On the eve of the Civil War, American poet Walt Whitman published a second edition of his defining work, Leaves of Grass. In the edited and expanded 1860 volume, Whitman included a new, eleven-line poem entitled “I Hear America Singing,” that highlights the “song” sung by of a cross section of Americans at their daily tasks.
At the heart of the poem is both an awareness of individual contributions (“each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else”) interwoven with a larger chorus in which each part adds something meaningful to the whole. It is a song rooted in places (the steamboat deck, the shoemaker’s bench) and people (the mother, the carpenter, the ploughboy), and we feel as if life is richer for having spent a few moments considering the value and contribution of each person and task in its messy, bustling beauty.
To my ear, Brad Roth’s God’s Country does a similar work. At times practical, at times poetic, God’s Country captures the melodies of life in America’s oft-forgotten, oft-maligned hinterlands and offers them to the reader as a song worth giving ear. Against the siren song of an urban-centric, bigger-is-better culture (and church culture), Roth quietly hums a different tune—one marked by humility and love for specific people and the places they call home.
The Tune of God’s Country
Herald Press, 2017
At its most basic level Roth’s book is a love song—a love song with a few well-placed minor chords (e.g., rural population decline, heightened mortality rates, brain-drain), but a song of hope and love nonetheless. From the book’s first line, “I love the rural church,” to its final paragraphs, love for the rural church, its people, and their communities is Roth’s refrain. For Roth loving the rural church is often simply paying attention—cultivating watchfulness as the Philokalia puts it—to the ways in which God’s goodness and life are manifest in our communities, churches, and neighbors. As Roth notes, without this Spirit-guided vision “we all too often fail to see God’s presence.” This “failure is in fact a failure to value rural places. It’s a failure to love” (p. 41).
One of the ways Roth encourages us to love and value the spot of earth God has called us to is by choosing to abide in a place long enough that it becomes (quite literally, in Roth’s telling) a part of us. In a world where “staying put has come to mean getting stuck,” Roth joins others like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and James Davison Hunter who call us all to embrace stability and lives of faithful presence rather than our culture’s addiction to perpetual movement and seemingly endless fresh starts (p. 62). This is all the more important in rural communities haunted by “a profound sense of loss” that the best and the brightest are less likely to choose to stay (p. 65). In rural places stability—specifically intentional stability—is a significant expression of love, because, as Roth and all those who have lived in rural areas for very long know, “communities that have experienced an extended period of net out-migration perceive life on different terms” (p. 24). In today’s kinetic culture, stability comes with costs anywhere, but in rural places the cost of limited options, from careers to schools and specialized healthcare, can feel steep, especially when compounded by a perception (true or not) that most of the world looks down on you simply by virtue of your geographical location. Rural communities need to be able to hear and sing for themselves the song of love—stable and enduring—that Roth sees in Jesus’ choice to abide in rural Galilee. It is a song that says right here matters. Right here is a place loved by God. Right here is a place worth calling home.
The Tone of God’s Country
If the tune of God’s Country is love, its tone is humility, or perhaps more accurately, humble confidence. Humility is on display when Roth chooses to admit individual mistakes–for instance, showing up at his first rural pastorate with the aura of a visiting expert (i.e., “pastor multicultural”), only to see his hopes for a bi-lingual service dashed (p. 71). But a deeper humility is also at work throughout the book. It’s a humility that strives to see people and communities everywhere as places loved by God. This means that Roth harbors no ill will toward cities or their denizens, noting early in the second chapter “Mine is no anti-city rant” (p. 38). At the same time Roth’s “doxological vision,” which allows him to see rural places as valued and meaningful contributors of authentic praise to God, means that he does not continence the devaluing of rural places or people (p. 51).Humble confidence is knowing that rural places are truly valued by God while rejecting the impulse to claim that God values them more. Instead, he repeatedly models a tone of humble confidence that allows him to value rural places without overemphasizing their influence, exaggerating the piousness of ministering in these communities, or creating a zero-sum contest for promising seminarians choosing between rural and urban pastorates. Humble confidence is knowing that rural places are truly valued by God while rejecting the impulse to claim that God values them more.
Humility is also admitting that not all is well in the rural church. Roth is to be commended for his willingness to talk openly about the difficult topic of congregational life cycles and the need for some rural congregations to die well. Unfortunately, he almost totally neglects the opposite side of this life cycles and the deep need many rural communities have for churches to start well. Indeed, small-town and rural church planting does not register very favorably in Roth’s assessment, and the few examples of rural church planting in the book are negative. (Full disclosure: I’m a small-town church planter.) One comes away with an image of a condescending suburban church looking to expand its reach into a new community through slick marketing (mailers anyone?) and reshuffling the church deck. While this is an unfortunate reality in too many situations, Roth seems to generally doubt or downplay the need for new churches in rural communities. But one has to ask, is the status quo working in the rural church? (Can we humbly love the rural church and still answer, no?) Are new generations in rural communities being engaged in meaningful ways with the gospel? If not—and I would suggest that there are significant percentages of unchurched or de-churched people, especially young people, in most rural communities—what does a movement of contextualized and humble rural church planting look like? How could new churches come alongside longstanding congregations for the common good? Roth does not offer this as an option, but it seems to me to be worth considering. Admitting the possibility of new life alongside congregational death could demonstrate a humble confidence that God’s Church in a community is larger than any one congregation.
The Voice of God’s Country
Behind the tune and tone of God’s Country is a third element of Roth’s rural carol—voice. As Roth narrates his journey, standard in its early movements (from country to city) and countercultural in its later movements (from city to country), he demonstrates the power of story and highlights the need for others to add, in their own voices, more stories of God’s work in small places.
But this observation raises other questions worth considering: How can we make room for more rural voices within the structures of American Christianity, and will we be ready to listen if and when we discover them? It has only been in the last several years that the voices of rural and small-town pastors have gained entre to major evangelical publishing houses, conference circuits, and publications (like this one). Yet within American Christianity, where speaking, publishing, and teaching opportunities still skew overwhelmingly toward pastors of large urban and suburban churches, there is a need for far greater intentionality in regard to cultivating ears to hear and eyes to see rural places and churches clearly.If the institutional church in America and around the globe is to be truly representative of Christ’s Church, we cannot afford to marginalize and overlook rural voices. If bigger is not better, why does the city-centric demographic of virtually every publisher’s catalogue, seminary faculty, and conference speaker listing tell a different story? Consider this, how frequently do you encounter the voices of rural and small-church pastors in books, journals, and conferences not specifically devoted to the topic of rural ministry?
If the institutional church in America and around the globe is to be truly representative of Christ’s Church, we cannot afford to marginalize and overlook rural voices. We need more stories like Roth’s—offered winsomely and humbly, but also honestly and with conviction—in denominational offices, on strategic boards, in the books on our shelves, and ringing in our ears. These voices and the stories they tell transform places from “flyover territory” to communities and neighborhoods. They take us by the hand and teach us to truly see, hear, and love. Furthermore, making room for more rural voices like Roth’s may also help to widen the imagination of future generations when they envision the places in which fruitful and significant ministry can happen. Lifting up the voice of a few who have willingly, zestfully, and artfully embraced God’s call to rural ministry today may help many more step faithfully into a similar call tomorrow.
To Hear Rural (and Urban) America Singing
In a polarized society that increasingly excels at seeing past and hearing without listening, Roth’s book offers a vision that is expansive and yet clear, humble and yet confident. It’s a love song—one so catchy and winsome that we can hardly help singing along—to a place and a people, but even more to the God who calls it all, rural and urban, his country.