In Four Months, We have seen the devastating impact of the current crisis on the Church, the solution is to finally do away with the Urban/Rural Divide.
While there are many humanly justifiable divisions within the Church. I say that because there is no biblical justification for divisions among God’s people and all humanly divisions are labeled as Anti-Christ by John and the early Church Father’s. Heresy is condemned and no true church follows the teachings of heretics. The one humanly justified division that has never made sense to me was the Rural and Urban divide. This divide has been the subject of much ink spilling of late with books on Rural Ministry by Donnie Griggs, Stephen Witmer and many others as many in the theological world try to grapple with how many Evangelical Christians felt abandoned and marginalized both politically and ecclesiastically. Timothy Keller has documented what has been called the “Trickle Down Effect” similar to the theory of Economics, applied to the Church, trickle down Ecclesiology means that the crème of the crop, the best of the best, will trickle down from the bigger churches to the smaller churches, or the urban and suburban churches to the rural churches. The problem is, as Witmer and others have documented, that simply does not happen in most cases. Exceptions would be people like Shannon O’Dell whose book “Transforming the Church in Rural America” Chronicles a big city pastors move to a small town in Georgia where he transforms the Church into a caricature of the big church he left.
I am personally not comfortable with O’Dell’s methods or outcome. Like many in the reformed camp I dislike the “multi-Campus” mega church model that built theological empires like Mars Hill, the Village Church, and others, many of them have set their campuses free in recent years. So the model itself has fallen into disrepute by many of the biggest churches. The fact is, the local pastors can do the best work for the people, and piping in another preacher is piping in another contextualized theology that does not apply to your people. Andy Stanley, in Atlanta, may be able to offer general teachings to my people in Buffalo Center, but he cannot address issues specific to Buffalo Center and teach my people to think biblically about those specific issues. The other issue is that big urban churches have traditionally been talent vacuums, they find the best and brightest and then, instead of equipping them to go, they keep them. They also dominate the resource allocation and tend to be the ones marketed to because they have the money to purchase these things. When they do connect with the rural church it is often in a condescending manner, sending the youth group missions kids to run a VBS for those poor, pagan rural children. Indigenous leaders get left out in the cold and when we try to reach out to the bigger churches for any reason we are met with silence or worse, cold indifference.
I know he has since apologized, but Andy Stanley’s comments on rural churches back in 2017 area good example of the attitude large churches have towards small churches and the attitudes many large church members have toward small churches. There is a reason there is a wide resource gap between the urban, suburban and rural churches.
From a secular perspective J.D Vance may be correct that the solution for the rural person is to band together and lift themselves out of poverty and isolation, but from a Christian perspective this is not how it is meant to be. Every church is connected through the Holy Spirit. It is quite arrogant to assume differently or to look down another part of the church because they do not have the resources you do. In fact, Paul challenges believers to do the opposite, to consider everyone else as better than ourselves. Philippians 2:1-11 is our framework for how we should interact as Christian’s and its application is both corporate and individual.
But what are we to do? If the statistics are correct and we have no reason to believe they are not. We are all in dire straights but the Rural Church which usually lack the large financial resources and reserves that large churches have are even more so with Forbes reporting that 1 in 5 churches will likely close due to the shutdowns. And every church, despite reporting initial gains have reported a net drop as regular attendees have stopped attending anywhere. This data from Barna is distressing.
As the church fails to respond to the issues surrounding us in the world in a way that is biblically informed and authentic. As we fail to love out our values across the board the generation that was already leaving slowly is now leaving in droves. Our disunity as the church in America is a major contributor to this reality, and that includes disunity between urban/suburban and Rural Churches.
In some ways this exodus is good as a true and genuine faithful remnant is codified. But as a pastor I never want to see people leave the church for any reason, but to know the life giving word of God. It seems God has used this crisis to reform his church and any reform is going to cause people to leave, but as they go we have to hope God can use us to bring them back to Him. Coronavirus has only sped up the long decline of the church that has been leading to and causing reforms as the church loses its power and influence.
But now it is time to heal the urban/suburban and rural divide. For bigger churches to reach out and share resources like Good News Cokmunity Church in Okaboji Iowa has done in sharing their Right Now Media resources with us. There is also a need, however, for financial partnerships. Large churches often have large cash reserves and excess, some of those reserves could pay my salary for 100 years on the interest alone. But that money sits in bank accounts waiting for rainy days instead of being stewarded to help advance the Kingdom of God around the world, especially in small, rural towns. While many larger churches will more than meet their budget this year, many rural churches are going to face much bigger than average budget shortfalls that will effect them into the new year, if they make it into 2021. Again, there are many big churches that could erase that shortfall with the interest on their savings accounts and still not see an affect. And that is even despite the fact that giving has dropped significantly in the last three decades.
Let me be clear here, this isnt about wanting a cut of the bugger pie, this is about the church doing what it has done for 2,020 years, working together for the building of the Kingdom. It is known that one of the reasons younger people dont give is because they want to see their money used for good causes, not sat on to gain interest. When they do give to churches it is because those churches prioritize ministry over budgets.
I am also not saying that big churches should just give money away without restrictions. If money is given to a smaller church it should be used for a need within that church such as building expenses or the pastors salary. As a means of diverting the pain of the pandemic on smaller congregations. Churches should be looking to knew another for aid, not the federal government who has proven it views us as irrelevant and non essential.
I know that Amdy Stanley or one of the other big city pastors will probably never read this. I have no hope of Keller coming across this. But I do hope someone in the bigger churches will and ask God how they akd their church can use his resources to help struggling rural churches to make sure that the Gospel is preached and proclaimed to everyone. The encouragement of financial or other resources help to pastors of small churches can make a huge difference. I hope someone other than the Lord himself hears this plea and sends it up the chain. For the sake of the glory of God. Not my own.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.