This past September, I had the chance to attend the first ever Rural Matters Conference at Northplace Church in Sachse, Texas. The conference, sponsored by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and their Rural Matters Institute, drew speakers and attendees from across the United States for discussions ranging from the opioid epidemic and incarceration rates to innovations in rural church planting and stories of small-church revitalization. (We even heard from a West Virginian who is helping to plant churches in rural China!)
As I listened to and spoke with people from a wide variety of denominations, I found that we all shared three passions: Jesus, rural ministry, and sports.
OK, maybe the last one is a slight exaggeration. While I had few conversations that failed to touch on God and/or rural ministry, I definitely had conversations that didn’t reference sports. An appreciation for sports, however, did seem to run as a minor theme throughout the conference.
In great talks by conference speakers like Bryan Jarrett, Tyson Lambertson, and Shannon Odell, we learned about rural ministry, but we also learned about 6-man football in Texas, Little League football in Nebraska, and high school basketball in Arkansas. Even Donnie Griggs, the conference’s final speaker, kept up the theme by referencing surfing in North Carolina.
What struck me was in all but one of these examples, references to sports weren’t a side topic, but were a planned and prominent part of each presenter’s talk. It was a good reminder that when we think about rural matters, we are wise to remember that in rural and small town America, sports matter.
This is not to say that there aren’t exceptions to this rule or that Americans in big places don’t love sports. There are and they do. In small towns, however, sports—especially high school sports—take on a heightened importance because they provide three things most small towns really want: a source of hometown pride, an entertaining diversion, and hope for a better life.
Sports and Rural America
It’s no secret that many small towns have felt the sting of a changing urban-centric economy and the demographic shifts that come with it. In most small towns and rural places, empty buildings and empty eyes stand as reminders of better economic times and the reality of an opioid epidemic running rampant in rural places. The excitement of watching the next generation compete on the field provides a welcome diversion from the realities of substance abuse and economic scarcity.
Along with local pride, sports also gives many folks in rural communities hope. If a kid works hard enough at a sport, he or she just might make it make it to the next level and cash in on a Division I scholarship or even a professional contract. In a few cases, I’ve observed sports basically become a college plan as parents and students alike pour countless hours into travel teams and practices rather than more traditional college-funding paths like jobs or academics. When this happens, sports can function alongside slot machines and state lotteries as another of rural America’s regular, seldom-rewarded gambles.
As an athlete and lifelong sports fan, I’m glad to say that while sports in small towns can foster a kind of escapism, youth athletics also cultivate a lot of genuine good. High school sports provides rural communities who often struggle with feeling left behind and marginalized with a source of local pride—well-deserved pride, I might add.
The young people in the pool or on the field, court, or track have worked hard to hone their skills and tone their still-growing bodies. They have learned discipline, teamwork, sacrifice, grit, and a host of other important traits.
The pride that small town folks feel about their teams plays out in unmistakable ways. Walking down Main Street on the day of a big game or stopping at a local restaurant the day after a big win, one can feel the excitement in the air. In sports, there’s always the chance that today will be the day that small-town David pulls off an upset and beats Goliath.
Sports also unites small towns in ways one can see. In my small town only three things bring thousands of people together at one time: fireworks, the annual parade, and Friday night football games.
In small towns, sports are where the people are. That’s why anyone thinking about rural ministry should seriously consider getting in the game by serving as a coach or by simply making time in your schedule to join the rest of the town at the big game.
A Game Changer for Rural Ministry
If you love sports—or if you don’t love sports, but you love your town and so you go to games and support local teams—you know that momentum plays a huge role in games. Momentum can come from almost anywhere at any time. It can stem from the timely fumble recovery or the amazing relay leg that drives one’s teammates to run with intensity they didn’t know they had.
In sports, these momentum-swinging events are called “game changers.” As their name implies, when momentum shifts it can completely change the course of a game for better or for worse in an instant.
When it comes to the future of rural North America, I think the inaugural Rural Matters Conference was a game changer of the best kind. By uniting scholars, denominational leaders, and rural-minded pastors of small and large churches to better equip and mobilize small town pastors and congregations, the Rural Matters Institute has a chance to be part of one of the most significant and sustained efforts to impact rural America for the cause of Christ since Methodist circuit riders sacrificed home and hearth for the sake of people in small, easily overlooked places.
I’m not sure if the Rural Matters Institute can actually “make rural sexy” as one speaker at the conference hoped, but I do think it’s a game changer for those of us who have a passion to see the light of the gospel shine more brightly in small places. For the first time in a long time, it feels like the rural church is in the game.
Charlie Cotherman is a church planter in Oil City, Pennsylvania. Oil City was once home to the headquarters of Pennzoil and Quaker State. Charlie grew up in a small town and served on staff as a youth and associate pastor in a country church that grew to become a multisite church. He graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with his MDiv and is finishing his PhD at the University of Virginia. His passion is planting churches equipped and passionate about reaching rural America.