Laboring Among the Cornfields: Pastoring Rural America

When I tell people that I pastor a church in Illinois, they invariably assume that I mean Chicago. And when I tell them that the church is actually in southern Illinois, in a city of just 4,000, they generally do not know what to say. Except, perhaps, to ask how far it is from Chicago.

As frustrating as these conversations can be, I find it hard to assign too much blame. For most of my life, I likely would have asked the same questions. I grew up in a large suburb of a mid-sized city. I went to college in a major city. I worked in three more big cities. I am city. Case in point, I do not drive a pickup truck, I do not own a gun, and I do not hunt. In God’s providence, however, I am here—laboring among the cornfields and coal mines, as so many other anonymous pastors are.

The Calling

Now, to be frank, this is not where I imagined that the Lord would place me. In fact, before applying to my current church in Sparta, Illinois, I did not know that Sparta even existed. That said, I was at least open to ministering in a rural context. A pastor-friend had counseled me to apply for calls broadly and widely, and that advice struck me as both wise and biblical.

The fact is, God calls His ministers to a place. Just as He called Jonah to Nineveh and Timothy to Ephesus, so does He call all of His servants to a particular location. This is to say, for pastors and would-be pastors, it is not about personal preference. It is not about comfort. It is about divine calling. We go east to Nineveh, even when we might prefer to flee west.

As in all places, ministry in a small town or rural setting is accompanied by both blessings and challenges. In my view, the challenges get the vast majority of the attention. Everyone knows about the poverty, the drug use, the economic issues, and the aging populations—all of which plague my community, and so many others like it. Further, many of the comforts and conveniences of city life are lacking. There is neither a sushi bar nor a Starbucks in Sparta. Last but not least, success (as it is typically conceived) is elusive. Explosive numerical growth is the rare exception. A quiet and faithful ministry is to be expected.

Though it is not what people often expect, there really is something to that idea. While I may not have envisioned myself as a small-town pastor when I came out of seminary, my vision for ministry was one of quiet faithfulness. It was to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim 4:2). It was to know the sheep and be known by the sheep. It was to “do the work of an evangelist.” (2 Tim 4:5). This biblical vision of ministry is one that can be had anywhere.

So, here I am, nearly six years into my first call, doing what ministers of the gospel are called to do. Every Lord’s Day, I am preaching Christ from all the Scriptures, and teaching through the great catechisms of our Reformed tradition. Throughout the week, I am visiting with God’s people in my office, in their homes, and in the hospital. At every opportunity, I am seeking to build relationships with both nominal believers and unbelievers, so that by God’s grace, they might be saved. Again, this was always my vision for ministry, even if the exact place was not. Here, I am feeding the sheep and seeking the lost.

The Need

Just to clarify, there are many who are lost. One of the faulty assumptions people often make is that “rural American” essentially means Christian. Yes, a higher percentage of people in my town would identify as Christian when compared to those in the cities where I previously lived. That self-identification, however, is not particularly helpful in discerning true biblical piety and practice.

Although most religiously affiliated people here would identify as Christian, many do not attend church, and even less belong to one. Further, although there are many churches in Sparta (nearly 30), many are clearly outside the bounds of orthodoxy, denying core tenets of the faith, such as the Trinity. Still, other congregations have capitulated to the culture on matters of gender and sexuality, calling into question their status as true churches. If that is not enough, data from a 2020 census from the Public Religion Research Institute reveals that nearly one-in-five residents of our county are religiously unaffiliated. This is roughly in line with the national average.

In other words, the need to reach the lost is real and great. I am continually burdened by that responsibility, just as my peers are in the suburbs and cities.

The Blessing

Regardless of the aforementioned challenges and needs, I have come to appreciate life here. This appreciation goes beyond the obvious reasons, like the lower cost of living and the more conservative social values—though, I should add that these considerations cannot be undervalued, especially for the many modestly paid pastors who are trying to raise their children in a world gone mad—because there is real community in the country, even more so in the country church.

For example, shortly after we arrived in Sparta, my wife gave birth to our second child. In the middle of the night, he spiked a fever while he was less than a month old, requiring that we rush him to the children’s hospital. . . one hour away. What were we to do, given that our oldest was asleep? We did not want to wake him, and we had no family to call. So, instead, we called upon our covenant family. Without hesitation, an elder’s wife came over at 3 a.m. to watch our firstborn, allowing our newborn to get the medical attention he needed.

This is far from the only act of extreme kindness that we have experienced. Over the years, church members have cleaned our gutters, replaced our water heater, loaned us a car, removed live skunks from our backyard, and removed dead possums from our dryer vent. Every Lord’s Day, I can rest easy, knowing that my wife will not be sitting alone. There is always another family with her, ready to assist with our three rambunctious kids.

Now, I know that these blessings are not exclusive to the rural pastor. There are similarly generous congregations in cities and suburbs. In fact, I have been a member of such churches. That said, these blessings deserve special mention, as they have made adjusting to country life relatively easy.

The Opportunity

At the same time, I do not want to make rural ministry out to be something that it is not. It is no walk in the park. There is no shortage of challenges. Some of these, I have already mentioned, such as poverty and the like. Now, I want to touch on an issue over which we have more control. I am speaking of the need for faithful preachers to serve and plant faithful churches. This is a need that many have observed, with various sources dubbing the rural church “forgotten,” as well as a “hidden mission field.” Even more recently, fellow PCA elder Brad Isbell penned this must-read essay for the Heidelblog.

Mind you, this is not for lack of opportunity. The PCA Administrative Committee’s pastor search page is filled with open pulpits in lesser-known places.

In my small presbytery alone, there are numerous opportunities. It starts in my local church, where we are hoping to bring on a paid summer intern for the second year in a row. Our desire is that, in exposing seminarians to rural and small-town ministry, they might consider their own long-term calling to it.

Meanwhile, two other churches in my presbytery are seeking assistant pastors, with the intention of sending them out. Specifically, Center Grove Presbyterian in Edwardsville, Illinois, is looking to plant in O’Fallon, a fast-growing suburb just 20 minutes east of St. Louis. Meanwhile, Providence Presbyterian in Evansville, Indiana, hopes to re-plant a church in Vincennes. Both mission works have the financial support, not only of their respective core groups and mother churches, but also of our presbytery. Thus, their fundraising asks are relatively modest.

The question is: Will there be men who seize these opportunities? Are there men who are willing to move away from the big city, to do God’s work in small cities and rural towns?

My prayer is that the answer is “yes.” If I (Mr. City) can make the adjustment, anyone can. It simply requires a willingness to put calling ahead of comfort.

© Alex Eppstein. All Rights Reserved.


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4 comments

  1. One outstanding advantage is the shepherd actually gets to know his sheep, not merely by name but fully. He is involved in their lives. Another advantage is identification in the community – most people will know you because you are part of their community, shopping in the stores, buying petrol ( sorry “gas”) at the filling station, walking your kids to school etc. I was privileged to serve in two small churches, one on Arran in a rural setting and one in a fishing village in N.E. Scotland. In both cases everyone in the community knew me, I visited the schools for bible teaching each week, (yes, the State elementary schools!) and if anyone in the village was sick or in hospital I would visit. I was never refused entry. Even the non-churched were polite in receiving a visit. Sadly that is changing in Scotland which is now the most progressive and liberal nation in Europe.

  2. This article is so encouraging! Encouraging because it reminds me that God is building and caring for His church everywhere. We know this as believers, but to hear testimonies like this is a reminder of His goodness in providing shepherds for His flock.
    Thank you for this testimony of His kindness.

  3. (Sorry if this is a duplicate: I hit something–I don’t know what–and my computer did something with my original post.)

    Great article! And Alex, God’s richest blessings on you for following His call! Just two comments:

    1. Alex, don’t forget the PCA’s Ministerial Relief Fund. This fund is dedicated to supporting pastors like you (and their wives or widows) who have labored in small churches that can’t afford to fund a retirement for them. You and your wife/widow will NOT spend your older years in poverty.

    2. To my fellow PCA elders, let me encourage you and your churches and your presbyteries to support the Ministerial Relief Fund. When I was on the committee of commissioners for what was then RBI several years ago, three of us on the committee said that our churches did not support the fund because we did not know it existed. So be aware! And contribute regularly and generously to the fund. It is hard for me to think of a better use for our congregation’s tithes and offerings.

  4. Amen, Alex. My experience interning in a rural church confirmed everything in this article–the challenges and the blessings. While I hope to minister in my current call for a long time, I wouldn’t have hesitated to take a rural call.

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