Voices: In defense of small churches

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In his 1988 essay, “God and Country,” the Kentucky farmer, writer and prophet Wendell Berry takes aim at the institutional church for a variety of offenses. It’s a proper jeremiad, a polemic against his perennial enemy, “the economy,” and in service of his larger point, Berry states a truth so profound and convicting that it’s hung firmly in my mind since I first read it several years ago.

Berry writes of “the practice, again common in the churches of my experience, of using the rural ministry as a training ground for young ministers and as a means of subsidizing their education. No church official, apparently, sees any logical, much less any spiritual, problem in sending young people to minister to country churches before they have, according to their institutional superiors, become eligible to be ministers.”

Most churches within a hundred miles of an academic institution of their particular denominational stripe will be instantly familiar with Berry’s gripe. When I interviewed at one such church shortly after completing my seminary degree and commented on the legacy of that congregation in training up fresh pastors over the years, I was met with a similar degree of enthusiasm as Berry expresses in his essay.

They wanted to have good pastors, not just make them.

None called to stay

Berry goes on to describe the conventional wisdom of denominational leaders in less than kind terms: “The country people will be used to educate ministers for the benefit of city people (in wealthier churches) who, obviously, are thought more deserving of educated ministers.”

And though he doesn’t blame the individual young ministers for their participation in this system, he does note that “in the more than fifty years that I have known my own rural community, many student ministers have been ‘called’ to serve in its churches, but not one has ever been ‘called’ to stay.”

These words struck me like a sledgehammer, and I’ve often reflected on them in the course of my few years serving the people of rural Crowell, Texas, in my first pastorate.

Stepping stone?

The traditional trajectory for a young pastor like myself is to treat a community and church like Crowell as a stepping stone to ever bigger, wealthier urban or suburban churches. But I don’t believe that bigger is necessarily better, or that urban is superior to rural.

I want to be “called to stay” in my small church in my rural community. Churches like mine deserve good pastors too, and I hope to be one for them.

But conventional wisdom considers that a lack of ambition, even a waste of good talent. Conventional wisdom considers my time in Crowell a resume builder and learning period at best, and though neither of those things in themselves is bad, the simple fact that they are given foremost attention in the big picture strikes me as antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ and insulting to the fine people of Foard County and other similar communities.

Now, by challenging the notion that small communities and their churches are undervalued as places of service and worship, I don’t mean to suggest that ministry to cities through big churches is correspondingly bereft of value. Neither Wendell Berry nor I approve of that sentiment.

In the middle of his argument, he pauses to state that “not all ministers should be country ministers, just as not all people should be country people.” And yet there is a need to promote smaller communities and churches as a good in themselves, and not only as a training ground for the bigger and urban.

Consider small churches

Jesus spent his ministry traveling in and out of small communities and was himself reviled on different occasions for his rural roots. Now, certainly, he also taught at the Temple in Jerusalem, but that was not his primary place of ministry. The Sermon on the Mount was delivered in the wilderness. The ten lepers were cleansed in the borderlands of Samaria. He commissioned his disciples to go from the urban center of Jerusalem to the “ends of the earth.”

It’s in that spirit that I call on pastors to consider small and rural churches when the Lord leads you toward your next transition.

It’s in that spirit that I call my sisters and brothers in the faith to visit the small church on the corner before starting membership classes at the big McChurch downtown when they move to a new community.

It’s in that spirit that I implore denominational leadership, Bible colleges and seminaries to champion the small and rural churches in their outlying areas as places where God is especially at work.

Teach our young ministers that these are places to love and serve for more than two years at a time and that the fullness of life can be experienced and enjoyed in these communities. Continue to encourage them to serve the local church in all kinds of paid and unpaid roles while they’re training for ministry careers, but remind them that those local churches are not just ministry labs for experimentation or short-term places to work until they get a real call.

They are themselves the full manifestation of the church of Jesus Christ, and service in those places is eternal in scope.

Chris McLain is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Crowell, Texas.

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