For quite a while now we’ve heard about how rural America is hurting. How jobs are leaving and young people are following them to coastal cities and hipster hotbeds like Austin or Seattle.
We’ve heard that the opioid epidemic is ransacking sections of our country like Appalachia harder than almost anywhere else. We’ve heard about hopelessness. We’ve heard about Mountain Dew mouth and obesity. We’ve heard about declining numbers in rural churches. We’ve heard a lot that is, well, pretty disheartening.
I’m not going to argue with demographic or economic statistics, but I do want to say clearly that this tale of hopelessness—all-too-often told by folks who have left or never really lived in rural America—misses a lot and skews our thinking about rural America in general and specifically the future of rural and small town ministry.
I know because I’ve lived and told this story a few times myself.
As I’ve mentioned before on The Exchange, my wife and I grew up outside a town of about 1,100 in rural northwestern Pennsylvania before moving to a couple different cities to pursue our education. In the summer of 2016, we moved back to the region we grew up in to plant Oil City Vineyard Church in the (somewhat confusingly named) small town of Oil City.
Initially, when we felt God calling us to Oil City, we saw the town, like most who live in the region, in terms of needs. Generational poverty was high, as was substance abuse and unemployment. The problems seemed both a bit overwhelming and yet surprisingly motivating to us as church planters.
While we never thought we as either individuals or a single church could fix the problems, we did (perhaps a bit subconsciously) think of our calling to the town as partially, or perhaps even primarily, contingent on the problems that needed to be addressed with the good news of the gospel.
Now, after two years of ministry in Oil City, I’m beginning to see our town and region with new eyes.
It is not that the problems that initially drew our attention to this region or the needs of rural America in general have gone away. They are still here, and they are still just as real. It’s more that I’m beginning to see the extent of the opportunity that places like my town offer for those who are willing to cut against the rural-America-is-a-lost-cause-for-has-beens-and-those-who-can’t-get-out mentality.
Good people and good news still abound in rural America.
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Source: Christianity Today