If Cooking Slowly and Growing Organically are In, Why Is Rural Ministry Out?


Any self-respecting Christian should come down a few rungs on his ladder of self-esteem after reading Wendell Berry on the all-too-common view of organized churches toward farms, farmers, and rural communities. In his essay, “God and Country,” Berry complains rightly that American denominations treat rural congregations invariably as “a training ground for young ministers, and as a means of subsidizing their education.” This stems from a two-fold disrespect for rural people. First is the assumption that persons not yet eligible for ministry are qualified to shepherd country folk. The other assumption regards successful ministry as one that occurs in conditions of high modernity, such as big cities. In other words, churches encourage young ministers to leave rural parishes as soon as possible and find a “normal” congregation. According to Berry, “The denominational hierarchies . . . regard country places in exactly the same way as ‘the economy’ does: as sources of economic power to be exploited for the advantage of ‘better’ places.” Rural congregations can’t help but gain the impression that “they do not matter much.” Or as one of Berry’s Christian friends put it, “The soul of the plowboy ain’t worth as much as the soul of the delivery boy.”

Part of Berry’s account of this phenomenon is the deep problem of modern Christians being severed in their economic efforts from the land. Because of this division in a modern Christian’s experience, Berry writes, “it is no wonder that [the church is] most indifferent to the fate of the ecosystems themselves.”

And yet, one could argue that Christians supporting Community Support Agriculture farms, or shopping at Whole Foods Market indicates some awareness of the choices consumers make and the environment that sustains them. If more church folk are turning into “crunchy cons,” does that translate into the spiritual equivalent of, say, the “organodox”? Almost two decades ago, in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes Ken Myers made interesting connections between fast food and popular culture, and wondered if believers who were being fed spiritual junk food in the form of contemporary Christian music and P&W worship would turn out in their souls like the bodies of those habituated to eating at McDonald’s and snacking on Twinkies?

Signs are not encouraging though that the growing concern among evangelical Protestants about the environment is having any effect on their church’s estimation of the people who work on farms and live near them. A recent story in Christianity Today on Tim Keller, a popular Presbyterian pastor in New York City, suggests that for all the desires that evangelicals have to be cutting edge and socially aware, a ministry accessible to the rhythms of farming and local communities does not qualify as hip. The story fawns over Keller for his ability to carve out a multiple-congregation structure in the Big Apple, for a theology of the city that says cites are where redemption happens, and for the model of ministry he exhibits to a crop of younger pastors who aspire to make an impact.

According to the news story, “New York attracts the best and the most ambitious.” Keller senses this and ministers accordingly. He told the reporter, “Suppose you are the best violist in Tupelo, Mississippi. You go to Manhattan, and when you get out of the subway, you hear a beggar playing, and he’s better than you are.” One of Keller’s former colleagues puts Keller’s understanding of ministering in the city this way: “Paul had this sense of, I really should go talk to Caesar. He’s not above caring for Onesimus the slave, but somebody should go to talk to Caesar. When you go to New York, that’s what you’re doing. Somebody should talk to the editorial committee of The New York Times; somebody should talk to Barnard, to Columbia. Somebody should talk to Wall Street.”

Lost in this understanding of ministry among cosmopolitans is the sense that one might be trying to elevate one’s own status by hobnobbing with the influential, that the church’s egalitarian streak has a preferential option for the meek and lowly, or that touting pastoral success in New York City leads to a generation of prospective pastors who will not remain in rural communities once they have seen the lure of church life in the cosmopolis – not to mention that the scale, anonymity, and standard of living in places like Manhattan skew church life in ways that may not be compatible with the agrarian imagery that comes straight from the pages of holy writ.

Of course, the reasons why evangelicals fawn over the city may stem from sources other than the obvious appeal of bright lights and big buildings. One of them may a born-again infatuation with celebrity and the disillusionment that follows when public figures like Mark Sanford or Miss California, Carrie Prajean, fall from grace. Evangelicals are disposed to understand grace and faith in extraordinary categories and so overlook stories of ordinary believers, routine piety, and even rural congregations as insignficant. Discontent with the average and routine aspects of natural life and of grace appears to breed a similar dissatisfaction with humble ministries in places of little interest to the editors of the Times.

But is it wrong to wish that Christians, who have discovered the value of wholesome food and the farming practices that produce it, would translate their choices about diet and carbon footprints into congregations and pastors more circumspect about cities and more respectful of the fly-over sectors of the greatest nation on God’s green earth? I hope not.

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