“No one really thinks they are going to be called to pastor in the middle of nowhere.”*
The “middle of nowhere” is relative. For some people, it’s a place with no Starbucks. For others it’s a place with no Ethiopian restaurants. And for others, it’s a place where you can stand on your front porch and yell, and nobody can hear you.
Now I work with rural, suburban and urban pastors all at once, and each of these ministries is different. Professional ministry can be lonely, but the loneliness of rural pastors is different. It’s possible that you don’t even have wifi or cell phone service. And you have to order your Starbucks and your injera from Amazon.
Lyz Lenz’ book is an excellent read about this. She marks the importance of and the diminishing of Church in rural areas and small towns – especially in the Midwest. Please read it.
She quotes Milan Kundera who writes:
The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering.’ So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.
Lyz Lenz knows something about nostalgia and maybe you do too.
Nostalgia is why MAGA is a thing. Some folks want to return to a time when “American was great” not realizing that it was never as great as they remember – especially for women, children, and people of color. In fact, nostalgia can be:
I am part of a large extended family with deep roots in the Church in North Carolina. We lovingly remember our ancestors for being Good Christians, Hard Workers, Family People. As I dig into our family tree, it’s clear that what we remember are the good parts.
Every once in a while a relative will share the story of an uncle or cousin who was not a hardworking, Christian family person. I won’t get into that here, but I’ve noticed that some of my family would rather erase those parts and move on.
Lyz Lenz writes about how the Church has been the center of community in rural areas of the United States, venturing out into the prairie, for example, like the bravest of pioneers and settling there to build farms and businesses. The truth – of course – is that people already lived there with their farms and businesses and families. And those native people were moved or killed by government-sanctioned decree. Some of our forebearers enslaved people and then they built the farms and businesses on that stolen land.
Nostalgia is complicated.
Our rural areas today are besieged by unemployment and addiction and poverty – which is different from those issues in the city. And unemployment, addiction, and poverty have always been there, even if we remember full pews on Sunday morning.
If we could just get back to the good old days.
If people just came back to church.
If the young people just loved the LORD.
The Rural Church is indeed a center of a community – if we are doing it right. The small congregation with 20 people all related to each other is tempted to lose its purpose: Do we exist to please Grandma whose parents donated the pipe organ? Or do we exist to serve our neighbors, including the ones condemned by those wearing MAGA caps? (Or to serve our neighbors who happen to be wearing MAGA caps?)
Some will call it “fake news” but it’s statistically true that this is the best time to be alive in terms of being a child, a migrant, a woman, or a person of color is now. Children are safer, migrants have a chance (albeit a small chance in this administration), women have more opportunities, and Thank God most police officers have body cams. And there are laws to protect the vulnerable that we didn’t have a hundred years ago. And yet we have a long way to go. We need to do better.
We need churches in the middle of nowhere and we need pastors who will serve them. We need leaders who will walk with those who grieve their institutional losses. We need leaders who will serve the most vulnerable and remind anyone who will listen that this is What Jesus Teaches Us to Do.
Who is called to serve God in the middle of nowhere? All of us.
Find your “nowhere” this week – even if it’s on a loud city street, and be the Church.
*Quote and image from God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz. So good.