Friday, September 5, 2008

Letter to the Rural Church

I grew up in a small, rural church, in tiny Sebastopol, Mississippi. Sebastopol is tiny town, and Steam Mill Cumberland Presbyterian Church was small even for Sebastopol standards. We ran 50 on a good Sunday when I was growing up. But I cut my teeth on the Word there, heard the gospel preached faithfully there, and gave my life to Christ there. My grandfather ministered there in good times and bad, persevering to the end, for almost 40 years, and I believe his will be among the largest crowns given out in Heaven. There is much to love about small rural churches like that, and I do love them.

But there is also much that needs to change. The church I grew up in does church almost exactly the same as it's done it since I was a kid. I went there one Sunday, realized they'd added a fourth song to the musical worship, and almost had a heart attack. That's how married to their traditions they are.

Nevertheless, I love the small church, even though I no longer attend one. That's why this letter I just read really jumped out at me. It's called Letter to the Rural Church, and it's patterned by Jesus' letters to the seven churches in Revelation. It's from the web site Building Church Leaders. I found the text of the letter at Les Puryear's blog, Joining God in His Work. Here it is:


I know where you live: in a nation ruled by the god of Business, where those who do not have the power to buy are shunted aside. The old and the very young are ignored. The few (who do not make up a critical mass, a niche market, a group worthy of attention) are dismissed.

Instead of a business, you rural churches have been a faithful family. You have refused to be professionalized; you have rejected the model of corporate effectiveness. Like me, you have chosen to be inefficient. You have lavished love and energy on the old and sick, on the isolated, on the very young. You have patiently waited decades for fruit. You ministers who spend your lives in the service of a congregation of 30, you teachers who pour out your souls for a Bible class of 5: you have understood what it means to be children of the Father and brothers and sisters of the Son.

You have also rejected those who claim to act in my name: those church-planting experts who advise that my people "target" only densely populated areas so that the largest number of people can be efficiently herded into the kingdom; the denominational leaders who have seen you as a useful training ground for inexperienced pastors who will soon move on to "better pulpits" in more worthy (and populated) places. You have endured this, and remained strong, and understood the truth: that size and efficiency are important only in the economy of hell.

Remember that 20 years spent in the service of a handful of faithful believers are as priceless to me as 20 years spent calling crowds to repentance. I will be with you in your long, quiet march toward the coming of the kingdom.

But I also have something against you. Like a family, you make judgments that stand forever. Just as the child who once stole is forever branded a thief by his family, so the poor and sick and despairing have been judged shiftless, no-account, congenitally drunk. You have been unwilling to admit that my light brings change. You give food to the food pantry, but in your hearts you believe that hunger and poverty happen only to the unworthy. In my eyes, you too were naked and hungry and filthy. But you have forgotten the grace you have received, and you have chalked up your relative comfort to hard work and sterling moral character.

And you have built again the walls that I once tore down. White and black and Native American, you have settled into your different rooms, content that you all live within my house. Rarely are the doors between those rooms opened; never have you mingled freely in my name. You white churches would not drive away a black worshiper from your doors, but you keep yourselves separate nonetheless; you make no effort to eat with and play with and babysit for and enjoy the fellowship of your black siblings. And you churches of color, who call my white children colorless, passionless, oppressive, cold: I call you also to repent, to put aside your resentments, both past and present. Remember that I also was beaten. And yet I forgave and gave life to those who did evil. I brought together the Jews and Greeks in uncomfortable union: they fought, and shed tears and blood, but when I looked at them I saw only my followers. I wish that the same were true of you.

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