In an earlier article published here on The Heidelblog, I noted that one of the things that encouraged me in terms of current trends in the Presbyterian Church in America (my denomination) was the trend of men happily taking on calls as solo pastors in various small and rural settings. As I noted in the article, my evidence was merely anecdotal and hardly representative of any hard or specific data. Consequently, I have had conversations with several other friends who, while thankful for this trend that they also have observed, maintain that there is still much ground to cover in this department. One friend of mine (who is intimately involved in both theological higher education and rural ministry) noted that he spends nearly a whole day each week in conversation with a presbytery or a seminary cohort and he consistently hears remarks such as, “It’s worse than it’s ever been with men refusing to take a solo pastorate in small places.” Clearly we have some work to do.
This matter is not foreign to me. Although the church I currently serve is plopped amid a bustling mid-sized suburban city, I served a tiny country church during my seminary days, grew up in a variety of small-town churches, and the first PCA congregation I joined was located (quite literally) across the road from a cornfield. I am also deeply involved in an organization that is committed to training men for ministry in small-town/rural settings, and is highly invested in equipping and resourcing those small-town ministries in a variety of ways. I am glad these issues are receiving attention, and I am glad that my cadre of associates is not the only one noticing the need.
Thankfully, while the predicament is hardly solved, it seems to me that greater awareness is being raised regarding this issue—which, hopefully, is the first step toward providing something of a solution. Even in recent months, there seem to be several articles or podcasts produced underscoring this same desideratum we are bemoaning. For example: the recent Heidelblog article highlighting the need greater Presbyterian and Reformed presence in the often overlooked rural spiritual wastelands of America; the recent Presbycast podcast episode on the same topic, etc.
Along with that, something of more “institutional” efforts are afoot to help raise awareness of this need and to even start solving of the problems it poses. There is an organization called the Appalachia Reformation Network (ARN) which is seeking to connect Reformed, Presbyterian, and Reformed Baptist leaders throughout the greater Appalachian region for purposes of encouragement and collaboration, and even to start efforts toward raising up pastors and church planters to labor in this desperately underserved region of the country. If readers are interested, I participated in a podcast about a year ago with one of the leaders of the ARN where we spoke about the particular challenges of ministry in Appalachia and ways in which God’s people might consider praying and helping (two other relevant episodes are available here and here).
Other efforts towards addressing this predicament that have been underway for a few years include what is called the Rural Pastors Initiative (directed out of Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi) and The Project on Rural Ministry (directed out of Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania). Both projects have sought to serve small-town and rural pastors and parishes in their respective regions (the “Rustbelt” and rural South) with fellowship, ongoing training, providing needed resources for smaller churches, and even to recruit people to potentially serve in these contexts. Similarly, there is the Small Town Summits initiative which collaborates closely with The Gospel Coalition New England chapter to serve similar needs in rural portions of New England. One more effort (albeit, from more of a Baptistic and not Reformed theological commitment) is the Village Missions organization which aims to provide much the same kind of resources and recruitment as the other efforts, but with a special focus on the Midwest.
So, in general, there is some awareness in the wider church of this reality in underserved America’s small-town and rural regions. There is still, however, a greater need to raise up an explicitly Reformed and Presbyterian witness to serve these areas.
In speaking with my friend who often converses with those involved in recruiting men for rural ministry, he noted that no small part of the issue lies in the resistance of the would-be recruit. Now, I understand all the necessary caveats (small children with health needs requiring them to be near a major hospital, needing to live near aging parents, etc.) and I do not intend to dismiss those very real concerns. But, for those men and their families who potentially could serve in a small-town or rural environment, but are disinclined to do so because of the relative paucity of suburban luxuries (e.g. Starbucks, Target, etc.)—what are we to think?
My intent here is not to shame anyone, but to plead with seminarians to do some serious soul-searching and to warmly encourage professors, pastors, elders, and mentors to challenge the young would-be minister within their charge and help him to do that soul searching. Pray with him and for him. Challenge him. Discuss the realities of ministry (in any context) and of a small-town settings in particular. Try to figure out why the man is resistant: is it really something to do with this relative gifting, or temperament or some other aspect that would render him a poor fit in such a situation (such realities ought to be accounted for), or is it, perhaps, that there is some as-yet-unmortified worldliness that is preventing him from taking up an otherwise legitimate and potentially fruitful call? If his desire is truly to preach Christ and him crucified, and to spend and be spent in the cause of the gathering and the perfecting of God’s saints, what should prevent him from taking a call in a humble environ?
At the same time, even if a man is willing to go wherever the Lord should call him (even if it is out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-small-town America), his expectations must be realistic. My friends who presently serve in small/rural settings tell me that—while on the decline—nominal Christianity is still very much an impediment in their contexts. It is no easy thing to convince the spiritually comfortable and complacent that they are in far more peril than they realize.
Furthermore, they note the perennial obstacles of pride and generational sin, poverty, drug addiction, and the especially distasteful and deleterious small-town church rivalries. None of these things (in the Lord’s providence and kingly omnipotence) are insurmountable, but any would-be minister should go into such a setting with his eyes wide open.
At the same time, there is real need for genuine gospel ministry, robust Reformed theology, and healthy congregations in vast swaths of America where currently such churchly outposts are sparse to nonexistent. There is a veritable mission field on our own doorstep. What might we do about it?
1. We must resist the temptation to shortcut and short-circuit adequate pastoral and theological preparation.
Theological education can be expensive, no doubt about it. And, oftentimes, serving in a small or rural church setting will not set one up to be lavished in this world’s riches. An earnest desire to “reach the masses” for Christ must be tempered. We need only look to the ramifications of the Second Great Awakening and efforts at de-emphasizing theological training to facilitate a faster “on the field” availability of ministers (cf. the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, “fast-track ordination” Methodism, etc.) to know that such shortcuts are disastrous in the long term. No, as one of my mentors is fond of saying, “Given all of the cultural, sociological, political challenges and more in our current era, today’s pastors need to know more, not less.” Inasmuch as I would want a top-notch attorney representing me in a court of law, or a top-notch surgeon operating on my heart, how much more would I demand adequate training of the man who will serve as a kind of doctor to my eternal soul?
There are numerous scholarship opportunities at the established Reformed seminaries that go a long way to making theological education more affordable. Additionally, there are small, more localized church-wedded and presbytery-wedded training efforts throughout the Reformed world that are combining theological rigor with affordability, many operating with an eye toward rural ministry. Rigorous theological training is accessible, and it must be insisted upon.
Perhaps targeted scholarship opportunities at the established seminaries might be crafted with an eye toward recruiting men specifically for rural ministry? Perhaps designated giving efforts from robust congregations to help offset costs of theological education for men headed toward unreached regions? This will, of course, require God’s people to be willing to support such endeavors philanthropically.
2. Take advantage of the Sunday evening time slot.
In his article earlier this year on The Heidelblog, my friend and ruling elder, Brad Isbell, suggested that we in the P&R World might take advantage of the much-abandoned Sunday evening church service time slot, and I would echo his suggestion. It is not my intention to make a theological case for the evening or second service in this article (though I am very much in favor of them), but rather to simply make this observation: I would wager that the majority of PCA (if not NAPARC) churches do not currently offer an evening service. Couple this with the reality of many churches with multiple staff members and many with otherwise free Sunday evenings, and I wonder if we might start to think about these as missional or evangelistic possibilities? If churches have an associate pastor of discipleship, associate pastor of missions, assistant pastor of youth and families, etc. who do not have other churchly obligations on Lord’s Day evenings, why not send them out to those rural regions—to the hills and hollers—to lead a Bible study if there are enough folks interested? Maybe it is an hour or more of a drive, but if there are enough people in a region without a Reformed presence, would this not be a wonderful way to make use of the Lord’s Day evening? Would such an effort lead to an eventual core group for a church plant? Goodness, if we are already sending an ordained minister out to the hinterlands, and there are more than a handful of people involved, could he not even facilitate a rudimentary worship service under the auspices of his session? This would surely give an associate minister additional and valuable preaching experience—to say nothing of the spiritual benefits it would bring the people! If a solo pastor does not have Sunday evening obligations, he could even use the same sermon he preached that morning, and such an effort would be a blessing to these people and would not require any additional preparation on his part beyond prayer.
Might such things lead to small Reformed church plants in unreached regions? Mother-daughter church plants? Multiple smaller “yoked” congregations sharing a pastor? Perhaps. Might we use our creativity and rethink home missions and find ways to leverage the untapped potential of relatively open Sunday evenings and relatively available pastoral staff members? Maybe this is already happening in some areas—I would love to hear feedback from our readers if this is the case.
3. Call out to the Lord of the Harvest.
In all of this, we would be remiss if we failed to remember the injunction given to us by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 9:36–38:
Seeing the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”
Let us be much in prayer for this need in our country, that the Lord would be pleased to provide an oasis in spiritual wastelands: outposts of sound Reformed and biblical doctrine, desperately needed fellowship, and soul-edifying preaching. And however difficult it may seem, however meager our efforts, however insurmountable the obstacles, we would do well to think on the Lord’s gracious promise and retort to Abraham in Genesis 18:14.
“Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
©Sean Morris. All Rights Reserved.
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I live in North Dakota — a very hard place to be Reformed with almost no Reformed witness except the tiny RCUS, which stays jammed in to dying churches in tight Germans From Russia enclaves. OPC plants have failed at Bismarck, Grand Forks, and Fargo where there is currently a fledgling PCA plant (also likely to fail). Help!
Some of those German-Russian congregations aren’t as German-Russian as they used to be but I can see that you’re in a bad way. The nearest NAPARC congregation (Salem RCUS in Ashley) to you is 81 miles. That is a haul.
It’s a matter for prayer. I’ve been begging MNA et al for years to remember the Plains.
Dr. Clark and Rev. Morris are right. I wish I had only an 80-mile drive to church.
I live outside Fort Leonard Wood, the home of the Army Engineer School, MP School, and Chemical School, in the Missouri Ozarks. There are no confessionally Reformed congregations between Springfield and the St. Louis suburbs that 1) speak English, and 2) are willing to accept people baptized as infants into membership without rebaptism. The local PCA does not speak English, and while I attended it for a number of years, there are reasons I never joined. Nobody who would be comfortable in the URC or OPC or any of the more conservative NAPARC denominations would be willing to join that church. Every soldier who has called me for a referral to a local church has been advised to give it a try, but I’ve yet to see more than a couple of soldiers from a Reformed background who were willing to tolerate it. Occasionally people have been willing to drive to the former URCNA (now ARP) church plant that I attend, but I completely understand why a drive of an hour and a half, one way, with children in the car, is a major problem for a young military family.
Even the Particular Baptist churches between Springfield and the St. Louis suburbs are tiny — meaning attendance of a couple of dozen people on the best Sundays — and the local one about a dozen miles from Fort Leonard Wood is led by lay elders without theological training. That’s where Reformed soldiers usually end up, even though they can’t join without rebaptism.
It could be worse. When I lived outside Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, I drove almost two hours to the Roswell OPC until it closed, and then drove about two and a half hours to the Amarillo OPC, crossing state lines and a time zone. At least near Cannon AFB, there were (at that time) two Southern Baptist pastors who preached sovereign grace, and at that time one of the local PC(USA) congregations was pastored by a man who was evangelical and Reformed. He’s no longer there and as far as I know the church is no longer evangelical.
When I lived in a part of southeast Iowa where the RPCNA was once strong, but nearly all of their churches closed decades ago, I drove about 45 minutes, much of that on badly maintained gravel roads, to reach a Covenanter church that, at that time, probably had a couple of dozen people attending. (It’s larger now.) My alternative was a somewhat larger Covenanter church about an hour away.
These are practical examples of the realities faced, not only by our military personnel who don’t get to choose where they live, but also by many Reformed believers who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves in places where there are no Reformed churches of any type within a reasonable driving distance.
There are people who knew I was driving more than two hours to church when I lived in New Mexico and wished their drive to church was only two hours. I’m glad mine is now about 80 minutes on a good day without weather problems (from Fort Leonard Wood it would be 90 minutes or more).
These are the realities people face in rural America if they want to be Reformed. This isn’t Grand Rapids with several hundred Reformed churches of many denominations, or Northwest Iowa with Reformed churches in almost every little town. And as I pointed out in my Iowa example, even states where we think the Reformed faith is strong have parts of the state where a once-strong local Reformed community has collapsed, usually due to depopulated farms and the inability to keep enough people in the churches to support a paid pastor.
Decisions made decades ago to close and merge rural churches now look extremely shortsighted when factories have moved to small towns and the population grows, but the Baptists and charismatics who bought the closed church buildings are the ones that get the growth from areas Reformed people abandoned.
How do we define rural? If it is merely countryside as opposed to city then I live in a rural area. However, I am within a 1 hour drive of drive of 7 NAPARC congregations. In fact, I would suppose that there is no place in my state where one is not within a 30 minute drive from a NAPARC congregation. So, for us the idea of rural planting is a “foreign” mission project. My suggestion is that Presbyteries in our region partner with Presbyteries with more sparsely planted fields. In a sense approach it like we would have in the westward expansion days. Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education might be a good starting place.
There are great stretches on the American Plains and in the Mountain West where there is not a single NAPARC congregation. West of Lincoln and Omaha it’s all rural. There are 8 or 9 NAPARC congregations for the entire state of Nebraska. There are 14 in Kansas. The whole state is rural West of Johnson County and outside of Wichita. There are about 30 NAPARC congregations for all of North and South Dakota. Those states are entirely rural, with the possible exception of Sioux Falls, where there is a small cluster of churches.
Central and Western Nebraska are among the most poorly served places in the USA. In the Sand Hills of Nebraska there is not a NAPARC congregation for 3-4 hours. Oklahoma, outside of Oklahoma City, is also poorly served as is Central and Northern Texas.
Everyone can see how badly served the Central and Southern Plains (and much of the Mountain West) are via this Google Map of NAPARC and Baptist Churches. This map includes some Baptist congregations and others (e.g., congregations that practice paedocommunion).
To what extent are these small towns in the USA like or unlike the “main” towns in which men like Alleine, Guthrie and M’Cheyne, etc. ministered? I suppose they did not have the scourge of substance abuse to deal with …
All small towns, whether in Scotland or the USA have a lot in common. Indeed, in the UK I sometimes felt as if England were one oversized small town. Here is a graphic showing how tiny the UK is relative to the USA. The map shows
The problem we’re considering right now is less the pathologies of small towns (drugs, rising paganism etc) and more the complete absence of confessional Reformed churches in those places. It’s a 396 mile drive from Omaha, Nebraska to Bentonville, Arkansas. That’s a little over six hours. When we drive from Escondido to Lincoln, Neb (twice) each year, that’s just part of the first day’s drive. We have another 4 hours to go before we can get to our hotel for the night.
BTW, I’m sure Scottish pastors had to deal with alcohol abuse in the Highlands and in other small places.
It’s bad in Canada too.
There is one (1) NAPARC church in the province of Saskatchewan.
You can drive from Edmonton, Alberta, to Winnipeg, Manitoba (811 miles) without finding one.
My father is a pastor with Village Missions (VM) who came out of the Master’s Seminary. I’m sure he may have been able to find a larger church, but desires to serve small areas like where he grew up. VM does a lot of good work in smaller towns. I would disagree now (especially having moved to an OPC church) with the lack of training required and the lack of doctrinal requirements – I’ve seen both of these cause problems for churches and pastors in VM. I definitely don’t think that reformed churches should give up on educational or doctrinal requirements, but assistance with school bills is probably going to be essential.
One thing I think VM does well is that they recruit from their own churches and from smaller towns and seminaries. This means that many of their recruits already have lived in smaller towns and therefore have an easier time fitting in to ministry in a smaller town – even just things like how they dress and what they expect as far as amenities. VM also supports their pastors with a conference every year and often more local meetings of pastors every month or two when they can. Rural ministry can be very isolating and have many discouragements. Any sustainable Reformed outreach into these areas is going to require support and maybe even some specialized training/mentorship from those who have served in small areas before.