A prominent evangelical megachurch pastor said a few years ago that his ambition for his church is to have Easter Sunday services at the local major league baseball team's stadium. He is not the only one with such lofty ambitions. In recent years, evangelicalism has been swept with a city-centric ethos focused on large urban hubs. And the seeker-sensitive movement that preceded it, despite very different values, harbored a similar fondness for bigness. Of course, these movements within evangelicalism roughly mirror the love affair contemporary America has with big cities.
For all these reasons, evangelicals need to read Rod Dreher's The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life (Grand Central Publishing). Little Way is Dreher's account of growing up in small-town Louisiana, leaving it behind, and then coming back home again after seeing the way tiny St. Francisville rallied around his cancer-stricken sister, Ruthie Leming.
Thankfully, Dreher's book avoids romanticizing small-town America. His account is balanced, neither neglecting the reasons for its demise nor demonizing big cities. As someone who's lived in New York, Tampa, Washington, D.C., Dallas, and Philadelphia, it'd be hard for him not to recognize the benefits of big city life and chasing professional success. Indeed, that balance (which, I suspect, is simply wisdom) flavors the entire book, as Dreher looks back with a mixture of affection and sadness at his life in St. Francisville.
At times you can feel Dreher's love for the place, particularly as he recalls time spent at his great aunts' cabin as a little boy. His great aunts, who had lived in Paris in the early 20th century, had introduced him to France and first planted in him the dreams of life in far-off, exotic places. But in reading about his relationship with Ruthie and his father, there's an unmistakable tone of regret and pain mixed with the undeniable love and admiration which makes the pain all the more difficult to understand. Perhaps most perplexingly, there isn't a neat resolution once Ruthie is diagnosed or even after Rod and his family move back to St. Francisville after Ruthie's death. The pains that drove Dreher away 30 years ago are still there, and, in an unexpected twist in the book's final chapter, the wounds are shown to still be very fresh and raw.
By the Numbers
I don't envy Dreher the pain that he's so clearly experienced, yet I do envy the wisdom that pain has helped him acquire. In A Quest for Godliness, J. I. Packer said that the Puritans of old, in contrast to contemporary evangelicals, were marked by a greater maturity. In reading Dreher's reflections on small-town life, and seeing his desire to savor its beauty despite all the pain, I couldn't help thinking: Here is a mature writer speaking words American evangelicals desperately need to hear.
We evangelicals tend to be a numbers-driven group. In the 1990s, the seeker-sensitive era had us tracking our church attendance and building multi-million dollar buildings to accommodate our megachurch congregations. Now in a more pessimistic era, pollster George Barna has us tracking the number of young people leaving the church. And in between those extremes we keep plenty of other numbers, measuring everything from the number of people helped by our charitable work abroad to the number of people we want to reach with a given outreach event or church plant. As we often do, we mimic the prevailing norms of a success-driven modern culture that tends to believe that if something can't be measured, that's because it doesn't really exist.