Why We Need Small Towns
In our presbytery here in Nebraska, we currently have one pastor planting a church in Fremont, a town of 25,000 north of Lincoln. Another pastor is serving at a church in Ashland, a town of 2,500 about halfway between Omaha and Lincoln. But the need is still great. Nebraska, like the larger Midwest, is dotted with small towns of a few hundred to a few thousand residents. Many of these towns lack even one evangelical church, or an orthodox minister serving in one of the more liberal churches. One town of about 1,000 people had the local Methodist and Presbyterian churches merge. (Church history buffs will know what an unlikely match that is.) The issue wasn't lack of attendance but lack of pastors. For the longest time, the denominations kept sending young pastors who were not committed to the place. At the first chance they would leave. Then the denominations just stopped sending anyone at all, forcing the churches to merge or close up shop.
In a nearby town of several hundred, the local PC(USA) church had to reschedule its Sunday services so that the local Assemblies of God minister could fill their pulpit. Read that again: Small-town Nebraska is so desperate for pastors that the local PC(USA) church, one of the most liberal mainline denominations in the nation, is being shepherded by a Pentecostal preacher.
Of course, Christians are called to live and work in cities. Like many Americans in the 20th century, we left these areas of great promise out of fear and for new opportunities in the budding suburbs. Tim Keller and others have rightly called us back. But Christians are also called to live and work in small towns. It's just that no prominent church leaders are talking about this. Of the students in my campus ministry at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, over half left Nebraska after graduating. Of all the students from small towns in Nebraska, I know of only one who returned. And small-town residents are not the only people who suffer when we ignore small towns and their way of life. Those of us who embrace bigger ways of life do as well.
Learning from Jayber
Wendell Berry's work is far from perfect. But we would do well to attend more closely to the agrarian writer who has spent much of his life farming in Kentucky near a village of 100 people. Often when city-minded evangelicals read Berry, we pick up on the themes that already appeal to an urban readership. We note the environmental message of his work and go off to buy our food at a local co-op or farmers' market. These may be good decisions. But if that's all we take from Berry's work, we have missed the spiritual underpinnings that inform so much of it.
In the best page of fiction he will ever write, Berry lays out the reason for the little way. The page is in Jayber Crow, the story of a barber in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. In the portion quoted below, Jayber is a divinity student at a denominational college. Jayber has long felt called to preach due to the pressures created by the fundamentalist director at the orphanage where he grew up. But he felt swept away by lingering questions brought up by his studies, and he wondered if he was fit to preach. He talks to one of his professors, an old man named Ardmire. After a few minutes, he realizes he can't be a preacher: