Don’t Sleep on Rural Ministry

by Jared C. Wilson September 5, 2022

In a now-classic article on “The Country Parson,” Manhattanite pastor Tim Keller, wrote:

Young pastors or seminarians often ask me for advice on what kind of early ministry experience to seek in order to best grow in skill and wisdom as a pastor. They often are surprised when I tell them to consider being a ‘country parson’ — namely, the solo pastor of a small church, many or most of which are in non-urban settings. Let me quickly emphasize the word ‘consider.’ I would never insist that everyone must follow this path. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about. It was great for me . . .

. . . Some will be surprised to hear me say this, since they know my emphasis on ministry in the city. Yes, I believe firmly that the evangelical church has neglected the city. It still is difficult to get Christians and Christian leaders to make the sacrifices necessary to live their lives out in cities. However, the disdain many people have for urban areas is no worse than the condescending attitudes many have toward small towns and small churches.

I have left out some meat in order to include the gist, so you should definitely go read the whole thing. Keller is touching on something huge here, this “disdain,” which really manifests itself in neglect and discrimination. This is on huge display in a 2009 Time Magazine article on the decline of rural churches. The article talks about young pastors reluctant to go to a place where there’s no Starbucks, and even of older pastors and mentors telling these young guys they are too talented or too creative to pastor in small or rural towns. You know, because those places are “wastes of time.”

I can’t think of sentiments more antithetical to real ministry.

When I left a three year old church plant in suburban Nashville to assume the pastorate of a 200+ year-old church in rural New England, a close friend of mine said, “You’re going to kill your career.” He was just (sort of) joking, of course, but it wasn’t the first time I’d hear something like that. (I should mention that since making that move, my “career” — if by that one means writing/speaking opportunities — actually increased.) But I told him, flatly, “Good.” The day I begin thinking of ministry as a career is the day my ministry career begins to be a big fat pile of FAIL. By God’s grace, I am what I am and do what I do, and this means going where I’m called and hoping he increases, not me.

We’re supposed to decrease, you know?

I am glad more and more pastors are planting churches in urban and surburban. Every place needs churches, and more of them in the gospel-centered variety especially. But count me in the fandom of all the guys nailing Starbucks and the corner pub and shopping malls and public transportation to the cross and going to plant and pastor where you’re more likely to hear a cow moo than a car honk. Country folk are real folk. And they need the gospel too. Especially in areas like New England, which has been the “new” American mission field for a long time now.

The Northeast, now officially the least religious and least churched portion of the nation, is the spiritual epicenter of the country. The Great Awakenings began there. The major American cults have their geneses there. The once theologically solid Ivy League schools are there. Christendom in America rose first and fell first in New England. Rural New England is hyper-spiritual (New Ageism, Wicca, etc. still flourishing) but under-churched and under-gospeled.

Because it’s not just New England or the rural Northeast who need church planters and evangelical pastors. It’s rural areas and small towns all over the country. A lot of evangelical churches in outlying areas are praying desperately that crop after crop of young pastors and aspiring church planters will grow up and show up.

I am increasingly encouraged by the number of my Midwestern Seminary students and Liberty Baptist Church ministry residents indicate a desire to go back to their little hometowns and pastor little country churches. Their big hearts for small places is something I think God big time blesses.

As professionalization captured the evangelical pastorate, churches in small town America began drying up. It’s where old pastors go to retire. It’s where the untalented go to do second rate ministry. Even the one or two conferences recently about ministry in small town settings were led by megachurch pastors and were predicated on how to build a big church in a small town.

Does anyone see the connections between Jesus’ mustard seed ministry and ministry in marginalized America? You almost don’t even have to contextualize all that sower/soil, house-building, sheep and field stuff! It’s plug and play Gospels in rural America. And the gospel is scandalous to the churched (who tend to be either liberal or legalistic) and unchurched (who tend to think Christianity means “being good,” which is an ethic they’ve already got, thank you very much, compliments of justification by recycling and letting gay people marry each other) in rural America. They are some of the rockiest fields to till.

There are lots of real men in rural and small towns, guys who have fought in wars and know how to fix and build things. It can be intimidating for young urbanite pastors who’d rather talk Radiohead than radiators. There are lots of women who don’t wear makeup. (Your “smoking hot wife” may feel conspicuous.) There are lots of old people in rural and small towns, which means you can’t turn your worship to 11. But we should go anyway.

Is God really calling more people to the cities and suburbs than to the outlying areas? Maybe. Or do we just think he is?

This is why I also appreciate this part of Keller’s post:

Young pastors should not turn up their noses at such places, where they may learn the full spectrum of ministry tasks and skills as they will not in a large church. Nor should they go to small communities looking at them merely as stepping stones in a career. Why not? Your early ministry experience will only prepare you for ‘bigger things,’ if you don’t aspire for anything bigger than investment in the lives of the people around you. Wherever you serve, put your roots down, become a member of the community and do your ministry with all your heart and might. If God opens the door to go somewhere else, fine and good. But don’t go to such places looking at them only as training grounds for ‘real ministry.’

Yes. Do not treat these mission fields like training wheels for “real” ministry. If that’s your perspective you shouldn’t be in ministry anywhere.

It’s true that God may call young pastors and planters into small towns and rural areas to prepare them and train them for ministries of Jabezian levels of “more territory.” But some he calls to come and stay. Many of us are praying more and more missionaries are listening.