertheless, I have a settled indifference, because I am convinced that the gospel has much to offer and can have a profound influence in the forgotten places of rural America. What gives me that confidence? Jesus does.
Small and rural towns were not peripheral to the life and ministry of Jesus. He was born in Bethlehem, which was not, even in His time, a booming city (Mic. 5:2). When His family returned from Egypt, He was raised in Nazareth, which was not an epicenter of potential but an obscure village nestled among the hills (Luke 4:29; John 1:46). During His ministry, He intentionally preached in towns and villages (Mark 1:38; Luke 13:22), and sent out the Twelve with the assumption that they would do the same (Matt. 10:11). He taught that the summons of the kingdom was to be heralded even to the out-of-the-way and irrelevant places in order to fill His Father’s house (Luke 14:23). In reading the Gospels, it is undeniable that Jesus had a heart for ministry in rural and small towns.
One must wonder, however, if the contemporary church shares Jesus’ heart on this matter. The rural population of the United States accounts for 15–20 percent of the general population, or between forty-five million and sixty million people. To put that in perspective, this number is greater than the populations of the vast majority of independent countries in the world, and it is a population ranking in size between the populations of Italy and France.
In the last thirty years, however, a significant movement has devoted much of the church’s resources and people to planting and growing churches in the city. Without diminishing the good this has accomplished, we can raise reflective questions. Has an enthusiasm for planting churches uprooted a devotion to the equally necessary and Apostolic work of revitalization? Has an overdependence on the economy been more formative for our ministries than the universal call of Jesus? Has the pursuit of influence produced a partiality against the least influential? Has a vision for urban centers overlooked small communities? Has the light and noise of the city blinded and deafened us to the critical and spiritual needs of rural America?
The twentieth (and now twenty-first) century had a devastating effect on the regions of Appalachia in the East, the farms of the Midwest, and the fishing and forestry areas along the coastlines. Mechanization and industrialization have motivated a rural exodus, leaving depleted populations, economies, and communities. But the social realities confronting these places pale in comparison to the spiritual crisis of these rural communities. Substance abuse, poverty, suicide, broken families, tragedy, and danger—at rates that are proportionally higher than in the city—betray a shared sense of fear, pessimism, and discouragement.
These issues have spiritual causes and effects. The only thing capable of speaking meaningfully of these problems is the gospel. Unfortunately, as rural towns have declined, so too has the presence of Christian witness. Churches that at one time were the center of community life now grapple with diminishing budgets, aging membership, empty pews, and the desire that many young people—including pastors—have for the opportunities and conveniences of the city. When these congregations are forced to close their doors, it is the end of a ministry that has likely existed for a century or more. Communities are left without any witness to Jesus Christ and the glory of His gospel.
This should motivate the church to think and act upon the need for rural ministry. This begins, of course, with those who already find themselves in that context. It is easy to wallow in self-pity at the way the rural church is neglected or give in to defeat because the resources seem lacking. It is easy to despair because success seems impossible. But the truth remains: there are millions of people in rural communities who are not worshiping Jesus. He calls His church not to worldly success but to faithfulness. He does not ask us to steward resources we do not have; He asks us to be faithful with what we do have. He does not demand from us worldly recognition but reminds us that a cup of cold water in His name has eternal benefits. The rural church must fulfill the ministry of gathering and perfecting the saints because that is the work Jesus has given us to do.
Rural America needs to be seen (and invested in) by the broader church as a mission field. It might be a bold suggestion, but we should embrace the extreme challenge of planting in small towns with courage and resolve. Yet it cannot end there. More can be done to encourage people toward the arduous work of revitalizing that which is growing weak. In the words of Charles Spurgeon:
To me, it seems it should be your glory to join in the poorest and weakest churches of your denomination and wherever you go, to say, “This little cause is not as strong as I should like it to be, but by the grace of God, I will make it more influential. At any rate, I will throw my weight to strengthen the weak things of Zion, and certainly I will not despise the day of small things.”
Rural ministry is worth our time and effort because the Lamb is worthy to receive the reward of His suffering—a reward that is, I am convinced, present even in the rural communities of our world.