I read an article a little while ago.
Well, actually I have read a few more than the one. This particular article was written to express that rural ministry is worth it. I wondered what the “it” was. Time? Money? Manpower? Prayers? The premise of the article I’m sure was to bring to light a need in a community that most have forgotten about. It reminded me of a conversation I had a few months prior. A Christian leader talked about how the concept of rural ministry was likely to become a new trend. I had to digest that for a little while.
In the end, I was a bit offended by both the article and the statement.
For the fifty-eight to sixty-two million people (equivalent to the number of residents living in Great Britain) living in rural communities, we already knew that we were worth ministry. Frankly, we are not sure that we want to become a ministry trend. Those seem to last for a handful of years. You see, when we determined that God had placed a call on our lives, it was only a matter of where he would send us. Somehow, in our cultural evaluation of whether a ministry is valuable, we have forgotten that God does not evaluate the worth of ministry based on population or location.
Jesus went out of his way to a well in order to encounter one woman of eternal worth. God transposed Phillip from what amounted to a revival in Jerusalem in order to win one Ethiopian official on a road through a desert. For our God, ministry to the one lost sheep has always been something he does.
This phase of our ministry development has been exciting. It has allowed us to meet and share love stories with leaders, pastors, and students from rural communities. Whether it is a fifty year old with memories of the days when men went to work in the mines, thirty-two year olds who recall the day that the crop was bumper, the eighty-three year old that remembers when the football team went to state, or the sixteen year old that can’t wait for the county fair in the fall, these are stories of love. The smell of the combine dust, the vision of the sunset over the herd of whitetail, the sounds of the stands filled with cheering classmates are tales that resonate more deeply than a sonnet.
There is plenty of nostalgia here. Maybe there is more than in most suburban places. After all, families have names on road signs and class pictures filling school hallways. These rural places are home. They are valuable. They are filled with history and hope.
You see, whenever you take the time to hear the stories, some tragic and some wry, you see the value of the ministry. It happens when a shepherd falls more in love with Jesus. The shepherd begins to chase the sheep into the hills, women of ill-repute to out-of-the-way wells, and Ethiopians to the edge of deserts. It is always worth whatever cost the love demands.
I can’t wait to hear the end of the story.
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
I have always wondered if love affairs that start around the special calendar dates don’t have an extra sprinkle of magic dust? Each year, as that day rolls past, they have a reminder of a unique positive memory. There are gifts exchanged, cards given, meals shared and decorations: Oh, the decorations! Everywhere you turn, there is a poster-ized moment from the past.
My wife and I celebrate our engagement each year on December 21st. In my mind, it is a bit more magical than our actual wedding. I think that this may be because I felt that there was an element of surprise. A few days before Christmas, Dawn and I sealed our fate together with a date, flowers and a very special gift. In just a few days, Dawn and I will dress up and stir the magic again. I have always been a romantic fan of Christmas. I find myself excited and apprehensive at the same time as I prepare for the annual celebratory night.
We take relational liberties on Christmas. We give extravagant gifts. We eat extraordinary meals. We sit in the fireplace glow late into the night. We listen to sirening string sections place themselves into our favorite carols and into our emotions. We find romantic meaning in a blanket of snow. Crisp air fills our lungs with eagerness to be with family and friends… If we engage it.
I know lots of “Scrooges”. Something has soured them to the experience that for most, was magic. Life takes some pretty hard shots at us on those special days.
A few years ago, I was called to sit beside a family that was losing their son… on Christmas day. Each year, I am sure that the day has a bittersweet tang to it. Grandkids relish the day around them but the back of their hearts holds an empty space.
Maybe that is how you find this holiday. Can I spark the days to come with a magic thought? One day, very soon, we will be able to celebrate the birth of this Christ Child of Christmas together. We have the opportunity to pour lavish gifts on the child while we take liberty in our expressions of love. After all, that Christmas will last for all time.
Tonight, two of my daughters are coming home for the holidays. It gives us another chance to fall in love over a very special day.
My Christmas prayer for you and yours is that you are able to stir the magic that God gave to us a couple of thousand years ago when he celebrated with the extravagance of an angelic announcement. Fall in love with Jesus again.
I was sharing funeral duties with the former pastor of one of our partnered rural churches. I liked him but had always felt a bit of a distance between us. He explained that gap to me while we were at a funeral.
He said, “I came to this community wounded. I was looking for a place to hide while I healed. This was that place. We both came from large and successful church ministries in the same city. We arrived at the same time and I thought, “Why is this guy coming here?”
It’s a fair question.
I’m not sure if he was trying to come up with scenarios that could have caused me to end up in a rural community. Perhaps I was a member of the witness protection program? Maybe I was on the lamb from law enforcement? Absconding? Hiding? Fleeing? Most of the options seem a bit dark.
There is a one-word answer to his question, but I’m afraid it’ll take a bit of a back-story to understand it. The word is one that we don’t use very often anymore, but I believe that it is the key to staying. Staying allows us access to the “power of the stay,” a phrase we use to encourage a long-term vision for any ministry that I find myself in. It is a word that carries weight and meaning. It lends that meaning to the place where I serve. The word is “Call.”
Call is the word that changes intent into action. Call is the word that drives us through the uncharted waters of doubt, wilderness and struggle. Call is what one out of every ten who believe that they need to head overseas as missionaries, has. It is what nine out of ten lacks.
The back-story to our call to rural America takes a little longer.
I served on a staff at a large church in a college town. I had been there for somewhere between six and seven years. Trinity Church in East Lansing, Michigan (Go Sparty!) had grown under some pretty dynamic leadership. Services ran in the thousands each week and youth ministry saw hundreds of students. I had job offers almost every month in youth ministry meccas like Colorado, Atlanta, California and the East coast.
The team was made up of the most talented people I had ever worked with. Our Lead Pastor, Emerson Eggerichs, (Love and Respect) had the ability to present a couple of “AHA” moments each sermon. Worship, Children’s Ministry, and Care Ministries were fantastic, and the church grew. We had just built a 15 million dollar facility that included a multi-million dollar youth wing. The youth wing offices were glass encased, beside a coffee bar, billiards room, and gym. The worship room had an adjacent prayer chapel and was equipped with SOTA tech. It was fully staffed with committed youth workers and the volunteer teams had grown to a significant size and incredible effectiveness. I was in Youth ministry Shangri La.
And I left.
My wife, Dawn, grew up in the rural community that we now live in. She grew up living a few miles away from both sets of grandparents, cousins and extended family. I was from Detroit (metro) by way of Canada. I had ministered in Miami, Detroit, and East Lansing. I was a city guy. She was a country girl. I was used to moving to new towns but staying in the same place in traffic. She was used to staying in the same town but moving fast with no traffic. I came from the land of paisley, wing tips, restaurants, and Professional Hockey. She came from the land of camo, steel toes, picnics, and NASCAR. We met at a camp.
Our first ministry together was at Trinity Church. It was fast-paced and we saw students grow.
In the back of our hearts, in the place that God reserves for the miraculous, we heard a still small voice ask a question. It was, “What about kids who live in the country? Why can’t they have what kids in the city have? Why can’t they meet in groups that have mass appeal too?” So we prayed.
We prayed that God would raise up a youth leader in rural communities like Hillsdale County who would do world class ministry with teenagers.
On a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, where we visited one of my ministry mentors, a man named Don Lonie, we were burdened with the call. Don was well into his 80’s and was no rookie in youth ministry. He had the distinction of speaking to more students in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s than any other person. I’ll talk about him in a future blog. In Don’s words, “You guys are idiots. Who else do you think is praying, “Lord send me to the middle of nowhere”? Has it dawned on you that you may be the only answer to your own prayer.”
It was stark. It was brash, and it was truth.
On our way back to Lansing both Dawn and I were looking out the windows and we saw an immaculate farm on the right of the highway. We looked at each other and said, “Why not now?”
It was only a matter of weeks before we had committed career suicide and resigned our position.
Need had necessitated a call. Call mandated an action. We were all in. We transitioned out of the ministry in Lansing, put our home on the market, and began to look for a farm that we could use.
It seems that in a world of millennials who are searching for lives that are meaningful, we ought to spend time discussing the case of the call. We have the capability of unleashing the passionate pursuit of new things in a new generation committed to change.
Before you get too excited about the dirt I’m sharing, I hope that you first decide to forgive me. Here it is. Try to be understanding. I’ve carried this burden for the better part of my life. At times it has been overwhelming. I also realize that many of you have already screamed at the screen, “I wish he would just get it out!” Please realize how tough it is to admit a struggle. I think I’m ready.
I am not a patient man.
Wow. Did that feel good.
I have determined that my impatience is increased as the speed with which I live my life increases. I think I first realized it as I was stranded on a country back road behind an Amish buggy progression in front of me, and an oncoming combine approaching in the opposite lane. I had such an immediate onset of road rage that I thought I would bust my overused stress ball.
What made my mood worse was the internal dialogue, that I am fairly sure was actually between the devil and the Holy Spirit. I feel that there may have been a literal little devil on my one shoulder and a literal mini-angel on the other. The conversation between the two went like this.
“No. That’ll just pressure the combine and the family in the buggy.”
“Go now or you’ll be waiting here until harvest.”
“You are not really in a rush. Besides, the cute little kid in the back is waving.”
“She’s mocking you. She’s waving you ahead. Go now or else these 23 seconds will be lost forever!”
I have these conversations with myself all to often. I have them in the grocery store or at sports events. I have them when my foot gets caught in the foothole of my sweats. I have them when I am deciding if I need to put on socks or not. I have them when I am trying to decide whether I want another cup of coffee or not. I have them when I am waiting for any sort of response.
I started to think about the reasons for the extreme moods brought on by waiting. My problem is actually selfishness. I am not committed to considering your life as important as mine. No one needs to get anywhere as fast as me. Whatever I have in front of me is more important than whatever you are placing in front of me. That creates a Christianity that is self-serving at best, and at its worst anti-Christ. I fear we are, because of the demands of our hectic lifestyles, becoming less able to respond to the alerts of the Spirit. I know that people feel pressured to do the few things that are already in front of them. That is a cultural shift for American believers.
Church goers in the United States used to regard it as their role in the world to impact the world for Christ. Missions organizations popped up and the American church staffed, funded and prayed for them. We had a different ability to hear a new message about a new place. Now churches have to fund, staff and pray for their own thing, and although it may seem that I am criticizing the church, I am not. Churches in the United States have had to reach a busy and savvy people group. In some respects, the call to rescue a culture from prosperity is far more difficult that trying to rescue a culture from poverty. My point is instead to call for solutions to the increased need of missions organizations and the diminishing interest in ministry that I cannot see out of my front window.
I just took a call from a pastor friend in Ohio. He is in a small community like so many of the areas that Crossroads Farm works with. As I talked with him I was aware of a fairly profound truth. The hope in the struggle most often is provided by those outside the struggle. Rural ministry is difficult. It is also fighting an uphill battle. Rural communities are being asked to reach a religiously declining culture with less resource and frankly, low interest from those who can help. Rural communities are in desperate need of champions who will solve very solvable problems by funding very fundable solutions.
I know my own propensity to focus on the things that are immediately in front of me. I understand that my call is to change rural communities, one at a time, through the vehicle that is Crossroads Farm. I also know that the command to change the world rests on me. My challenge, and I believe the challenge for the American believer is a different type of discipline. I believe that the call to us is one to slow down, bend an attentive ear to the heart of God in each personal encounter we have. When he speaks, and only when he speaks should I do.
1 Kings 19:12 says this about our fire-branded lifestyles.
After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
Sometimes, Amish buggies are a pause to a hurried life going every direction at the same time. It is possible to move straight and to move more slowly. I missed my chance to pass anyway.