I deeply appreciate Koch’s and Cotherman’s and Witmer’s generous and generative probing questions. I will share that they didn’t touch on what I consider the greatest weaknesses of God’s Country (I’ll keep those to myself!). I was struck that each of them raised the substantial question that comes up around abiding: How do we weigh when it’s time to move one? I’ve done it. I’ve moved on. I’m no native “Dridger,” as folks from Moundridge, Kansas are called. And in response to Witmer’s questions about how I knew when to go—well, I’m ambivalent about the moves I’ve made. I can tell my moving-on story as a call narrative. Or a failure of nerve.
I’ve bumped up against these questions before. A dynamic, young pastor once confided to me his struggle to remain in his small town congregation. He had been enduring his dark night of the rural soul, contemplating leaving, when he came across my book, read it, and became convicted that he should stay put. The story warmed my heart. And then he added, “If the Lord allows it, they will bury my bones here!” I was amazed. And afraid. I admired his sticktoitiveness, but I was a little scared of my own success in convincing him to abide.
How does a pastor know when it’s time to leave a ministry? Obviously, abiding is more than staying put. “Without love,” I wrote, “there’s just staying, and that’s no great trick” (p. 74). But as Witmer aptly named, most of us imbibing the American story aren’t habituated to staying put. Our great temptation will be to hit the road whenever we face disappointment or struggle or spot greener grass. What that means is that most of us can’t fully trust our instincts on abiding. Our hearts are “devious above all else” when it comes to whether we stay or go (Jer 17:9). Family ties and economics and landscape freight our decisions. We preach out our best material after a couple of years and start scanning the horizon. I belong to a more-or-less free church tradition, but there’s a part of me that longs for a wise bishop who would take the interest of the broad church to heart and send me where I’m most needed. I don’t fully trust myself to know when or where to go.
Sometimes leaving is the right thing to do. Abiding is a spiritual outlook rooted in stability of character—a stability ultimately rooted in Christ’s incarnation. But there’s also such a thing as getting stuck. Like Sarah Smarsh, there are times when we have got to get out of Dodge because anything less would mean a failure to become the whole person God has called us to be. Abiding requires intentionality. It’s not something that’s done to us. “Sometimes people are trapped in cycles of poverty, in bad relationships, in lack of agency,” I wrote. “Sometimes we can’t stay. Sometimes staying would be dangerous to our lives or our relationship or our souls” (p. 74). In those situations when we have to leave, the question turns to what is the best way to leave.
Even so, when? How do we know it’s time to leave? For that matter, how do we know anything? We can tie ourselves in knots seeking God’s “good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom 12:2). I’ve never done anything big without a dollop of second guessing. I’m hesitant to try to concoct a rubric for making this kind of decision. Knowing when to leave and doing it well is always going to be an act of discernment. We listen to God, but our place in God’s turnabout providence will not always be clear. More importantly, leaving requires a confidence in Jesus’ own greater act of abiding. Jesus promised “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:18). Pastor Koch is correct: there’s always a risk that our abiding will usurp Christ’s position as the Abider of abiders.
In fact, this is precisely what keeps us from becoming trapped or painting ourselves as indispensable. The ministry is Christ’s and belongs to us in a subsidiary way. “Where I am, there will my servant be also,” said Jesus (John 12:26). Yet Christ is present in more places than we are.
The Theological Heart of Rural Ministry
Witmer points out that my development of a “‘subversive geography’ roots rural ministry in the character, affections, and commitments of God himself.” Says Witmer: “This seminal insight is the most important contribution of God’s Country.” Yes! Perhaps one of the most important ways this plays out is in the realization that the heart of the Father is always going to be found most fully at the margins. We see this in the life of Jesus. There’s a reason the King of kings earned himself the nickname “Friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:19).Each of the disciplines (praising in place, abiding, watching, befriending, etc.) is a form of ecclesioculture. And so too, each of the disciplines refracts God’s love. Jesus was constantly turning up at the margins, slumming it with tax collectors and sinners, the blind and the lame and the weak. Rural can be one of those margins—though not the only one. The fissures in our society run in obvious ways through the urbs and suburbs as well.
This is where ecclesioculture comes in. Perceptive readers may have noticed that ecclesioculture, once coined in Chapter One, walks off the stage until the final chapter. In part that was how the book organically developed. As I wrote it, Chapter One underwent mitosis and became two: the first and the last. But it felt fitting to me because ecclesioculture is really what all the intervening chapters are about. Each of the disciplines (praising in place, abiding, watching, befriending, etc.) is a form of ecclesioculture. And so too, each of the disciplines refracts God’s love. It’s God in Christ who first abided and watched and prayed and worked the edges. The disciplines are an expression of God’s graced love among us in rural places. I suppose that, in order to avoid hitting the point too much on the nose, I mostly connected God’s character and action to each of the disciplines obliquely, through observing the ministry of Jesus and seeking to tease out how his ministry continues among us in rural places today. I could have done more. In fact, I’m hoping to do more in a second rural ministry book I’m working on for the Lexham Ministry Guides series (watch for it in 2022!). What is the particular rural habitus—the stable temperament or character for ministry—that we develop as coworkers with Christ?
Yet Witmer’s question still stands: “How do we best herald the importance of rural ministry without denigrating or minimizing ministry in other places?” What work prioritizing urban and the more recent work calling for a renewed focus on rural hold in common is that both mainly make pragmatic arguments. The urban priority corpus says something like this: we should plant churches in the city because a) there are a lot of people in the city, and b) by influencing the city’s influencers, we will influence the development of culture and thereby the suburbs and rural areas as well. There would be pragmatic grounds for challenging those assumptions. (Are rural communities really under the influence of the nearest big city? You might think that based on what sports teams people root for, but I’m not sure rural people see themselves as taking cues from the city.) The standard rural priority argument mainly works the angle of need: there are millions of people living in rural areas, more than the entire population of many countries, and they need to be reached for the gospel too.
Like Witmer, I sense that pragmatic arguments for rural priority risk becoming the flash-in-the-pan fad that fades, which is why I made an ontological claim about going rural: that to do so embodies the margin-seeking love of God in Christ. It’s a preferential option for rural. Witmer is right that this raises something of a tension for those making the case for shepherding churches in urban and suburban settings. By making an essentialist claim about the importance of rural, it would be an easy hop, skip, and jump to denigrating the city—whatever I might say to the contrary.
It seems to me that the way we square this circle is by again returning to the person of Jesus and noting how his love for people played out. Jesus was both committed to the margins and at home in the center. He spent most of his time in Galilee, but he marched on Jerusalem and taught in the temple. The ancient church called this phenomenon “catholicity,” the perplexing way that church was only the church when it was kath’olos “from the whole.” Catholicity springs from the presence of Christ in the whole church, from the most scattered rural congregations to the great cathedrals and megachurches of the city. God’s love animates them all. And we need each other to witness to the whole of God’s love.Jesus was both committed to the margins and at home in the center. He spent most of his time in Galilee, but he marched on Jerusalem and taught in the temple. It’s not so much like puzzle pieces that in fitting together form a complete picture. Catholicity is more paradoxical than that, for congregations simultaneously possess the whole Christ and yet need each other for their wholeness to be manifest. It’s more like the image of a family (or maybe the Holy Trinity): The members represent the whole. The whole is only the whole because of each member.
In this way, while God’s love always reaches especially for the margins, wherever those may be found, God draws all people everywhere to himself. This will include people of power—as it has since the earliest days—but also those lingering along the highways and byways. “There is still room . . . compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:22–23).
God’s kath’olos love supplies our rationale for church planting: there is no place, no matter how remote, inconvenient, or unstrategic on human terms that is unworthy of the gospel. The challenge with contemporary church planting in North America is that it’s less about planting the gospel among unreached people and more about overseeding, which means it’s inherently strategic. I sometimes wonder if church planting becomes an exercise in furthering our own house brand. Cotherman is surely right that there are unchurched and de-churched folks in our rural communities who can be engaged by fresh expressions of church. New church plants can “come alongside longstanding congregations for the common good.” But the church churn scares me. Maybe this is Luther’s and Calvin’s and Menno’s curse, a pox on all our houses: always more, always over-and-against, always that competitive edge. Does the universal church really come out ahead?
What’s more, how we define “rural” would seem to matter a lot when we talk about church planting. I hear plenty of interest in planting churches in small towns of 10,000 and above—especially when those communities are expanding with fresh population or new ethnic groups. But planting in stable or declining communities of 100 or 500 or even 2,000? That’s a harder sell.
No doubt mine is just the usual old-guard grumbling about energetic disrupters. The reality is that I see the need for rural church planting. Holy ambition and creativity have too often been lacking among established churches, and life together in many of our gray-crowned congregations is often less than compelling. I admire plucky, risk-taking church planters finding new ways to scratch at the hard soil for the word.
And yet I remain a little skeptical that church planting is going to get us where we need to go in rural communities. Above all, I think we need leaders with the cross seared on their hearts who can stand in the impossible gap between loving the church as it is, as they find it, and dreaming of where the church might yet go. They’re pastors who aren’t afraid to patch old wine skins, who love dying things, and who are willing to pray like Paul daily, hourly, by the minute: “What should I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10 NLT). Old congregations are what they are. But they can learn new tricks.
I’m not sure I will manage to remain here long enough to have my bones buried in Moundridge, where I’ve been serving for the past eight years. But it seems to me that the genius of Jesus’ teaching on abiding is that I should be willing to contemplate striving together with and suffering alongside and sticking around long enough for this place to work its way into my bones.