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.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. If your congregation trains preachers by sending them into rural communities you’d think the congregation would raise hell! Failing that join the papists, they don’t do that plus you get a little liturgy and if your lucky you might find a Latin Mass out there.
    Darryl, loved the essay but cut the “carbon footprint” stuff, do you want me to have a stroke? We don’t need no stinkin’ Algores.

  2. Thanks Darryl.
    I read the article before noticing who wrote it. I’ve read your book “With Reverence and Awe”, and have “Recovering Mother Kirk” on my shelf to read later. Your article is helpful. Thank you.

  3. In my own experience, a “normal” congregation in the church in which I grew up is now considered a suburban congregation, whereas the denomination was historically rural and agrarian. And the privileged positions of leadership are in the suburban congregations, rather then the urban congregations. Urban ministry is still considered a missionary endeavor in the denomination of my birth, and the prestige of an urban appointment for a pastor is not high, nor the position desirable.

    On the other hand, the rural churches are considered stodgy and backward and inefficient, especially if they sing hymns to the sole accompaniment of an organ or piano (or God forbid, four-part a capella) and if they don’t invest in the latest and greatest technology. They tend to get either the very young or the near-retirement pastors. The thrust of denominational leadership tends to be to force these rural congregations into the suburban-sprawlesque “Get big or get out” model. The hip, happenin’ churches in the denomination are all variations on the same theme, with a sort of big-box store architectural ambiance and acres of paved parking lots, SUVs and mini-vans occupying the spaces, sound systems that would work well in a concert venue, more computers and technical fooferaw than Mission Control, and a corporate leadership structure with pastor as CEO/Delegator-in-Chief surrounded by paid staff and insulated from the commoners. All of which leaves parishioners scratching their heads and asking, “Did we ask for this?”

  4. Look for a book forthcoming from U P of KY (November 2009) titled Heaven’s Earthly Life: Wendell Berry and Religion. It has an essay hereunto appertaining by Kyle Childress, a baptist minister in Texas who’s a sticker, not a boomer.

    The book also features essays by Ellen Davis, Stanley Hauerwas, Norman Wirzba, and Brian Volck.

    Nice work, Darryl.

  5. Perahps part of the reason for ministers often starting out in rural churches is because it’s a slightly more devout, slightly less complicated, slightly less more family-like atmosphere. It’s sort of like the minor leagues, niot in the sense of less importance, but because the congregation does a lot of the heavy-lifting themselves. In a sense, they are training the minister.

  6. Perhaps what is needed by both localists and cosmopolitans is a return to Holy Mother Church. Then both can find true human freedom to become good instances of their kind.

  7. Maybe ministry is analogous here to other forms of instruction, in which teachers work their way from AP sections of courses — which are easier to teach — on through to remedial ones, which take more practice on the part of the instructor to teach well.

  8. Sadly, even Presbyterians who theologically know better have the cultural problem of numbers + money = success. (or even more sadly number = elders = power)
    Christ, sanctify your Bride, please sir.

  9. Amen to this, Darryl! As a pastor of two of these rural churches, I can attest that this attitude of “training ground ministry” is even wide-spread among farmers themselves. When I first arrived, they kept on saying “when” I leave, not “if” I leave. Farming communities (at least in North Dakota) are used to having great difficulty in finding pastors, and not being able to keep them when they do. As an illustration, both the churches I serve are about 125 years old, each. Each church has had about 30-40 ministers. Contrast this with Tenth Presbyterian Church, which is now on its 13th senior minister in 175 years. Ministers should strongly consider rural parishes as long term ministry opportunities.

  10. I’m not surprised by Berry’s essay — it seems to square nicely with his call to save small, rural schools. But I must admit that the phenomenon you describe, here, is so very foreign to me. As a Mormon, I’ve lived my entire life in a system where _all_ the clergy are home-grown. Each congregation supplies its own workforce. To enable this structure, it’s expected that folks attend the congregation is whose boundaries they live. Of course, some congregations are unable to fill leadership positions — and outside help is required. But such a condition is pitiable. It’s a good system.

    From my outsider perspective, it would seem that rural congregations might set-up mentoring programs not unlike the programs some rural communities have for training-up local doctors.

    Just a thought.

    What a wonderful article.

  11. …”infatuation with celebrity”….boy if that don’t sum it up nicely. Funny how the word “pastoral” includes ties to both farming and religious activities within a beautiful landscape. Meanwhile, back at the Big Box Church, the excitements of secular culture are inserted into the edifice to attract the faithful after a proper traffic study is approved. Bowling, movie theatre, video game parlor, Ice Cream cafe…its all there, like a small town hermetically sealed within the Big Box On The Strip. But, as Mike the Big Stick asserts, the congregants are ably ministering to the minister in the outback.

    Not that I listen to his advice exclusively but ole Ed Abbey ably decreed something to the effect of: “they say that if you can survive in New York, you can survive anywhere but I say if you can survive anywhere, why the hell do it in New York?”

  12. I’ll never agree with FPR on topics like this. I support you guys on localism, as long as it fits in an urban setting. I grew up a rootless suburban child, and unlike Wendell Berry, I have no country home to return to. His narrative of being drawn to the big city and returning to the farm works great for those for whom there was ever a farm. But my last relative left the farm in the 1930s. I have no desire to return and make my home in the suburbs, so I’m left with the city.

    I think my story is similar to many in my generation. This is why we have many new churches in the city filled with young white people, much like Tim Keller’s church. And these churches are not, for the record, “big box churches.” My urban church has about 200 members and no big-box style programs. So I think the church’s response to rural parish’s is a result of a general demographic movement out of rural areas.

    Your suggestion that evangelicals love the city because of bright lights or dramatic falls is both wrong an somewhat offensive. I love the city because it is diverse, because it brings me in contacts with a wide variety of people. I love the city because it’s where the people are. I love the city because people do creative, interesting things there. I love the city because I’m able to live in a neighborhood where I know people and walk to fellow church-members houses. I love the city because it isn’t the suburbs.

    The city IS where redemption happens, because redemption happens in the lives of people, and that’s where the people are.

  13. Patrick,
    Your indignation is abided from my quarter at least because I am a repeat forager in the whacked-out borough of characters, sinners and saints known as Brooklyn..”fuhgettaboutit”… New Yawk. Brooklyn, after all, is the “Borough of Churches” and they aint generally next to a Starbucks or Walmart, they’re usually next to a locally owned retail store, restaurant or bodega. My love of the place might wear though if I couldn’t sneak back to my little town after a meal on Dekalb. Some of the neighborhoods there are as staunchly localist as many a small town.

    There is a bit of an anti-urban bias about but conservatives wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel without our biases. The Republican Party seems to have descended into parody because it became less discerning of a more productive and consistent life in bias.

  14. Patrick, I love the city too. I live in one. But why favor urban churches over rural ones? When’s the last time CT ran a story on a “successful” country preacher? It’s not anti-urbanism that’s coming through, it’s anti-urban snobbery about where the real action and redemption and success is.

    D. W. Sabin, regarding the Abbey quote, COL (think chuckle).

  15. I work as the registrar at a mainline protestant seminary that primarily serves a single denomination with its graduates earning M.Div. degrees. While we teach our students, and for the most part they believe, that they are being called to serve the church as a whole, regardless of where the church may be (rural, suburban, urban), the reality is like that observed: that a rural parish is often where one begins their ministry, but is not their aspiration. There are exceptions to that, but for the most part those pastors we graduate who seek and thrive in a rural setting are those who came out of that setting. For the others, who are largely suburban or urban in their upbringing, a rural area is a place they fear or revolt against. We try to get them past that fear by specifically placing them on an internship in a rural setting, but even that doesn’t always work.

    Economics plays a very large part in this. Probably the biggest part. In my church denomination, we have very few bi-vocational pastors, as being called as a pastor to the church is their full-time “job.” The lower pay in the rural setting is an economic challenge, particularly with the debt most graduates leave seminary with. Many graduates have spouses who are also career people, which makes it a challenge even while the would-be pastor is a seminary student, let alone after seminary when it is time to place the family in a church setting. The long-term change in the economy, and the expected rise in fuel costs, will only make this more challenging for these professionals, as it will become increasingly difficult for the spouse to commute. The state of telecommunications in many rural areas doesn’t often allow for telecommuting to be viable either. And we haven’t even begun talking about the state of education and available resources for children they may have, which is also be increasingly challenged into the future. Pastors want their kids to have the same educational opportunities that they may have experienced growing up. I could go on, but you can hopefully see how pastors are drawn to larger places just like other people.

    While it is true that rural parishes are not intentionally used for further training for new pastors, at least not in my church denomination, it does appear that they function that way. Many rural churches aren’t able to afford to pay pastors for too many years above a beginning salary. One saving grace of rural churches and parishes – these same places often are still holding on to their parsonage, providing free housing to the pastor, although that benefit doesn’t often outweigh the other expenses or challenges the pastor is faced with in the same setting.

    I would love to see rural ministry be viable and a worthy calling. But for many, at least for now, this presents a challenge for most pastors, particularly new or younger ones.

  16. Kevin, what if urban, big steeple congregations, gave a tenth of their six-figure salaries to support rural pastors?

  17. Patrick,

    I heart NYC as well. So why in the world, speaking of Keller, would anyone want to transform it? Is there something wrong with it? I, for one, wouldn’t change a thing.

    You charge being offensive. But I can’t imagine anything too much more off-putting than suggesting to inhabitants that their home needs special redeeming. One might comfort oneself in the dogmas of influence, but what do you do with implication that the City is fundamentally bad? Besides that, Jesus only only dies for his living, breathing people–not their institutions or ideas.

  18. Darryl, that man in your avatar is smoking!
    Jesus said to follow him. He didn’t say I’ll give you a 401k, a lotta dough, and teach you to buggaloo…unless you’re Free Methodist!
    The great thing about God is that He made life so….well, challenging and, I might add, invigorating. Man, we just don’t know whas goin’ to happen next, and life, human life, is sooooo messy!
    Do we want our preachers, priests, and rabbi’s worring about how much they make and where they live or do we want them bringing people to the Lord God of the Universe, I am what am!
    Can you imagine being God’s instrument in the salvation of ONE soul?
    My favorite saint, Edith Stein, was sent to Aushwitz. Everything she had, her books, her notes and papers were taken from her. Yet, she helped others in that Hell-Hole, she gave away her food, she comforted the sick, she died in God’s loving embrace.
    And, we’re worried about where we preach and how much we make? If that’s the story we’re in a hell of a mess.

  19. Dr. Hart,
    Intriguing piece as always.
    To answer for Kevin, I agree with his comment, if a large urban congregation gave 10% of their pastors salary to a rural pastor/congregation then that urbanite pastor would not afford to live in the city. Cities are expensive.

    Being a pastor is a noble calling. A pastor of God’s flock must be respected regardless of demographics, paycheck, and location. The office in itself demands respect. I am saying nothing of one’s gifts.

    There are many denominations that sadly focus too much on rural, agrarian cultures and some that focus on the global cities. Most have reasons for doing so and I see the logic and argument in both; I wish they could achieve a balance.

    My friend who is a pastor in my city of Pittsburgh once told me that Christians need to recover a theology of place. (this was in response to a theology of the city). We must understand that our living location is a calling from God to represent him before neighbors and grow in knowledge of him.

  20. “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…”

    The point is a good point on its own. It is a fair question all ministers to the city need to ask themselves over and over again.

    However, I would argue, that there is a certain type of individual, that despises cosmopolitan metro areas, who dislike those who go to them, and doubt the intentions of others who work in them to elevate their own status and make themselves feel better about their own situation.

    Yes, city dwellers need to watch their motivations for ministry, but those who pride themselves on not being in the city can be prone to the very same sin. Often Dr. Hart shoots arrows at those ministering in cities, less they have the wrong motivation. I wish he would also, sometimes, point those arrows at agrarians who might quietly have the same puffed up hearts.

  21. Beginning pastors begin in rural parishes because rural parishes often pay only beginning salaries. As a pastor marries and has children, he reasonably expects to earn a livable wage so that he can support his family. That requires he move to a parish that can pay him, and that means a suburban or urban parish.

    Let tall-steeple parishes could consider donating money to help pay rural pastors’ compensation, but not by subtracting from their urban pastors’ compensation. Urban pastors are often already underpaid relative to the cost of living in a city.

    Nearly all pastors are grossly undercompensated in my judgment. I am grieved when I hear well-healed professionals and business persons lecture pastors that they should be content to subsist on meager incomes, and that to request a reasonable wage makes them materialistic. Note that the calls for pastors to take up rural pastorates come from city dwellers who aren’t about to move to a rural setting.

  22. Interesting, interesting.

    I grew up in such a church — a moderate sized mainline Presbyterian congregation, out in the rural middle of nowhere in Illinois.

    Things are different there, from city churches.

    From 1900 to 1988 they had 4 ministers. The guy that was minister there when I was a kid spent his entire career, from 1940-mumble to when he retired, in that church. (Since he retired there’s been a little more churn — 3 pastors plus interims.)

    Things tend to be a bit more permanent. Many of them are real live farmers, so they don’t get “transfered to Los Angeles” or whatever sends city folk here and there. My father has been a member continuously since the 40s. My ancestors from back into the 19th century are buried in the churchyard there, and that is where I would like to be buried, when it comes to that. You want “community” — they got it, simply from living in the same place for their whole lives.

  23. I think the artical raised good points, but was too simplistic. Unless a minister is bivocational the financial burdens for many, must be very difficult. I think many ministers would love to lead a rural flock, but can not afford it. That said I think Presbyterianism is best suited perhaps for many rural churches. Not only is it biblical, but it is organic, the burden of the pastoral office is shared among the elders selected from among the congegation, thus enabling them to be bi-vocational. What the elders need is easy access to a high quality education where they live. As distance education continues to develope using the latest communication technologies; communities in the fly over states can begin to draw from their own rankes to fill their own pulpits. This would also give the ministers a great advantage, namely they already have established relationships with people in thier churches. Denominations should begin to encourage and actively support such efforts. It may take a generation to catch on, but someone in a position of influance needs to stand up and push it.

  24. Dr. Hart,

    A great article, as usual. The ministers at the church I attend in Miami (FL) love Tim Keller, urban ministry, and have expressed an anti-rural attitude. There’s no denying a need for ministry in the city, but as you said, the rural churches get short-shafted. This has been going on for a good part of the twentieth century as American society shifted from rural to urban.

    Kevin, I think you’ve really touched on a problem for modern ministers. For many, they took out loans in college and seminary thus forcing them into higher paying positions (typically found in suburban/urban areas). I’ve been tempted to attend seminary and be bi-vocational, but the cost has driven me away. Many in my generation do not want to live in rural areas; they want the glitz and glamor of the city. I’ve long been fascinated with rural churches and their unique issues; I wish my denomination would give the matter some study.

    Robbie, I like how you described it- a theology of “place.” As a new transplant in Miami, I’m learning it, slowly but surely.

  25. Thank you for this post. I am a rural pastor who struggled mightily before moving to the church I am currently at. I did not want to leave the NAPARC denomination I belonged to in Dallas, but no NAPARC denominations would even consider planting a church where I currently serve.

    After 6 years of soul-searching I left the denomination and came to help plant a Reformed church in a country town. Needless to say, we are “nondenominational”, but I am hoping we can particularize with a Reformed denomination in the future. I have yet to understand why no Reformed denomination would respond to the call of this group of people to plant a church.

    I love it here. I have no plans of ever leaving.

  26. I think it has to do with a mostly absent theology of Work in the American protestant world. We are also so entrenching in marketing culture that it becomes our driving paradigm. Being satisfied with a small rural church is like being satisfied with a modest salary and a modest home. The book Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is a great novel dignifying the little local church.

  27. Tremendous article, and I agree that there is something of a prejudice against the rural. I’ve known many people who go into (and graduate) seminary and are perfectly content in a rural parish. Yet, they leave those churches not because of greed or arrogance, but because they perceive there is a larger need, and a larger opportunity at the urban/suburban parish. It’s not always a sinister thing, it is truly out of a heart to serve God.

  28. Thank you for writing about this! We moved from the city to a farm about ten years ago and have found this to be very sadly true. I hope this article opens some eyes and results in more teachers/preachers finding a small town like ours and staying longer…and really loving the people even here.

  29. Zrim, Christian theology believes that the whole world needs redemption. God’s creation was very good, but it fell to sin and needs redemption. So if Tim Keller says that New York is where redemption happens, he means that it happens in the hearts of the people of New York.

    There is no implication from Tim Keller that cities are bad. In fact, he is working to prove that very idea wrong.

    And I’ll agree with those who have said that we urbanites show an anti-rural bias. I don’t live in New York, but even in humble Birmingham, Alabama we consider our city better than the humble small towns that surround us. I’ll admit that we’re wrong and arrogant. It’s something to work on. But can’t we urban people and you rural people join together and hate the sprawly area between us?

  30. Patrick,

    Actually, urban environments of the sort you describe aren’t really “where the people are” — assuming of course, as you seem to do, that there aren’t any people anywhere else and/or that people elsewhere aren’t, well, people.

    By far the largest proportion of Americans live in suburbs not in urban environments of the sort that you describe or in small towns of the Wendell Berry sort.

    In fact, it might actually be the case that small town environments outweigh — in demographic terms — the sorts of urban environments that you yourself prefer.

    In any case, demography also suggests that your sort of urban environment is the least Christian sort of environment of any we’re considering here — which raises again the question of whether churches should expend their resources where they’re wanted ( in both sense of “want”) or where their needed (in spiritual terms)

  31. Also, Zrim, I’m reminded of O. Henry’s quip that New York “will be a great place, if they ever finish it.” More than almost anywhere in the country, NYC is constantly changing. So it isn’t inconsistent to say that you love a place but to hope that it changes for the better. Because it will change, one way or the other.

  32. Patrick, but what makes NYC so darned special? Is Witchita chopped liver? I mean, if one were truly sophisticated about urban existence, one might recognize qualities of city life elsewhere.

  33. Arthur MacInness, when I say that the city is where the people are, I mean that the city is both dense and designed for human interaction. Suburbia is designed for cars, and it lacks the public space required for good public life. You can minister to individuals in suburbia, but it’s difficult to minister to a community.

    Small towns have public space, but they lack density, so there are fewer people there. Regarding demographics, see http://tinyurl.com/38vloj. You’ll see that 30% of the US live in the central city of a metropolitan area, while only 20% live outside of metropolitan areas.

    And I think your final question has an obvious answer – the church was commissioned by Christ Himself to go to where the spiritual need is. I do not know whether the city has greater spiritual need than other areas, but I do know that it has need, and so here we are.

  34. D G Hart, while I do believe that New York is special, you’ll notice that I didn’t mention it, except in response to Zrim. I completely agree with you that smaller cities have their own urban charms – I live in Birmingham, Alabama, a place not much larger than your Wichita.

  35. I Really like this post (especially by virtue of living in Nebraska), very good questions being raised.

    I was waiting for someone to discuss how Paul’s method of church planting plays into this. It seems that Paul gave priority to the city and then worked out to the country. He would begin in the synagogues with the Jews of the day and then he would work outward from the city into the rural areas.

  36. Actually, Patrick, Christian theology says that the whole of creation is groaning for its renewal and that at the hands of God alone, not the feeble efforts of his people. I’m not sure you are making a careful enough distinction with regard to who, or what, is the object of God’s redemption. God saves his people, not their cities.

    I suppose the transformer premise works if one actually believes that Christianity makes bad people good and good people better, and then understands animate creation (people) and inanimate creation (cities) are analogous, thus making the whole program a version of self-improvement. This plays well in a therapeutic age. But the premises in Christianity are that that people are quite distinct from the rest of creation and are .sinners who need to be set right with God.

    And, where the premise of sanctifying someone is that s/he is essentially very good but conditionally very evil, the premise of transforming something is that there is something essentially wrong with it. What is essentially wrong with NYC? I live at ground zero for city-redemption (Grand Rapids). Not only have I yet to figure out just what’s wrong with this place, I’m trying to figure out why, after years of transforming, it looks like any other place I’ve ever been, big or small or in between.

  37. Patrick,

    A whole lot depends on how “central city” of “metropolitan areas” are defined. In any event, even on your own terms more than two-thirds of Americans live somewhere other than “central cities” of “metropolitan areas” and there are two-thirds as many people who live outside of “metropolitan areas” as live in “central cities” within them. Just as it’s possible to conflate the 50% of Americans who live in suburbs with the 30% who live in “central cities,” in order to crowd out the other 20% of Americans into insignificance in demographic terms, it’s also possible to conflate the 50% of Americans who live in suburbs with the 20% who live outside of “metropolitan areas” in order to crowd out the 30% of Americans who live in “central cities” into demographic insignificance. By why would anyone want to do that in either case?

    PS: Just speaking anecdotally, having lived in both a very small town and very large “central city,” I think you are being overly romantic about how “diverse” life in “central cities” is and how much more likely it is to come in contact with other people in those sorts of places than in small towns. I certainly had daily interaction with a much more “diverse” group of people in socioeconomic, religious, and political terms when I lived in a small town than when I lived in a “central city.” In the “central city” there was critical mass enough for like-minded people to cocoon and to avoid any dealings with people who were different from themselves, while at the same time congratulating themselves on being “cosmopolitan” and open to “diversity” — which often meant just seeing, as opposed to talking to, different sorts of people on a subway ride. And also in the small town I lived in — in the deep South — while there was perhaps less ethnic “diversity,” in the sense that there was a smaller percentage of Latinos or Asians than one might find in “central cities,” there was also the fact of living in a majority-minority environment, in which one also had dealt on a daily basis with people who were members of the majority-minority — in this case African-Americans, who made up 60% of the town’s population. As white and middle-class, I found that I knew more black people and more poor people by far in the small-town deep South than in the “central city” where I’ve also lived. And I also was more apt to deal with people with religious and political views that are different from my own. Just some observations with which you might temper what seems to me to be your overly-romantic and overly-idealized view of “central cities.”

  38. Zrim, begging your pardon, but my reformed tradition says that, in the end, the New Jerusalem comes down to Earth, and the whole world is redeemed – people, dogs, trees, and cities. The whole of creation fell with man, and the whole of creation will be redeemed.

    But all that is besides the point, because I never used the word “transform,” I never said the city was evil, I DO believe that God is the one who does the Redemption, and I DO believe (as I said earlier) that Redemption happens in the hearts of man. I’m not sure what you’re talking about, or why you’re arguing with me. Unless you really think there is nothing wrong with the city or the people in it, in which case we have a fundamental disagreement.

    You seem to think I’m talking about some sort of “transformer” philosophy. I’m not. I don’t know what it is. I only think that God can redeem the city through the hearts of His people.


    Arthur, regarding demographics, I’m not sure why anyone would want to show that central cities or rural areas are insignificant – I made no such inference myself. You seem a little touchy.

    For the record, there is only way way to use the terms “metropolitan area” and “central city” in the United States, and that’s how the US Census Bureau uses them. They don’t exactly correlate to the urban forms we are talking about, but they are close proxies.

    Now, I don’t disagree with your anecdote. In fact, I discussed that very idea yesterday with a fellow church member who saw my comment here (which is itself an example of how easy it is to cocoon with likeminded people). But I don’t think saying simply that I love the city because it’s diverse could be considered “overly-romantic.” I didn’t exactly make a big deal about it. Certainly I’m aware of my own tendency to cocoon with like-minded people. When I say the city is diverse, I mean in contrast with the suburbs where I grew up. Here I am brought in contact with people very different from me. In the suburbs, I wasn’t. I’ve never lived in a small town. I have no bad feelings toward small towns. I didn’t ever compare the city to small towns, and I probably won’t, because I’ve never lived there, so there really is no reason to be so defensive.


    I find it odd that I’m caught arguing between Zrim who says there is nothing wrong with the city and Arthur, who has nothing nice to say about it. Why don’t you two argue with each other and stop posting over-dramatic replies to minute details in my posts.

  39. Zrim, I looked at your blog. We come from exactly the same first principles. So, if you feel like gently explaining what you think the problem with what I’ve said it, I’ll hear it. Email me: sewellpatrick gmail com

  40. Patrick,

    Despite not using the t-word and pleading a relative ignorance of it, you do seem sympathetic to the Keller-model, which is to redeem the city. After all, if God “redeems the city through the hearts of his people” the premise seems to be to redeem the city. But God saves his people through the life and death of his son. I’m suggesting there is a considerable difference between the two programs.

    But the reason I’m engaging you is that originally you suggested a sort of offensiveness at something in Hart’s post, namely that evangelicals are disposed to the stuff of power, influence and bright lights. I found that ironic given that the assumption of city-redemption seems to be itself arrogant: there is something wrong with the City and we are here to set it straight. Frankly, the model of city-redemption seems much more American than Christian in its outlook.

    I hope that wasn’t too overly-dramatic.

  41. Zrim, I was fairly ignorant of the t-word initially. After all, this isn’t a theology blog, so I really didn’t understand what you were talking about. So, I chased a bunch of rabbits to Confessional Outhouse, Heidelblog, and Old Life, and I think I now understand what you are talking about. Yes – I do agree with Keller’s model of transformation, or whatever you want to call it.

    I disagree that Keller’s model is arrogant, but I think the disagreement is very basic – I don’t think it’s arrogant to believe there’s something wrong with the world and to try an change it. Presumably you do.

    And no, of course, that wasn’t over-dramatic. Maybe I’m alone here, but I think the terms you were using fit better on the theology blogs you frequent than here on FPR. For example, you brought up this “transformer” idea. While that’s a common theme on the blogs I mentioned, I’d never heard of it, and I didn’t know what you meant. I say this because I’d have been less prone to argue if we were using terms we both understood. But thanks for agreeably responding, despite my ignorance.

  42. Patrick, for what it’s worth, words like ordinary, routine, decency, order, small and local work fairly well at Front Porch and at the places where Zrim and I blog. Those are not the words one associates with evangelicalism, transformationalism, or their Presbyterian outposts.

  43. Mr. Hart, but I do associate those words with my Keller-loving, urban, PCA church. We’re small, with 150 or 200 members. We’re local – I often walk from my house to church, and I don’t pass any other conservative, reformed churches on the way. We’re PCA, so we’re committed to order in the form of a denomination. And I think my church does well at fitting in to the ordinary, routine aspects of life. It was this church that introduced me to Wendell Berry, beginning my own interest in localism.
    So, I disagree.

  44. No, I said we come from the same first principles, but I was a little premature. When Zrim initially posted, I had no idea if he approached the issue from a Christian position at all. When I saw on his blog that we both have a reformed Presbyterian background, I was glad to know we had much in common. But I suppose we differ within Presbyterianism becase, unlike him, I believe “that Christianity is relevant to the cares of this world, that the gospel has a direct bearing on and obvious implication for the immediate concerns of the temporal age.” And he does not.

    So, I think this “transformationalism” is compatible with localism.

  45. Patrick, if you’ve read Berry on the differences between exploiters and nurturers, or Stegner on boomers and stickers, then I don’t think you’d be as explicitly bullish on transformationalism. I know, I know, the world of urban Presbyterianism promises you can have it all — traditional and hip, confessional and ecumenical, word and deed and word and sacrament. But sometimes with Joshua you need to “choose ye this day.”

  46. Patrick,

    Obviously, I’m not sold that transformationalism is compatible with localism. There is a narcissistic syllogism in Reformed circles that goes: “I’m Reformed; I think X; therefore X is Reformed.” It may be at play here, as in, “I’m a localist; I think transformationalism is dandy; therefore, transformationalism is compatible with localism.”

    But the premise in transformationalism is that the local scene is fundamentally flawed and needs fixin’. Localism, to my mind, stands in contrast to this by affirming the local scene. Localism has much more in common with the pronouncement that creation, whether it comes with dirt roads or subways, is very good and needs no improvement. Mediating sanctification for those who are conditionally sinful is one thing, but how does one go about directly fixing what is essentially very good?

  47. Needless to say, I’ve learned much from our discussion the last two days. I’m curious why you think localism must affirm the local scene (is it because Wendell Berry never said anything bad about Port William?). I’m curious why you think creation is very good and needs no improvement (Gen 3:17 “Cursed is the ground because of you”). And I’m curious why Darryl thinks transformationalism is the domain of boomers and exploiters. Perhaps you can point me to more detailed explanations of these topics.

  48. One issue for rural churches that I haven’t heard mention here is one that my parents have faced repeatedly in the almost 11 years that they have been living in a very rural environment–churches that are closed to “outsiders”.

    My family moved from a small city north of Chicago to very rural Missouri in January of 1999. In the time since, they have attended 24 churches of varying denominations, sometimes driving 60+ miles one-way. Of those 24, they attended 3 of those churches for 1-3 years apiece(until the churches dissolved or the commute became unbearable). Far and away the biggest issue they have faced is small family churches who were not interested in fellowshipping with anyone who did not have family buried in the cemetery out back.

    It has crushed my parents a great deal, especially my mother, who loves farming and is also exceedingly social. Even after 10 years, her circle is made up almost entirely of other transplants, all who live too far from each other or are too tied up in their agricultural pursuits to come together to fellowship regularly. They have visited churches in the larger towns (10,000+ people) who have a more mixed demographic, but that requires traveling a minimum of 40 miles each way. The travel alone pretty much precludes any real community, since, in their experience, small town residents usually think they live “too far away” to visit.

    Rural communities definitely have a dearth of living churches, but I am concerned that the issues faced by pastoring a rural church, when one is not born and raised in the community, may be beyond the understanding, strength or ability of most suburban/urban seminary graduates.

    Just for the record, I live in Chicago and am part of a small church plant of 60+ people. I grew up in a small city (76,000 but about 40 miles from Chicago), lived 5 years on a very isolated farm, and went to college at a school of less then 2000 students in an Appalachian small town. I have a great appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of communities. I would love to hear some practical suggestions for equipping rural communities to have living, vibrant churches.

  49. Patrick, the point of tension between localism and transformationalism would simply be this: if you are committed to a place, the way Wendell Berry is, for instance, you’re not trying to change it. You’re trying to preserve it. I don’t see how transformation (as in transform) is interested in nurture or preservation. You may want to define transformationalism in a nurturing way, but usually the transformers are the ones who come to a place and seek to change it. They don’t know the place, or what is worth preserving. They are on a mission.

    For more thoughtful iterations, I’d recommend the talks by Caleb Stegall and Patrick Deneen at an ISI conference several years ago, published here at FPR:




  50. Greetings from rural North Dakota. My Lutheran pastor could be teaching theology in a seminary (as his father did, becoming one of Christianity Today’s 100 notable theologians of the 20th century as I recall). Rural ministry lives in conservative Lutheran circles in the Upper Midwest. There is an irony, though, for FPR types like me. He must travel something like 150 miles every Sunday to reach the two other congregations in his parish. As we head into a peak oil world, I don’t know what the impact on rural ministry will be.

  51. Consider the effect that the supply of priests or pastors has on staffing rural parishes. The Lincoln Nebraska diocese has young priests coming out of the woodowork. You can go to Beaver Crossing, a town of 300 in Nebraska, and find a young pastor assigned to the church there. He may be 28 or 30, but Beaver Crossing has a pastor, or did the last time I was there. Churches or dioceses that are not attracting vocations may do what they like about staffing models, but will never have enough to staff to all parishes or churches. In the Lincoln Diocese, rural families get a permanent parish priest, and likely a parish Catholic school.

    Dennis Larkin

  52. Quite awhile ago, Darryl Hart (author) said:
    “Kevin, what if urban, big steeple congregations, gave a tenth of their six-figure salaries to support rural pastors?”

    Others have answered this essentially for me, but let me comment: I don’t believe any church within a church denomination, urban or suburban, would appreciate a top-down management requirement to fork over part of their own budget as benevolence to support rural congregations. And especially at the reduction of pastoral compensation. What I could see happening, and this would have to be local only and organically fostered (no top-down specification) of partnerships forming between urban and rural congregations whereby one might financial support the other. But I believe for these to happen and be fruitful, it would need to be the rural congregation taking the initiative to find the urban congregation to support them. The other way around would be condescending and viewed as charity, making the rural congregation feel even more put down. Somewhat the idea in a new form of an existing congregation sponsoring a “new” (or in this case re-“new”-al) of a congregation like has been done for centuries. The same idea could be helpful between suburban and struggling inner-city churches. A nice idea in concept, but very tricky to implement to make sure no one’s feelings are hurt and remain viable over time.

  53. I don’t see how transformation (as in transform) is interested in nurture or preservation. You may want to define transformationalism in a nurturing way, but usually the transformers are the ones who come to a place and seek to change it. They don’t know the place, or what is worth preserving. They are on a mission.

    Applying to people rather than place; This would then mean that evangelisation isn’t transformational, or it isn’t nuturing, that it can be both proves that the two are not mutually exclusive.

    “Kevin, what if urban, big steeple congregations, gave a tenth of their six-figure salaries to support rural pastors?”

    Statistically, the urban poor are the least well served by reformed denominations.

  54. Chris E.,

    Applying to people rather than place; This would then mean that evangelisation isn’t transformational, or it isn’t nuturing, that it can be both proves that the two are not mutually exclusive.

    First, when transformers speak they have in mind place, not people. What else can one mean by “We’re gonna transform this city”?

    Second, when one (rightly) has people in mind and not place the lingo of transforming still doesn’t work, at least not to those of us who claim the Reformed ordo salutis (i.e election, predestination, gospel call, inward call, regeneration, conversion [faith & repentance], justification, sanctification and glorification). Mortification and vivification also don’t start with “T.”

    So when we understand evangelizing to be a project at effecting what the ordo understands, it’s still not about changing the essential natures of sinful creatures, nor is it, contrary to the reigning therapeutic model, about making bad people good and good people better. It’s about redeeming the sinful condition of very good creatures. In other words, evangelizing is still much more nurturing than transformational.

  55. First, when transformers speak they have in mind place, not people. What else can one mean by “We’re gonna transform this city”?

    Firstly, that’s the language of Christianity Today, and not the language of the one example of a ‘city transformer’ that they actually quote. I suspect Tim Keller would be rather more circumspect and naunced as to how he would actually express it, and it would be more centred around the effect of a number of people slowly realising what loving God by serving their neighbour actually meant in practice.

    So when we understand evangelizing to be a project at effecting what the ordo understands, it’s still not about changing the essential natures of sinful creatures, nor is it, contrary to the reigning therapeutic model, about making bad people good and good people better. It’s about redeeming the sinful condition of very good creatures.

    And whilst agreeing with the caution against perfectionistic theraputic tendancies – I’d note that santification in aggregate is nevertheless sometimes recognisable – 1 Peter 2 is probably one of the more salient passages along these lines, but it is seen throughout the book of Acts and the Epistles.

    Second, when one (rightly) has people in mind

    Which would be more convincing if the author had called for extra money to be given to church plants in the inner cities (where large numbers of the unchurched actually were) and not rural communities – which tend to be sparsely populated and better served by churches to start with.

  56. Chris E.,

    Firstly, that’s the language of Christianity Today, and not the language of the one example of a ‘city transformer’ that they actually quote. I suspect Tim Keller would be rather more circumspect and naunced as to how he would actually express it, and it would be more centred around the effect of a number of people slowly realising what loving God by serving their neighbour actually meant in practice.

    You mean like this:

    “Redeemer’s Vision

    To build a great city for all people­—through a gospel movement that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice and cultural renewal to New York and, through it, to the world.”


    The short hand is still, “We’re gonna transform this place.” I still get the sense that something is fundamentally flawed with the greatest city on earth, a place many people call home. Were I a New Yorker, I’d be a little tweaked.

    And whilst agreeing with the caution against perfectionistic theraputic tendancies – I’d note that santification in aggregate is nevertheless sometimes recognisable – 1 Peter 2 is probably one of the more salient passages along these lines, but it is seen throughout the book of Acts and the Epistles.

    If it sometimes recognizable that means it’s mostly not, which is why Presbyterians conventionally put the accent on the ordinary, not the extaordinary, when it comes to the nature of personal sanctification. If this is the case, it is quizzical to me how such an extraordinary social vision could ever possibly come close to being realized by such an ordinary personal program, circumspect and nuanced or not.

  57. I’m going to jump back into this discussion after a long absence and I hope my comments are not duplicating somone else’s remarks…

    I think the original post puts way too much of the ‘blame’ on the urban churches that seem to lure ministers away from rural locations. What about the minister? Where is his responsibility in this? I DO think that ultimately economics play the largest role, but isn’t it just a given that people are going to seek more money/resources as their career advances? Once the minister has a wife and kids and is thinking about college tuition, ministering to a rural flock of 40 doesn’t seem like the wisest move.

    I come at this from a Catholic background myself. Our priests didn’t have to worry about putting kids through college or varying salaries. They all pretty much made the same amount of money and they all knew they had a comfortable rectory to come home to every night.

    Obviously there is some ego involved in wanting to minister to a larger flock, but it’s also easier to focus on the actual ministery. In a small church the minister is sort of an everyman who has to wear a lot of hats. In large urban churches the lay folks do much of the heavy lifting.

  58. To build a great city for all people­—through a gospel movement that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice and cultural renewal to New York and, through it, to the world.”

    I’d assume you’d normally complain about soundbite argumentation – so it’s rather ironic that you’ve taken a single quote from a page which links to hours of resources which set out his thinking and then truncate it of the gospel reference.

    If it sometimes recognizable that means it’s mostly not, which is why Presbyterians conventionally put the accent on the ordinary, not the extaordinary

    Santification – however ‘ordinary’ – isn’t the same as any program of personal change, moralism or therapy.

    And I’d reiterate my earlier point – to the extent that the organic and agarian movements are driven out of a concern for people (as opposed to being purely niche consumerism), the concern of the author for those parts of the country which are full of the unchurched is conspicious by it’s absence.

  59. Chris E.,

    I’d assume you’d normally complain about soundbite argumentation – so it’s rather ironic that you’ve taken a single quote from a page which links to hours of resources which set out his thinking and then truncate it of the gospel reference.

    Isn’t soundbite argumentation different from employing another’s short hand for a larger argument?

    …to the extent that the organic and agarian movements are driven out of a concern for people (as opposed to being purely niche consumerism), the concern of the author for those parts of the country which are full of the unchurched is conspicious by it’s absence.

    Its absence doesn’t equate unconcern, as you imply, because there is only so much a post can cover and it wasn’t the immediate point of the post. That’s just writing 101. But the premise of your words here seems odd: the urban centers are specially full of unchurched or irreligious people. So are plenty of rural ones, if the rural ones I grew up in are any measure. That’s because unbelief is wherever people are and no corner of earth can claim a monopoly on it (whatever the expert statiticians might want to say). So the point here is to wonder why urbana gets the lion’s share of attention and resources. Must be because most agree with your premise.

  60. Tim Keller is a good man and a darn good preacher — I admire him, in part for living in and loving the place where God has called him, namely New York City.

    I am presently in seminary training for the priesthood, and would much rather NOT be called to New York City. I love small towns like the ones in which I grew up. And, based partly on that experience, I agree with both Wendell Berry and Dr. Hart that there are real problems being identified here. However, there are also a lot of clergy who do pour themselves into their country congregations, some of them for many years. And whether or not Christianity Today is showing urbanist bias (possible), I don’t think Dr. Keller is doing anything blame-worthy. Somebody’s gotta pastor urbanites, too. 🙂

  61. P.S.

    Someone said: “I still get the sense that something is fundamentally flawed with the greatest city on earth, a place many people call home.”

    Um, yes? Everywhere I’ve ever called home was fundamentally flawed, due (among other things) to the fact that people lived there (including myself). I’ve never before heard someone claim New York City isn’t a flawed and imperfect place; does acknowledging that fact necessarily prevent the folks at Redeemer Presbyterian from loving their home city and wanting it to be even greater?

  62. Well, that changes things a little. It at least shows that we should give Keller the benefit of the doubt, regardless of th other issues at hand.

  63. Dr. Hart,

    I love many things about this article.

    On the other hand, here are two things we could do to make rural ministry a lot more attractive: (1) Go back to the days when the Church used to pay for seminary; and (2) Pay pastors enough money to support their families.

    If students are coming out of seminary with $50k in student loans, and the church’s financial plan for supporting pastors is having their wife work, we should expect such couples to move to locations where the wife can get a decent job and there is financial upward mobility for the pastor. We shouldn’t blame the graduating seminary students for making such a choice. It is the middle age people like you and me who are responsible for this situation.

    If denominations were willing to pay compensation packages for rural pastors that matched that of junior military officers (e.g. an MDiv with three years experience would be paid like a 28 year old Army Captain), I believe the problem would go away. If we are not willing to put up the money we ought to stop complaining. They are not the problem – we are.

    Best wishes,


  64. when my husband retired, we went to one of these country churches as interim, then he became their pastor. we were there 4 years until his blood pressure issues became too unmanageable.

    we found that these churches had suffered from years of being without good pastors. either they had had pastors that saw their job as a jumping off point to something better or they were temps who weren’t vested in the community and the church long term.

    there were deep seated issues in the church that had never been addressed. they needed someone who was trusted who could speak to them.

    we discovered that the challenge of the small country church is dealing with people and learning to love them despite their straight talking ways. what seminarian wants to come to a place like that and be told either directly or indirectly that his ideas are not God’s gift to the world. in the city, people will be a little more polite in their ignoring of your ideas. in the country, it will show up more quickly. there you must build relationships and earn the right to try out your ideas.

    these same skills must be developed to do well in the city too. those in the country appreciated us more than any other place we ever worked. in the city, they leave and go to another church. in the country, they can do that, but it is much more inconvenient.

    if your church is one that preaches the gospel, the important part to realize is that it may be only one of 2 or 3 churches in that community. the power of your influence for good is much more than if you are one of many churches in a large city.

    remember, tim kellar didn’t start in the city. he pastored in a small town in VA for 10 yrs. that is where he developed the pastoral skills he needed. he developed his preaching skills. that is where he matured. (i heard this in an interview of him!) THEN he went to NYC. he didn’t b/c this super star overnite…even in nyc.

    we need to not try to copy what we think are the ministries of others. being another tim kellar doesn’t mean starting in a city! it is a lot like moses…working on the backside of the desert!

    that’s the part few want to do these days. selah!

  65. I know all too well the attitudes presented. Having earned Bachelor’s, Master’s, and an earned Doctorate in various religious fields, I have been asked again and again why I remain in the Mississippi Delta region of Arkansas ministering in small churches. The answer of course is that God has called me to this ministry and I love it. I have had people tell me that my abilities were being “wasted” and other similar words because I am not in an area of great potential numerical growth. I encourage all church leaders to rethink this faulty view of rural ministry.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

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