The twentieth (and now twenty-first) century had a devastating effect on the regions of Appalachia in the East, the farms of the Midwest, and the fishing and forestry areas along the coastlines. Mechanization and industrialization have motivated a rural exodus, leaving depleted populations, economies, and communities. But the social realities confronting these places pale in comparison to the spiritual crisis of these rural communities. Substance abuse, poverty, suicide, broken families, tragedy, and danger—at rates that are proportionally higher than in the city—betray a shared sense of fear, pessimism, and discouragement.
These issues have spiritual causes and effects. The only thing capable of speaking meaningfully into these problems is the gospel. Unfortunately, as rural towns have declined, so too has the presence of Christian witness. Churches that at one time were the center of community life now grapple with diminishing budgets, aging membership, empty pews, and the desire that many young people—including pastors—have for the opportunities and conveniences of the city. When these congregations are forced to close their doors, it is the end of a ministry that has likely existed for a century or more. Communities are left without any witness to Jesus Christ and the glory of His gospel.
This should motivate the church to think and act upon the need for rural ministry. This begins, of course, with those who already find themselves in that context. It is easy to wallow in self-pity at the way the rural church is neglected or give in to defeat because the resources seem lacking. It is easy to despair because success seems impossible. But the truth remains: there are millions of people in rural communities who are not worshiping Jesus. He calls His church not to worldly success but to faithfulness. He does not ask us to steward resources we do not have; He asks us to be faithful with what we do have. He does not demand from us worldly recognition but reminds us that a cup of cold water in His name has eternal benefits. The rural church must fulfill the ministry of gathering and perfecting the saints because that is the work Jesus has given us to do.
Rural America needs to be seen (and invested in) by the broader church as a mission field. It might be a bold suggestion, but we should embrace the extreme challenge of planting in small towns with courage and resolve. Yet it cannot end there. More can be done to encourage people toward the arduous work of revitalizing that which is growing weak. In the words of Charles Spurgeon:
To me, it seems it should be your glory to join in the poorest and weakest churches of your denomination and wherever you go, to say, “This little cause is not as strong as I should like it to be, but by the grace of God, I will make it more influential. At any rate, I will throw my weight to strengthen the weak things of Zion, and certainly I will not despise the day of small things.”
Rural ministry is worth our time and effort because the Lamb is worthy to receive the reward of His suffering—a reward that is, I am convinced, present even in the rural communities of our world.