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.
But Dreher's chronicle of St. Francisville and his sister's life teaches us that one cannot quantify the most important things in life. Dreher had enjoyed professional success in New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia but when Ruthie was sick, she had an entire town circle around her. For the duration of her sickness, her family never came home to a dirty house and never lacked for meals or emotional support. The townspeople even arranged a benefit concert to help raise money for Ruthie's medical bills. In just one day, the town of 1,700 people raised $42,000.
Rod had professional success, but he and his family didn't have that sort of love and stability in their lives. What's more, when Rod and his wife Julie made the decision to move back home, most of the people they knew in Philadelphia said they were jealous. They wished they had a St. Francisville to return to.
A Similar Trajectory
Contemporary American storytelling has a funny relationship to small-town America. On the one hand, we can tell stories that show a great love and deep understanding for it, as in NBC's marvelous Friday Night Lights. And yet in my own state of Nebraska, it's become something of a rite of passage for students at our flagship university in Lincoln to bemoan small-town life and vow to flee the state as soon as possible upon graduation. They'll settle in a big coastal city where they'll achieve all sorts of success. They'll finalize their divorce from their small-town roots—and in most cases they'll do so rather happily, as they find opportunities to mock and belittle "flyover country."
The same kind of brain drain is happening in Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and North Dakota, and it is wreaking havoc on our region. Worst of all, because the majority of people talking about small-town life are the "leavers" now working in New York, Chicago, D.C., and San Francisco, the image that often emerges is unflattering at best. In contrast, we seldom hear the stories of the "stickers," people like Ruthie Leming and her husband Mike.
For our part, American evangelicals have followed a similar trajectory. We've largely abandoned small towns (try finding an evangelical congregation in most small towns in Nebraska), we've seldom challenged our young people to return home, and we've often embraced a philosophy of ministry that judges success on the basis of attendance, money raised, or some other measure that will by definition favor cities and larger communities. Yet when we consider the story of the Christian church, we're reminded that small places have a vital role to play in God's kingdom.
Jesus himself came from a town in Israel with a reputation not much better than those enjoyed by most small towns in contemporary America. First-century Jews mocked Nazareth. We enlightened moderns now mock places like Potter, Nebraska or Wall, South Dakota. Yet that is the place where God chose to spend the vast majority of his time on earth. Though Christianity did take to the cities quickly, as the Book of Acts documents, our roots are not large and urban, but small and rural. If Jesus himself chose to grow up in a place like Nazareth, then surely there's some honor and even glory in contemporary Christians choosing to love places like St. Francisville and give their lives to the care and sustaining of such places. If you need further convincing about the beauty of life in small places, you won't do better than to read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.
Jake Meador is a writer in Lincoln, Nebraska. He blogs at Notes from a Small Place.