What I learned about community from a rural church

It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners; somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church; somebody who would bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh, and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says that he wants to spend his life "doing what dad does" . . . so God made a farmer. – Paul Harvey.

Paul Harvey was a radio host that had a knack for capturing the essence of America. As a young fan of radio, I’d often hear his updates where he’d provide interesting news from around the country. He’d end his updates by spinning a yarn about some unknown tidbit from history. One time, as I was driving down the road, I heard his recorded speech titled, “So God Made a Farmer,” and it instantly became a favorite of mine.

I have never had the privilege of living in an expressly rural context. My time growing up was split between the well-known mountains of East Tennessee and the commercialized coasts of Florida. But as I have gotten older, my professional career in electoral politics allowed me the opportunity to work in some rich agricultural areas. At the same time, my wife’s family lives in an area of the country where farming is a way of life. So whether it’s the cotton farms of West Tennessee or the vast cornfields of the Illinois River Valley, I’ve developed a deep appreciation and love for the rural parts of our nation. And the churches of those communities.

This was brought home to me recently as my wife and I were visiting her family in the Midwest, a part of the country that has been beset with seemingly never-ending rain and flooding. It has devastated farms across the region from Nebraska to Illinois, causing ripple effects in the national economy. It has also resulted in farmers stockpiling what they have, something that is rarely done. 

Whenever we are there, we attend her parents’ small church about 10 miles north of where they live. This congregation has about 40 folks in attendance on any given Sunday, nearly all of them from farm families. Typically, they have a congregational prayer time where members are invited to share their cares and concerns with everyone. 

During this particular service, the continual precipitation was on everyone’s mind. Farmers have been unable to get their crop in the ground because of it. Many were being forced to make the hard decision of whether or not to file for crop insurance. As I heard these prayer requests being made, my thoughts centered on the pastor of this tight-knit congregation. What words would he call upon to address these concerns? What sort of intercessory prayer would he offer for these people? How would he lead on this occasion? 

In a beautiful moment to witness, he reminded the congregation of their Galatians 6:2 responsibility, he talked about God’s sovereignty, and he ended with gratitude for God’s sufficiency. As someone who is a member of a church in an urban setting, where prayer time is more individualized and silent, it was a poignant scene.

Remembering our rural churches 

It was another reminder of just how vital the church is––in any context. Christians called to live and minister in a rural setting are not more uniquely called than someone who is called to minister in downtown New Orleans. Both are confronted with important and complex matters the gospel speaks to. But I do think, perhaps because there are less people or because of the perception that less newsy items occur there, it is easy for those of us in urbans areas to forget about our brothers and sisters in the country. That shouldn’t be so.

In the Southern Baptist Convention alone, small and rural churches make up the backbone of our denomination. Based on the most recent numbers I could find from LifeWay Research’s Annual Church Profile, churches with under 250 members make up more than 85% of all churches in the SBC, and many of those will be in more rural and exurban settings. And while these churches may not have the resources some are accustomed to in 10,000-member megachurches, the Spirit is certainly alive and well in these congregations.

A certain closeness to God was evident during my visit to this church. How did they create this culture? Did their rural setting have anything to do with it? Are they more purposeful about making time for God in their lives? Whenever I’m in Washington, Dallas, or Nashville, everyone seems so hurried and consumed by their schedules. That’s not the sense you get with our rural brethren. 

This reminded me of a passage from the English pastor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who once stated in a sermon, “One of the curses of (city) life is that we are all kept so busy we have no time for God . . . we are all rushing madly to and from work . . . and then in the evenings pleasure is organized for us, staring us in the face.” Even though he said those words decades ago, is that not still true to this day? In that regard, I am envious of the margin a rural life seems to afford those who are called to these areas. There’s more time to reflect; more time to appreciate; more time to focus on the Lord.

My friends in this particular church have lives tied to the seasons and the rhythms of the sun and rain. And, despite the hardships they’re encountering right now, they are leaning in to God. He is more than enough for their needs. And while they have burdens, they’re committing to come together to overcome them. Those are lessons we all would do well to remember, whether we’re in the country or in the city.