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20 Truths from “God’s Country”

OCT 17, 2017 


20 Truths from “God’s Country” 

Reclaiming God’s kingdom vision for the rural church | ED STETZER 

Image: James Watkins / Flickr

I am glad to feature a new book by Brad Roth on the blog today. Brad Roth serves as pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kansas. He grew up baling hay, tending sheep, and shearing Christmas trees on a farm in Illinois. Below I am sharing 20 Truths from Brad’s new book, God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church (2017). 

God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church 

For many, rural brings a positive, sentimental vision of the untouched countryside populated by good-hearted people with a little dirt under their fingernails. Or maybe, in the other vision of rural, they’re local yokels who say crick when they mean creek and have a strange fondness for old pickup trucks and chewing tobacco. This all adds up to an easy dismissiveness of rural people and places. (11)

This book is about reclaiming God’s kingdom vision for the rural church. It’s about learning to praise, abide, watch, pray, grow, work the edges, die, befriend, and dream. Each of these disciplines is rooted in the biblical narrative and Christ’s enduring commitment to the rural church. (13)

In the end, rural and urban are human realities, and any distinctive of rural or urban mind-sets and lifestyle will always be limited by that fact. Regardless of what the country mouse and the city mouse might think of each other, in fundamental ways,

the country soul is the city soul. We’re talking about people, and people have the same hurts and hungers wherever they happen to live. (23)

It turns out that rural identity can’t be chalked up to addresses. It can’t be measured solely by statistics. Rural identity has more to do with how rural people experience the world. What this means is that rural identity is more of a worldview, more like a culture—a distinct way of framing and knowing the world. (24)

All of this is to say that rural identity is complex and diverse. Rural is a kind of spiritual and psychological landscape populated by a relationship to the city, nearness of neighbors, agriculture, and a history of marginality and loss. Rural is the kind of internal landscape sociologists call “social space.” In this way, rural is not just a population designation. It’s a way of seeing the world. (28)

The rural church is a sign of the universal church’s identity, for the rural church reminds us that Christ’s body is always off-center, always called toward the margins, always skeptical of the claims of the dominant culture. The rural church represents Christ’s commitment to be among all people everywhere, regardless of the value attributed to them by global centers of power. Christ orients the church toward the edges of society. (30)

In the face of such change and loss, leaders in the church—and the church itself—are called to abide: to stay put long enough to be made from the dust of a place. Devoting ourselves to the discipline of abiding will mean caring for place, practicing the ministry of presence, living into an appropriate smallness, and practicing a spirituality of loose ends. Above all, abiding will mean learning to love. (58)

Many of us are addicted to the fresh start, to the new possibility of finally getting it right in a perfect location. We think that if we can get out of Dodge, we can get out of trouble, failure, and the knobby stubbornness of our neighbors. But so often, moving on is simply a flight from our own shortcomings. And our shortcomings have swift wings: they follow us. (63)

I’m convinced that one form abiding takes in rural congregations and communities is presence. We need our brightest, most promising young people, including pastors, to commit to being present in our most out-of-the-way places. (64)

We don’t need change heroes in our rural congregations and communities. We need women and men committed to heroic abiding. Less heroic change and more heroic abiding. To abide in a rural place is to stay long enough to love it. Forget the rush of the city. What we really need is time to be in a place, with a people, the years fermenting into affection and joy. We need time to love, and as Mark Twain put it, “Love . . . is the slowest of all growths.” (71,73)

By caring for our common rural life—by working “for the good of all” (Galatians 6:10)—rural churches play a special role. They value the community by being present to it and seeking its good. (90)

So often, rural congregations suffer from a sense of lack, defining themselves on the basis of what they are not. They’re not big, not in an ideal spot for growth, not chock-full of the city’s creative movers and shakers. It’s time to reject this narrative of scarcity and encourage the rural church to begin to see itself as the caretaker of a different sort of abundance: space for prayer. What if we were to envision the rural church as the special house of prayer sustaining the global church? (100)

Growth is possible in rural congregations. Taking our cue from the apostle’s advice in 1 Peter 3:15-16, we can begin to rethink how we measure success in the rural church and reclaim the ancient Christian practices of relating and listening people into the kingdom. Along the way, we’ll discover that the growth of the church is ultimately rooted in our own growth as we become more authentically ourselves in Christ. (121)

Part of what this means is that in rural congregations, we don’t need to learn some sort of “effective” evangelistic strategy; we need to learn to listen. We need to cultivate an openness to the stories of others. We need to ask questions, keep quiet, value their story, and then with humility and fear speak our truth. Evangelism isn’t about getting up on a soapbox and preaching at someone. It’s about sitting down next to that person and turning down the volume. (139)

Cultivating a barbed-wire-crossing spirituality means coming to see boundaries not as offenses that must be eliminated or overcome but as the natural outworking of a centered community. (150)

For established rural congregations, then, it will be vital to come to a deeper awareness of the boundaries that keep them from connecting with newcomers. It means actively questioning the blood-is-thicker-than-baptismal-water mentality that binds many congregations together in a shared structure. The church leadership diagram cannot double as the family tree. (163)

Yet I’m convinced that in order to live fully and vibrantly in the rural church, we must also learn to face congregational death faithfully, hopefully, and lovingly. In order to tend the living promise of the rural church, we also must learn to find meaning in death.

In order to learn to live, we must learn to die. (171)

Rural people and places are peers of the city. It lacked a sense of friendship—which just happens to be what rural people and places most need. It’s out of a sense of friendship that the church relates to rural people, communities, and land in ways that are authentic, ways that express the abiding love of God. It’s a friendship that’s ultimately rooted in friendship with God. (198-199)

In the Scriptures, love of place and people is embodied in the dream of Zion, a vision of city and country walking together into the future in neighborliness. Zion points us beyond any sort of privileging of rural or urban and reminds us that neither can go it alone. We need each other. (218)

Migrash in Zion also speaks to the reality that the country needs the city. Rural life only becomes rich and full when joined to the life of the city, with the city’s diversity and innovation, its anonymity and mobility, its ferment. Just as city dwellers must beware the country music stereotype of rural, so we who live in rural places cannot succumb to the temptation to write off cities as dumpster fires of hedonism and violence, rap albums come to life. (223)

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group