Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Barn Burner on Barn Blessers

The incomparable Tim Keller, himself a pastor in Manhattan, had a great post yesterday offering advice to the young pastor. A taste:
Young pastors or seminarians often ask me for advice on what kind of early ministry experience to seek in order to best grow in skill and wisdom as a pastor. They often are surprised when I tell them to consider being a 'country parson' -- namely, the solo pastor of a small church, many or most of which are in non-urban settings. Let me quickly emphasize the word 'consider.' I would never insist that everyone must follow this path. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about. It was great for me . . .

. . . Some will be surprised to hear me say this, since they know my emphasis on ministry in the city. Yes, I believe firmly that the evangelical church has neglected the city. It still is difficult to get Christians and Christian leaders to make the sacrifices necessary to live their lives out in cities. However, the disdain many people have for urban areas is no worse than the condescending attitudes many have toward small towns and small churches.

I have left out some meat in order to include the gist, so you should definitely go read the whole thing. Keller is touching on something huge here, this "disdain," which really manifests itself in neglect and discrimination. This is on huge display in a Time Magazine article on the decline of rural churches, which I posted on earlier this year in a piece I titled You Go Where the Customers Are. The magazine article talks about young pastors reluctant to go to a place where there's no Starbucks, and even of older pastors and mentors telling these young guys they are too talented or too creative to pastor in small or rural towns. You know, because those places are wastes of time.

I can't think of sentiments more antithetical to real ministry.

When I left a three year old church plant in suburban Nashville to assume the pastorate of a 200+ year-old church in rural New England, a close friend of mine said, "You're going to kill your career." He was just (sort of) joking, of course, but it wasn't the first time I'd hear something like that. (I should mention that since making this move, my "career" -- if by that one means writing/speaking opportunities -- has actually increased.) But I told him, flatly, "Good." The day I begin thinking of ministry as a career is the day my ministry career begins to be a big fat pile of FAIL. By God's grace, I am what I am and do what I do, and this means going where I'm called and hoping he increases, not me.

We're supposed to decrease, you know?

I am glad more and more pastors are planting churches in the city. The cities need them, and more of them. I can't think of a single church planter I know personally who is a selfishly ambitious flag-planter. (But I know the selfish flag-planters are out there.) Still, I'd love for more young guys to nail Starbucks and the corner pub and shopping malls and public transportation to the cross and go plant and pastor where you're more likely to hear a cow moo than a car honk. Country folk are real folk. And they need the gospel too. Especially in areas like New England, which is now the new American mission field.

The Northeast, now officially the least religious and least churched portion of the nation, is the spiritual epicenter of the country. The Great Awakenings began there. The major American cults have their geneses there. The once theologically solid Ivy League schools are there. Christendom in America rose first and fell first in New England. Rural New England is hyper-spiritual (New Ageism, Wicca, etc. still flourishing) but under-churched and under-gospeled.
I have a lot more to say about this but am saving it for a future post.

Because it's not just New England or the rural Northeast who need church planters and evangelical pastors. It's rural areas and small towns all over the country. A lot of evangelical churches in outlying areas are praying desperately that crop after crop of young pastors and aspiring church planters will grow up and show up.

As professionalization captured the evangelical pastorate, churches in small town America began drying up. It's where old pastors go to retire. It's where the untalented go to do second rate ministry. Even the one or two conferences recently about ministry in small town settings were led by megachurch pastors and were predicated on how to build a big church in a small town.

Does anyone see the connections between Jesus' mustard seed ministry and ministry in marginalized America? You almost don't even have to contextualize all that sower/soil, house-building, sheep and field stuff! It's plug and play Gospels in rural America. And the gospel is scandalous to the churched (who tend to be either liberal or legalistic) and unchurched (who tend to think Christianity means "being good," which they've already got, thank you very much, compliments of justification by recycling and letting gay people marry each other) in rural America. They are some of the rockiest fields to till.

There are lots of real men in rural and small towns, guys who have fought in wars and know how to fix and build things. It can be intimidating for young urbanite pastors who'd rather talk Radiohead than radiators. There are lots of women who don't wear makeup. The "hot wife" may feel conspicuous. :-) There's lots of old people in rural and small towns, which means you can't turn your worship to 11, which is necessary for authenticity and church growth.
But now I'm being sarcastic, so I'll stop. :-)

Is God really calling more people to the cities and suburbs than to the outlying areas? Or do we just think he is?

This is why I liked the 2nd to last paragraph of Keller's post:
Young pastors should not turn up their noses at such places, where they may learn the full spectrum of ministry tasks and skills as they will not in a large church. Nor should they go to small communities looking at them merely as stepping stones in a career. Why not? Your early ministry experience will only prepare you for 'bigger things,' if you don't aspire for anything bigger than investment in the lives of the people around you. Wherever you serve, put your roots down, become a member of the community and do your ministry with all your heart and might. If God opens the door to go somewhere else, fine and good. But don't go to such places looking at them only as training grounds for 'real ministry.'

Yes. Do not treat these mission fields like training wheels for "real" ministry. If that's your perspective you shouldn't be in ministry anywhere.

It's true that God may call young pastors and planters into small towns and rural areas to prepare them and train them for ministries of Jabezian levels of "more territory." But some he calls to come and stay. Many of us are praying you young guys are listening.

I am a 34-year suburbanite who calls the 4th largest city in America my hometown. I am not blowing smoke here.


C. Holland said...

"You're going to kill your career." We heard that over and over, both when we decided to become missionaries to Western Europe (because that's not "real" missions), and when we stopped working with an up-and-coming church plant guessed it, work in a small rural church, also in Western Europe. From the dismissive comments we received about us working with "those rural types", it's clear socio-economic classism. You're right, this is not our "training", it's our ministry. And it's time missions work isn't also considered "training for real ministry"--but that's another topic.

The timing of your post is interesting because a) a good pastor friend is leaving a metropolitan area to retire to a small country church, and b) this former city dweller had to contend with country living just a few minutes ago, in the form of a huge field rat. While this (and hearing "moo" outside my door) are new experiences to me, I wouldn't give up what we're doing for all the big-city life conveniences.

josh o said...

Where in New England did you serve? I'm about 45 minutes north of Portland, Maine.

As usual, thanks for the encouragement!

B-U-R-L-Y said...

If your post was an amp, it didn't go to 11. Your post was just 10 louder. That's the way it should be.

Jared said...

Josh: Outside Rutland, Vermont.

Matt said...

I really enjoy your blog. I love the fact there is so much gospel here.

Your post made me wonder what you think of the confessional Lutheran way of doing things. I don't know the specifics, but it is the congregation, after prayerful consideration, that calls a pastor when he finishes seminary, or even if he is serving as a pastor somewhere else. The pastor can either accept the position or reject it but only after prayerfully considering how he can best serve the Lord.

Their may be some down side to this way of doing things, but I think it fits almost perfectly with what you're talking about. Certainly, no pastor can think of this way of doing things as a career move at least, and it should foster the attitude of a servant.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

A corrolary to the rural church would be youth ministry. It's been interesting how often preaching to teens gets described as the lite form of preaching or teaching.
A lot of my appreciation of scripture came from the example of an Assemblies of God youth pastor I knew when I was in my teens. He expected a lot of his youth group and eventually started a somewhat long Sunday school series on how to interpret biblical literature. He said we needed to know what exegesis and hermeneutics were and to read and interpret the Bible responsibly.

It perhaps goes without saying that not too many Assemblies of God youth pastors try to get their teenage charges to tackle that stuff but I am grateful to this day that youth pastor saw his ministry as one worthy of his best efforts and not as a stepping stone to a "real" ministry. I also respect that he said his task as a pastor was to equip the flock for ministry, not just to do the ministry in our stead. I haven't been part of an Assemblies of God church in at least sixteen years but I'm certainly grateful God had me where I was.

zach said...

Jared, stoked to hear you are doing your thing in VT. I am one of the pastors at a newish church in Burlington, heard about you through Joel Bordeaux. Rutvegas needs Jesus, too! Keep doing what you're doing man.

Jason said...

I hear what you're saying and I don't disagree even the "country folk" need Jesus.

The only point I would bring up is that in many years where I lived in those kinds of rural town the people there weren't open to anything other than "their" way of doing things even if it didn't really line up with Scripture. They weren't interested in reaching out and ministering to people who were different than themselves.

A lot of places I've been where the churches are looking for new pastors WANT the old guys because they know they're less likely to try and change "the way it's always been." And I wasn't a pastor so I heard what they REALLY thought about pastors and the guys who came in to interview for the positions.

They want safe Jesus. They don't want a young pastor who has the guts to not roll over to tradition. So while I agree with you they're just as valuable, it's a little unfair to put the onus on going there entirely on the young pastors who choose other fields to till. It takes special people to go to places where they want their Christianity and they don't want Jesus.

Jared said...

Jason, I know what you're talking about. Christians in these areas can trend "insular." Most of the churches that identify as evangelical in New England, for instance, tend to be either ultra-liberal or ultra-rigid.

This is why we need gospel-centered church planters. Missions isn't supposed to be easy. I can't believe God isn't calling young men to difficult mission fields. It will take a thick skin and a pioneering spirit, and it will require more planting than assumption of existing pastorates -- my church is atypical, and not just for hiring me -- but it is not gonna wash to write off difficult mission fields for being difficult.

Honestly, one reason I embraced rather quickly my call away from the Bible Belt is because of the cultural Christianity of "most Christians" there. I wouldn't be too quick to assume there aren't "DNA problems" with Christian communities in every part of the U.S. They're just different kinds of problems.

The gospel is still scandalous to Christians and unbelievers alike in underchurched areas.