Why We Need Small Towns
The New York Times released a documentary film this summer that captures a place and its people. The film features residents from a wide range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and jobs. Their disparate stories are knitted together by their affection for their city. In many ways, the film captures a love of place and holistic mission that has captivated many evangelicals as of late. There's one major difference: The place is McDowell County, West Virginia, population 21,729.
The residents of McDowell County remind an American church intent on doing and being more that sometimes, the best life is given to quiet, simplicity, and smallness. It's a lesson that also appears in a marvelous recent book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Part memoir, part biography, part meditation, Little Way is the story of journalist Rod Dreher's younger sister, Ruthie, who at age 40 was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Watching her community rally around her, Dreher awakens to the beauty of life in a small town. More than that, it alerts him to his fixation on big cities and their big dreams and big projects, and how he has disdained the ordinary pleasures of life in his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana. Dreher writes of his sister's home and how it shaped her affections:
The love that had sustained Ruthie through her cancer, and that now surrounded and upheld her family, came from somewhere. Like Ruthie, my mother and father had cultivated it, in this little patch of ground, all their lives. They had no grand gestures of philanthropy or goodness to their name, but rather they were always faithful in small things.
Dreher notes that his way of life—as an accomplished editor and religion columnist—had failed to create the commitment, fidelity, and long-term community found in Ruthie's. To the world, Dreher was the noteworthy sibling. But as he watched Ruthie's town love her, her life seemed to offer depths that were unknown to him.
Stickers and Boomers
Of course, American Christians know something of the little way. The evangelical movement has always had its share of what novelist Wallace Stegner famously called "stickers." In the words of Wendell Berry, a student of Stegner's, stickers are people who "settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in." America's first great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent much of his life serving in a single small parish. Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield spent nearly his entire adult life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the university and cared for his sick wife. The late Dallas Willard taught and ministered in the same philosophy department for nearly five decades. Just recently, my pastor interviewed a dozen fellow pastors who have served in Lincoln, Nebraska, for over a decade. All of them are committed to staying at their churches indefinitely.
But, like so many Westerners, we don't always practice the virtues of the little way in our communities. Evangelicals are a people of megachurches, national conferences, city-centric thinking (which often comes with derision for small-town life), and ever-expanding religious empires, be they church-planting networks or the Twitter feeds of celebrity pastors. Consider just one example: the rise of video preaching and podcasting, and the cultlike following they have generated around certain leaders.
The point is not to demonize cities or the prominent ministries that grow out of them. God does work through these and other large endeavors. Indeed, if stickers have always been a part of American evangelicalism, so too have their more ambitious counterparts, the "boomers." In Stegner and Wendell Berry's use of the term, boomers are people driven by dreams and ambitions. They are always moving to the next project, always imagining a new idea or movement to pursue. If Ruthie Leming was a sticker, Rod Dreher is a boomer (or has been for much of his life, at least).
Boomers have a long tradition within evangelicalism as well. George Whitefield was our first celebrity preacher, traveling all over the country to lead revivals that drew hundreds to thousands of attendees. Much of 19th-century evangelicalism was marked by the spirit of revivalism, a boomer movement if ever there was one. And today's U.S. megachurches—which have exploded in number in the past few decades—certainly reflect a boomer ethos, and their bigness has its value. For example, the 6,000-person congregation has resources that my 350-person one could never dream of. It would take us years to raise a mercy fund that the megachurch could raise in one week. Impressive buildings, major missions campaigns, and citywide revivals all have their place.
But what happens when our ambitions and fondness for big run amok?
First, we'd expect to see rural places become ecclesial deserts, marked by dying mainline congregations starved for orthodox preaching. We'd see Catholic parishes in similar disrepair. In the suburbs and cities, we'd expect to see wide-scale burnout among church leaders—leaders who feel trapped in unsustainable ministry models that, due to crazy workloads and job responsibilities, leave little room for family, the Sabbath, or simple pleasures. We'd expect to see young people grow disillusioned with the project-oriented nature of church, longing instead for small-scale intimacy. We'd expect, in other words, to find a church with plenty of accomplishments, but lacking spiritual formation and deeply woven community.
Pardon my bluntness, but we'd expect to find something that looks like what we have today.
A true story from the ecclesial desert: A good friend of mine recently filled the pulpit at a United Church of Christ in small-town Nebraska. He thundered away from his text, preaching sin and repentance and redemption in Christ. When he was done, an old farmer from the church came forward to shake his hand. The farmer said, "Usually the preaching here is awful. I sleep through the sermon more often than not. But what you said today, young man—that was preaching."
Of course, paltry preaching can be found everywhere. Likewise with strong evangelical preaching. But small towns struggle to secure pastors in a way that urban churches often don't. In an urban context, elderly believers can usually find with a couple miles a church where the preaching consistently centers on the gospel. For the farmers here in Nebraska, that's not really an option. The mainline church is often all they have. This means that churchgoers often have young, inexperienced, and extremely liberal pastors who have been forced into the job and will leave at first opportunity. Poorly taught but basically orthodox Christians in small towns often must choose between consistently bad preaching or no church at all.
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:
I said, "Well," for now I was ashamed, "I had this feeling maybe I had been called."
"And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time."
"And how long is that going to take?"
"I don't know. As long as you live, perhaps."
"That could be a long time."
"I will tell you a further mystery," he said. "It may take longer."
Over the next 300 pages, Berry tells the story of how Jayber lives his questions out. In time, Jayber arrives at peace. The novel ends with a beatific vision in which Jayber says that he "was covered all over with light." His orphaned soul finally is restored.
But living out the answers took time—52 years, to be exact. Ardmire spoke with Jayber in 1935. The story ends in 1987. When I realize this, the devastating question hits me: Do we American Christians create communities where answers can be lived out, decade by decade, over a lifetime?
No, we don't all have to move to small towns to find these communities. But small towns make that sort of community more plausible. Big cities run on transience and mobility. They are filled with rental housing and freeways designed to make movement over large areas easier. And they are supported by an economy that assumes people will switch careers and homes several times in the course of their lives.
In such a world, the memory of small-town life is an antidote to the frantic pace that defines the city and deadens the soul. But with small towns withering away, what will protect us from the hectic, hypermobile life of the city? In a world where so many of us are like Jayber—haunted by the pains inflicted upon us as well as our own sinful heart—where will we go to be healed and restored? How many of us will be given the time to slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions?
Jake Meador is a writer and editor from Lincoln, Nebraska. He writes for Mere Orthodoxy and Fare Forward.