In recent years, the rural margins of American life have increasingly entered the national spotlight.
Through the stark contrasts in national voting patterns or popular representation in best-selling books like J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (Harper, 2016) and Chris Arnade’s Dignity (Sentinel, 2019), the former of which is being produced as a Netflix original film, we find testimony both to our ignorance about rural America, and to our curiosity in those other parts of American life that seem so distant from our urban (and cultural) centers. But has this increased attention resulted in a wider, more appreciative understanding of life in rural areas? Have we really learned the shape and life of such communities?
The real cultural differences between urban and rural communities, which sometime solidify into cultural divides as evidenced quite starkly in recent political discourse, reveals a mutual ignorance of city life from those who live in the country, and rural life from those who live in the city.Soberly, the evangelical church in America has not entirely escaped such mutual ignorance, nor its discontents. Rural communities are often either idealized or disparaged, subject to sentimental nostalgia or mischaracterized villainization.
Soberly, the evangelical church in America has not entirely escaped such mutual ignorance, nor its discontents. The recent emphasis on urban ministry in evangelical publishing and conferences, as well as in church planting networks and seminary partnerships, has arguably left rural ministry in the background. In a sense, the rural church has been somewhat forgotten, relegated to the margins of our ecclesial imagination and excluded from our ecclesial modeling.
Encouragingly, in recent years, there have also risen several networks of rural ministries as well as publications. Some of those publications have received wider recognition. We at Sapientia would like to especially bring to your attention three books that Christianity Today and other major evangelical publications like WORLD and The Gospel Coalition brought to national prominence by awarding them book of the year honors:
- Brad Roth, God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church (Herald Press, 2017)
- Glenn Daman, The Forgotten Church: Why Rural Ministry Matters for Every Church in America (Moody Publishers, 2018)
- Stephen Witmer, A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters (IVP, 2019).
Each of these books, in its own unique way, calls attention to the nature and importance of rural churches and the need for more serious thinking about what discipleship in today’s rural communities looks like. As will become obvious, though, while some of the issues are uniquely rural, they also raise wider conversations that bear upon the whole body of Christ. For example, while the question of “abiding” is acute in a rural landscape of loss, it is no less relevant for urban churches with their transient congregations. These are the sorts of topics that are covered in these books.
Rather than letting these books come and go as a passing fad, we’d like to pick up and continue the conversation through a more extended symposium. We’ve gathered nine authors, most them rural pastors, to help us think about life and discipleship in the rural church in particular and Christ’s bride more generally. Their thoughts are not only helpful to others in rural communities, but to ministers of the gospel everywhere.