When I announced my engagement a few years ago, one friend wrote to say he was very happy for me but wondered if I might be squandering my talents on a small neighborhood church, and said a suburban megachurch seemed like the congregation I should be influencing as a pastor’s wife.
Matt has received similar questions from people asking why someone with two master’s degrees would serve a community where many people stopped their education after high school.
As a movement we’re excited about churches in the suburbs and churches in thriving cities and even churches in the inner city, but we have very little interest in the hundreds (thousands?) of blue-collar, declining neighborhoods around them. I’m a big fan of having churches anywhere, but it’s curious that we have largely ignored a major socioeconomic sector of the American people.
Is the church allowed to have the equivalent of flyover country?
We like to pretend these mission fields don’t exist because serving here is not easy and doesn’t produce quick results. I’ve said to Matt I’m not too good to be a pastor’s wife here, I’m just not good at being a pastor’s wife here. Most of the people I encounter don’t read many books, travel much, or, often, get my jokes. Many simply want an above-ground pool or a decent pension or some peace between bouts of family drama. In her song “Witness to Your Life,” Lori McKenna sums it up well: “They think this is where life begins and ends/No one reaches, no one transcends/they just learn to live with it.”
This is in stark contrast to the upwardly-mobile Whole Foods families whose rooftops are counted when church planting groups decide where to launch next. I can’t blame them; there’s certainly lots to celebrate about a big start, these organizations can raise more money when their launches bring in the numbers, and educated suburbanites need Jesus. But so do the people in places like Levittown, and just because we don’t have a formula for it doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
The same is true for rural churches. Recently I interviewed Jim Hardy, who leads the Center for Rural Church Advancement at Nebraska Christian College. Hardy founded the CRCA to equip current rural church pastors and to encourage college students to consider rural church as a real ministry option. I love what he’s doing, but I hope he’s prepared for an uphill climb, because rural America’s struggling congregations and declining growth will not lead to the book deals, 100-baptism-Sundays, and conference speaking gigs that announce success in our churches and thus attract our most ambitious young leaders.
Again, I understand the desire for bigger, Bible-Belt crowds. A few weeks ago Matt preached the best sermon I’ve ever heard on Jacob wrestling with God, and 85 people were there to hear it. It’s tempting to want a bigger church on a faster track not only because it validates one’s own talents (most people assume if you lead a small church it’s because you can’t do any better), but because it seems like a better leverage of life. If Matt’s going to prepare and preach so well, isn’t his hard work wasted when the message reaches only a few? And do they even understand the quality they’re receiving? If not, why bother?
On days like this I remind myself that, yes, some do appreciate Matt’s consistent investment of life, and that even those who would be happy with spiritual McDonald’s are still better served with steak. I think of the occasional moments of insight and life change we witness among our people, or the nine baptisms in 2013 (did your church baptize the equivalent of 10% of its weekly attendance last year?). I think of St. Augustine who served a little area in modern-day Algeria and still managed to influence the world for centuries.
My first week in Levittown the librarian processing my application for a new card smiled and shrugged her shoulders when I mentioned I’d just moved to the area.
“Don’t judge Pennsylvania by this city,” she said. “This is a hard place.”
It’s kind of true. But that means our best leaders should be here, and thriving suburban churches should be where young guys go to cut their teeth before moving on to more-perseverance-needed mission fields.
We also need to remember these are mission fields; the locals may speak English, but each place has unique cultural and social norms. Many folks avoid these areas because they don’t understand them. To prepare to serve a country as diverse as ours, wouldn’t some Bible college or seminary specialization be helpful? Just as Nebraska Christian College offers students the opportunity to learn more about rural ministry, a few classes about spiritual and socioeconomic differences around the country would prepare graduates to serve in places other than 750-member Indiana churches.
Finally, let’s encourage our single pastors to consider these fields (and, parenthetically, to stay single for a while—who’s really ready to marry at 22?). Sometimes we avoid living in and ministering to these areas because we don’t want to raise our families in them. Even if a town is safe, as Levittown largely is, the schools may be middling (as Levittown’s largely are). Guys and gals who aren’t worried about resale values and college admission have more flexibility in living options and locations.
Ministry in a blue-collar town is not for everyone. Neither is ministry to a multicultural urban church, the residents of an inner-city, or the generations who gather in rural churches. But if we’re serious about reaching the whole world for Jesus, some of us must give our lives to the small churches, the struggling areas, the slowly-but-slowly growth.
Conventional wisdom says if you’re successful, you’re not here. When will we learn that success has more than one definition, and sometimes it includes struggle?