Sometime toward the end of my tenure at our little rural church in eastern Washington, a neighbor offered to take me on a tour north of town. There was nothing much to see, just some sagebrush and weeds near the interstate overpass. I leaned into the wind while he kicked around at a row of disheveled stones. He produced a yellowed photocopy of a nineteenth-century pioneer daguerreotype. “There used to be a Mennonite church here,” he told me. “And this man was its pastor.”
Nothing was left. There I was, a Mennonite pastor located just down the road, and I had no idea of my local spiritual ancestors. After our outing, that disappeared church began to haunt me. It seemed a parable of something that I couldn’t quite grasp. Was it harbinger or warning? What of my church and my ministry? That abandoned foundation reminded me of Moses’s ancient words: our days are “only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps 90:10).
Stephen Witmer speaks into this distinctively rural reality. He cuts across the strategic grain of urban-focused evangelical mission theory to develop a vision of a God who is profligit with his love. “One of the most precious things about the gospel,” writes Witmer, “is that it often seems so unstrategic by worldly metrics. The gospel is lavish—you might even say it’s wasteful” (p. 77). Witmer calls for the church to stand as a sign of Christ’s cross and incarnation in rural communities, many of which are marked by an “ever-present awareness of fragility” (p. 96). I think of Witmer’s approach as cruciform incarnationality. It’s an angle I resonate with deeply.
Of course, rural fragility is only part of the story. The experience of rural churches and communities varies widely across time and geography. Some communities—especially those in the orbit of thriving cities and gorgeous natural amenities—have grown. Recent work by sociologist Benjamin Winchester out of the University of Minnesota points to a wide growth trend across rural settings. The experience of rural churches and communities varies widely across time and geography. Winchester playfully calls it “brain gain.” It’s what happens when 30- and 40-something families discover the benefits of rural life and take advantage of the spread of broadband internet, Amazon, and fast, dependable transportation.
Even so, there are many deeply rural settings that have lost population as the kids went off to college and never came back—true to stereotype. Not every rural place looks like it tumbled from the pages of Hillbilly Elegy. But some do.
Witmer embraces the sometimes precariousness of rural communities and congregations as a feature not a bug. The medium is the message. Claims Witmer: “The church is designed to be see-through. The rest of the universe is meant to look at and through the church and learn something about God” (p. 72). The church signs God’s cruciform heart. So too the rural church points to the inestimable value of all people and all places, whatever their proximity to the city. “The gospel helps us disentangle our value from our postal code” (p. 13). In this way, we will begin to “love deeply what God loves perfectly” (p. 157).
Witmer writes compassionately about the rural church. He strikes just the right tone in speaking to pastors and leaders, neither chiding nor pleading—least of all to go rural. “It’s not my goal to persuade anyone to go to small places,” he says. “Rather, I hope to persuade everyone to be open to God persuading them to go to small places” (p. 14). And unlike previous generations of denominational leaders who saw rural communities as overchurched and slated their distant congregations for closure and merger,I agree with Witmer’s suspicion toward numerical growth as the sole metric of church success. Witmer’s cruciform incarnationality leads him to project a vision for “lots of churches close to people” (p. 119).
Yet I perceive a certain tension. On the one hand is Witmer’s cruciform incarnationality. On the other is a hunger for growth strategies among rural leaders and a replacement motif common in evangelical theology.
I agree with Witmer’s suspicion toward numerical growth as the sole metric of church success. Even the word “success” is deceptive, because it implies that we can arrive at or transcend some goal in the eternal life of the church. The church never gets to the end of her mission. What’s more, rural churches often have a history of tremendous numerical “success”—particularly, in the 1950s–1970s when the nursery was packed and you had three choirs to choose from. No longer. And while we might try to moralize their decline and abstract strategies for the future, the story of rural churches in North America is really just the story of population change due to economic opportunity springboarded by The Pill.
In my experience, pastors and leaders in our very smallest communities (under five hundred), resonate most with the kind of shift commended by Witmer: a holistic approach that deemphasizes numerical growth. They’ve sensed for years that while committed pastors and congregations with a heart for mission can certainly “save [some] by snatching them from the fire,” and God can make kingdom children from stones, there’s no growth strategy on earth that can engineer a sea-change (Jude 23 NIV; Matt 3:9). As one Lutheran pastor on the Great Plains confided to me: he’s surrounded in his isolated town of eighty by Lutherans who attend his church, cultural Lutherans who don’t attend his church, and a Hutterite colony. That’s it. There’s not much room for expansion. Thus, so much of our strategy, our ten points for church growth, and many of our big stage church conferences only manage to make rural pastors like him feel guilty about their lack of “success,” disheartened in their vocation, and hopeless about their future. No wonder they leave.
How do we sensitively—but without the toxicity of pity—speak into the sometimes discouraging reality of rural pastors and leaders? As North Americans, we’ve been deeply enculturated into the idea that success equals numerical growth. Nowhere is this more true than among evangelicals, with our revivalist history and entrepreneurial spirit.What’s more, in my experience, evangelical theology—especially among rural pastors and leaders—often sports a replacement motif. Our congregationalist bent probably doesn’t do us any favors either, since it predisposes us to measure the life of the church by the individual congregation rather than see the mysterious vitality of the katholikos mystical body.
What’s more, in my experience, evangelical theology—especially among rural pastors and leaders—often sports a replacement motif. It goes something like this: oldline churches were fine for their day, but they lost their way and now must be replaced by gospel-centered, Bible-believing, evangelical churches. (And who’s to say there’s not some truth to this sentiment?) But what this means is that evangelical theology cannot be easily separated from numerical growth. In fact, it demands numerical growth. Growth justifies and generates identity. Without numerical growth, evangelical leaders are pastoring “just another church.” Our story is one of warm blooded young things running rings around oldline dinosaurs.
I once interviewed a pastor serving an evangelical church plant who described to me how he had to stop fussing over the weekly attendance. Just looking at the count caused him anxiety. His mood and pastoral identity rose and fell on the wave function of those numbers. I’ve seen other pastors brought to tears by the stress of trying to meet expectations for church growth—their own and others’. And I’ve been there myself, half despairing when my church insists on reminding me just how fragile it can be. One Sunday when several pillar families all happened to be traveling, I preached to a nearly bare sanctuary. The offering brought in exactly $1. My son, the junior usher that week, expressed our collective sentiment when he looked at the offering plate he was bringing forward and let out a loud: “Oh man!”
This is where I believe Witmer faces the greatest challenge in bringing his vision of “see-throughability” to fruition (p. 74). The question is this: how can an evangelical narrative that often includes growth and replacement align with his cruciform incarnationality and the sometimes low-growth rural context? There’s where the tension lies. It may even be a crisis in rural evangelicalism, evidenced by pastors burning out, dissatisfied worship consumers constantly hopping churches, and congregations trapped in cycles of tinkering as they try to catch the Next Big Thing. At various points, Witmer addresses this inherent tension, writing that we need to “long for the numerical growth of [the] church more, but to need it less” (p. 97). I like that. It gets us part of the way. But Witmer’s words might sound a little bit like saying “Cheer up!” to a person suffering from depression. We all know it’s more complicated than that.
I’m convinced that the crisis in rural evangelicalism is formational and cultural and theological—which is to say that there’s still more to be done to nudge the church toward a holistic rural theology. Not least there’s the semper reformanda work of reconfiguring our desires to God and refounding the cast of our identity in Christ’s self-emptying cross.