Thirty miles down a gravel road, a white building sits alone on an ocean of sun-bleached prairie. It is occasionally a church, more often a community hall for dances and weddings, and sometimes a school. The paint is chipped and peeling, and rabbits live in its rock foundation. Isolated and neglected, it is not completely abandoned.
This building could represent how many rural Christians see themselves in America today. The 2000 presidential election painted America's new demarcation in bright blue and red hues--the urban states voted one way, the rural the other. This disparity is nothing new to the country Christian. Even the root word of pagan, paganus, means "country-dweller" and originated with the early church's success in the cities and a disdain for the less educated rural heathen.
It's hard not to see that same attitude today. Not long ago I was sitting in a Main Street cafe of a small Western town with a local pastor. "I know I should go visit Ralph," he said, referring to a retired rancher in his congregation. "But what would we talk about? He's just an old horse-trader."
Jesus! I wanted to yell. How about talking about Jesus?
Even as I sat down to write this article, the phone rang. It was a pastor wanting to know why I couldn't speak at his conference on a certain day. "Because we'll probably be branding," I said. "And if we're not, one of our neighbors will be." I tried to tell him that certain chores, such as branding, shipping for market or harvesting had priority, and they involve seasons, not just a day or two.
My wife, born to the city, shook her head. She knows the cultural disparity better than most. "He just doesn't understand," she said.
And that is the feeling most country people have regarding the contemporary American church. The church doesn't understand them, and they don't understand a church that can appear as an urban monolith fueled by hyperbole, hubris and hegemony.
"We are too few to matter," Norma Peabody says. She and her husband live in a part of eastern Montana that is 30 miles from a town of only a few hundred. And she is right about being few. Statistics show that only 1.8 percent of the U.S. population lives on a family farm or ranch.
"People have no idea how we live," Peabody continues. "We're not ignorant. We have satellite television, VCRs and computers wired to the Internet, but we are very isolated in our geographical location."
Many mistake that isolation as a selfishly independent spirit, but nothing could be further from the truth. That white building I mentioned? Structures like it dot the landscape throughout the West, and ranchers drive many miles for community gatherings. My wife and I recently drove 60 miles to a community hall to see a play written and performed by area farmers and ranchers.
"There is a strong sense of community in rural areas," says author John Loren Sandford. Sandford now lives in Post Falls, Idaho, but spent his formative years on his uncles' ranches in northern Oklahoma.
"Rural people value character, relationships and hard work," he explains. "I grew up being told that laziness was of the devil and hard work made you a saint. And you better be honest. You better not let your word fall to the ground."
"Country people want reality," adds Dennis Allender, pastor of a thriving charismatic fellowship in Spearfish, South Dakota. "They are down to earth and practical. What might work in the city doesn't work out here."
UNIQUE PASTORAL CHALLENGES
Susan Gehring is a single mother in her early 40s who runs a ranch high in the western Montana mountains near the little town of Lincoln. "You have to reach people where they are at to minister here," she says. "The men especially have to meet someone they respect. Limp-wristed handshakes aren't going to cut it."
Country Christians like Gehring and Peabody have seen many pastors come and go in their respective areas. They both note that pastors often arrive with a schedule full of programs and can't understand why people aren't lining up to join.
"They don't realize that farming and ranching is often a seven-day-a-week job," Peabody says. "We can't just drop things and drive an hour to town two or three times a week."
But rural people don't often see their pastors in the country. "They're here on the opening day of hunting season," Gehring says. "And there have been a couple who tried to help on the ranch, but most of them just can't relate. They don't have the experience."
The shock of rural life hits many pastors hard, and some act as if they are just doing time until released from a prison sentence.
"I spent my first year with my bags packed and one foot out the door," says Stephen Mansfield, former senior pastor of Belmont Church in Nashville, Tennessee, of his first year pastoring in the cow town of Abilene, Texas. Mansfield had grown up in Europe, and it took him awhile to adapt to west Texas prairie life. The barbecues finally converted him.
"You must forget about numbers as a definition of success," Mansfield notes. "You think about impacting culture instead. You have to have a heart for the land and then you have to break the people out of a small-town mind-set. You must get them thinking of what the redemptive purpose is for their area."
Both Mansfield and Sandford claim that overcoming small-town thinking is a Christian leader's biggest challenge. It's the "can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" syndrome. Rural people sometimes have small visions fortified by years of tradition.
The very humility birthed by a closeness to the soil can degenerate into a false humility. Mansfield calls it the "spirit of smallness": the sense that the only important thing is survival. Success happens, but not in small towns. Big cities have success, but they also have inherent evils.
"It is the subtle mind-set of country folk that city folk are our enemies," says worship teacher and pastor Ray Hughes. Hughes grew up in the hills and "hollers" of rural Kentucky and hid as a child when strangers came near. The other children hid, too. "We believed progress and education were in the cities," he says. "And if we weren't careful, progress and education would come and steal our children."
Rural people in the West are not quite this paranoid, but they still feel, if not inferior, at least subjugated to the city population and will defend their traditions with an ironclad, even devious, resistance to change.
"In most small-town churches there is what I call an 'invisible government,'" Sandford says. "It's usually a pioneer family of influence that quietly runs the church. It's a stronghold the pastor is going to have to break."
SPIRITUAL WARFARE ON THE PRAIRIE
Small-town ministry can be especially hard on pastors' families. Often, too much is expected of the wife--expectations of her filling traditional pastor's-wife duties she may not even be called to or prepared for--and the children bear unfair scrutiny.
To counter this, leaders must redesign the local wineskin to include all members as co-laborers and the pastor as chief elder. Otherwise the pastor can become an overworked hireling. But traditions die hard in small towns.
"Opinionated, independent and stubborn"--those are the negative characteristics of rural people says Allender, a Californian who has grown to love the Black Hills of South Dakota. "You need to be secure in yourself and your calling," he adds.
Of course, stubbornness can be seen simply as an excess of perseverance, and you need staying power on the plains, where wind chills can drop to 100 degrees below zero in the winter, and the summer heat can peak at 110.
"Yeah, we're probably too stubborn and opinionated," Gehring admits.
"The people out here will tell you what's on their mind. We don't like to beat around the bush."
And, she says, most people in agriculture are suspicious of anyone coming from the outside to help. Farmers and ranchers already feel besieged by "alphabet" government agencies such as BLM, USFS, OSHA, EPA, USFWS, USDA and others, and new pastors can have this same bureaucratic mentality.
"We don't like it when people come in like they have all the answers," Gehring says. "We might already have the answers. What we really need is organized prayer support. Churches shouldn't just send someone in here fresh out of Bible school, then abandon him. This is a war zone. We need spiritual provision from the outside."
"Spiritual warfare is the difference," says Marsha Burns, who with her husband, Bill, pastors a small church in Kremmling, Colorado, another tiny mountain town. "We literally had to learn spiritual warfare to survive here," she says. "We no sooner got our church doors open to the public, and the editor of the local paper ran an editorial questioning why the town needed another church."
Within nine months they experienced their first church split. "The battles raged inside and outside the church walls. God taught us how to war. There was no safe place except in His presence."
The Burnses have now been in Kremmling for more than 16 years--six previous charismatic churches had failed there--and also manage an Internet ministry with more than 5,000 subscribers and more than 10,000 hits a day to their Web site.
But if spiritual warfare is the answer, many urban Christians don't understand why. "I don't get it," one world-traveling minister told me as he toured our badlands ranch. "Why would there be so much spiritual warfare out here? There aren't any people!"
"Evil is not limited to people," Sandford explains. "There are strongholds resident in the land itself. Whatever people do makes a deposit in the land."
Or, as Mansfield has noted, evil can also be on assignment to thwart the redemptive purpose of the land's future. "Destiny," he explains. "It is all about warring for the destiny of the area."
And that destiny could include food or the lack of it. When judgment comes upon a nation in the form of drought and pestilence, it is the rural Christian--the farmer and the rancher--who is on the frontlines of that battle.
This bitter reality hit me a few years ago in the midst of a terrible drought when I tried to organize a region-wide prayer-for-rain day only to have some pastors refuse to cooperate because they wanted warm, sunny weather. "We have church picnics planned and yard work to do," one of them told me.
That recreation overrules basic needs, such as food production, is strong evidence that the American church has grown distant from many of the parables of our Lord. And evidence of a growing gap between those who live on the land and those who merely drive by it on their way to somewhere else.
Farmers and ranchers who steward the prairies where the white buildings stand like sentinels await men and women of God who also are men and women of the land, ones who recall Paul's note to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:9: "You are God's field" (NIV).
John L. Moore is an award-winning writer whose articles and short stories have been published in The New York Times Magazine, Reader's Digest and many other publications, including our sister publication, Charisma magazine. He is the author of many books, including The Land of Empty Houses (Broadman & Holman Publishers).