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Not Forgotten: Rethinking the Way We Talk about Rural Ministry

Words matter.

            It’s a phrase my wife and I regularly repeat to our kids as we attempt to convince them at ages 9, 7 and 5 that saying whatever immediately comes to mind isn’t the best way to keep friends or follow Jesus. Whether it’s choosing not to say the wrong thing or choosing to say the right thing when needed, finding the right words can be hard.

Rethinking “Forgotten” Places

            In the last month or so, I’ve been wrestling with the power of words in my own thinking as it concerns the conversation about rural ministry and our polarized national geography in general. Since about the middle of the last decade, rural America and rural ministry has garnered a good bit of attention thanks both to political currents as well as increasing levels of engagement from evangelical denominations, institutions, and networks committed to raising the profile rural and small-place ministry. For many of us, it is a development long-sought and deeply appreciated.  

            Recently, however, I’ve been wondering whether the way we frame this conversation deserves more careful attention. In many instances, the folks who talk about these places attempt to contextualize them by highlighting things like the commercial amenities rural areas lack (the list is usually headed by favorite fast-food chains and stores) and the sense that, for most of America, small places and the churches that serve them are forgotten. I know how the conversation goes. I’ve talked about amenities and forgottenness too.

            These days, however, I am starting to think differently about the usefulness of both categories. The first focuses on rural shortcomings in terms of our culture’s obsession with orienting our lives around consumerism, the second makes inattention to rural areas, pastors, and churches more palatable. To forget is different than to neglect, dismiss, or disdain. If I forget to pick up milk when my wife asks me on my trip to the store, it feels different than if I know I need to pick up milk at the store and choose not to simply because I decide it isn’t that important.

            To claim rural places and rural churches are forgotten gets us off the culpability hook, but it doesn’t do justice to reality.

Knowing and Attending

            The reality is that rural America and small-town churches aren’t forgotten. They show up everywhere, from Pulitzer Prize-winning novels like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004), which was recently picked up by Oprah’s book club, and New York Times bestselling memoirs like J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland (2018) to pieces in national news outlets and the lyrics of every other country song. Sure, this remembering is sometimes mis-remembering, as lazy stereotypes take the place of complex realities in the portrayal of rural communities and churches on television or in songs and print. In other cases, the representations of rural life and ministry seem to penetrate to the marrow of life in these communities. They speak to what those of us who know these communities sense at an almost intuitive level. Life is both hard and good in these places, just as it is in most places.

            And people know it. That’s one of the reasons why so many people who have left small towns feel torn between a desire to move back and a desire to move on. If it was all bad, or if it was forgotten, we wouldn’t have book like Grace Olmstead’s recent Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind (2021), which amounts to a two-hundred page exercise in discerning whether to leave Washington D. C. and return to her ancestral home in rural Idaho. She’s not alone. Far from forgotten, rural areas have captured Americans’ attention anew during the COVID-19 pandemic as thousands of folks have left the city, some of them permanently, for more rural areas.

            All of this points to the possibility that for most Americans, the word that describes their approach toward rural America is not forgetfulness but a distant, half-knowing fascination with the wide-open spaces and local cultures many either moved away from or only encountered in books and film. They may idealize, stereotype, look down on, or pine for these places, but chances are they haven’t forgotten about them.

Rural Churches and American Evangelicalism
            Similarly, chances are that evangelical denominations, educational institutions, and media hubs haven’t forgotten about rural churches either.

            This is where the common refrain about forgotten churches and forgotten places proves too ready—and too misleading—a response. Rural churches and the folks who attend them aren’t forgotten. Denominations keep tabs on their giving and their attendance; Christian liberal arts schools are happy to solicit students from them, and many urbanites can easily conjure up an image of a white-steepled church on a small-town Mainstreet or in a cornfield. It’s not a matter of knowing, it’s a matter of attending, of cultivating empathy and paying attention to these places by inviting rural churches and pastors into the conversation within evangelical denominations, institutions, evangelical publishing, and realms of influence.

            To say rural pastors and rural congregations are forgotten is probably less true than to say rural churches and pastors (and really, small churches and their pastors everywhere) are often underrepresented and underutilized in denominational leadership and overlooked by Christian publishers and conference organizers. It’s not a matter of forgetting; it’s a matter of caring more about what we know and what we don’t know about rural ministry. It’s a matter of taking the time to realize that the one-size-fits all pathway to influence in publishing, conference speaking, and denominational leadership that seems to go through large urban and suburban churches is less an unintentional act of forgetting and more a failure of attention, a failure of imagination.

Remembered Churches, Remembered Places

             So where do we go from here? If rural America and small churches aren’t forgotten, how do we move from knowing to attending, from remembering in vague stereotypes to remembering well?

            For me, the honest answer is, I’m not exactly sure. I have some hunches related to building bridges between urban and rural churches and between diverse communities of Christians that I’ve talked about on this blog before, but these are still a work in progress for me. I think creating room within evangelical publishing and media outlets for small-town pastors to tell their stories along with inviting more small-town pastors into denominational leadership is another way we can better attend to what God is doing in small places and churches. Thinking about this kind of diversity will mean that we have to look beyond the marketplace metrics of church size and pastoral platform. It might also mean that the wider church will get some fresh ideas and more on-the ground perspectives.

God Remembers

            No matter how we talk about so-called forgotten places, everyone, everywhere, in communities and churches large and small, can take heart that they are truly known and remembered by God. It is in Jesus that we find the capacity for a larger imagination and appreciation for the small, seemingly insignificant people, churches, and places we are tempted to neglect or say we’ve forgotten about.

            Jesus attended to rural Galilee, just as he paid attention to a group of men with little in the way of status and platform. We know the story. Jesus remembered the small places and people then just as He does now. The fact that one of the very titles he was known by—Jesus of Nazareth—includes for all time the name of a seemingly insignificant small, Galilean town drives the point home.

            Words matter.

Charlie Cotherman is the founding pastor of Oil City Vineyard Church, in Oil City, PA, and the Program Director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College. He is also the author of To Think Christianly: A History of L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement and a contributing editor of Sent to Flourish: A Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches. You can find him on Twitter @CECotherman.