I invite you to imagine with me a country with a rich Christian heritage. Old church buildings dot the landscape, once filled to capacity but now home to a dozen members in one building, a couple dozen in another, perhaps a hundred in the larger churches. These nearly empty places of worship are signs of the declining influence and impact of the gospel in these communities. A remnant remains, but these faithful people have aged, grown tired and defeated, seemingly overwhelmed by the cultural changes around them.
You might be imagining a country in “post-Christian” Europe, and though the country I am describing does have a population roughly the same as the United Kingdom or France, it is much closer to home. Yet this country is usually seen not as a missions priority but as a stepping-stone for a young minister to gain experience for a couple of years before moving on, or as a soft landing for a tired old pastor, working his way toward retirement.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the “nation” I am describing is rural America.
Just a few generations past, the United States was a nation of small towns and rural communities. The rapid urbanization of the U.S. in the last century has left rural and small town America reeling. Most small towns are in decline. They are depressed economically and are struggling to survive. This massive shift creates the impression that there just isn’t much life in America outside of the cities and suburbs.
But the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that 1 in 5 Americans still live in rural counties, adding up to a nation of nearly 60 million people, which would still comfortably rank among the top 25 most populous nations in the world, all on its own. Shouldn’t we view a nation this large as a tremendous missions opportunity? Can you imagine a missions organization abandoning all of Italy or South Africa to rookies and retirees?
It’s really not fair, however, to criticize mission boards or church-planting organizations for directing their resources elsewhere, because although rural America has twenty percent more people than South Korea, one missionary sent to the heart of Seoul has the potential to reach far more people than a pastor in a town of 2,000. The same is true when you compare Philadelphia or even the suburbs of Austin to the tiny towns that dot America’s countryside.
So the solution is not going to be found at the denominational or organizational level. It is going to be found when individual men, women and families open their eyes to the church’s obligation to reach these small communities, see the tremendous need that exists, and then open themselves to hear God’s call not just to go but to go and remain.
I am not someone that anyone would consider a “natural fit” to pastor a church in South Arkansas. I am a suburbanite through and through–a man who, despite spending almost his entire life in Texas, doesn’t hunt, fish or even speak with a noticeable drawl. And the first time I was looking for a pastorate, I refused to even consider a country church.
But God brought me through enough failure to be desperate enough to hear His call. My resume was chosen and I received a call from First Baptist in Stephens, Arkansas, in the summer of 2010. At the time, I was reading a book about missions in India. The author was pleading with his readers to consider the need to reach the many small villages of 1,000 people or so that remained all over India that had never heard the gospel. As my heart was stirred for the villages of India, I heard the Spirit ask me, “Who is going to reach the villages of America?”
I decided that day that God was calling me to be one who would answer that call. Now, in my sixth year in Stephens, my church is small, my town is declining, and I am not any sort of model of “success” here yet. But I know that I am where God wants me to be, in a town full of lost people who are precious to God, serving a church that is the apple of His eye.
Who is going to reach the villages of rural America? Will you answer the call?