In a recent meeting, a group I work with was discussing which version of the Bible to use for an event. One of the attendees good naturedly quipped that for small churches, we should only use the King James Version, and although this was said in good humor, it hints at a common pejorative bias and stereotype prevalent in the discussions of smaller, more rural churches.
“Rural” church can evoke a lot of different images. Maybe you see a white steeple on a hill. Maybe you see a tightly-knit group of church members who work on adjacent farms. Maybe you imagine a women’s quiltmaking group.
Whatever it is you’re imagining, though, the odds are that you’re imagining a group of people whom many would label “uneducated” or “ignorant.”
This stereotype isn’t entirely unfounded. I grew up in a tiny town with fewer than 1,500 people and in a church where an attendance of 100 filled the auditorium. Few people had a university-level theological education, and honestly, comparatively few had a college education at all. When I came to Abilene Christian University and experienced what it was like to question the Bible in ways that I never had before, for a time, I, too fell into the trap of judging my hometown church and others like it for being “uneducated,” “backward,” and “unworthy.”
But, wait. Did Jesus come just for the educated?
The way I see it in the Gospels, every time Jesus talks to the “educated,” (typically the Pharisees) he is highly critical of the ways they have twisted religion to fit their desires. Instead, he turns his attentions to women, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, etc.–none of whom would have been formally educated. These people had little to no theological education, yet Jesus deemed them just as worthy (if not more so) of his attention.
Any time I realize that I fit in more with the Pharisees than with the sheep of Jesus’s flock, I get a little concerned. This stereotype that is often applied to small towns might be somewhat true in our eyes. But it is not helpful. There is no room for snobbery in the kingdom of God. And the kingdom of God includes both the educated and the non-educated.
This can be a hard pill for us to swallow. Hiding behind academic degrees and being “right” affords us a modicum of safety and protection. But if we believe that Christ came and died for all (and I do), we have to remember that when we disagree theologically, we are disagreeing with other members of the same body of Christ. When we judge other members because they don’t enjoy the same opportunities, IQs, and talents that we have, we are neglecting to show love to the other members of Christ’s body and elevating ourselves. Nowhere in the Bible do I find the directive to lift ourselves up. Rather, we are told, “humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). If we aren’t careful, we start to use our education as a ladder to climb above others, and although ideally we can and should use this position to benefit all by teaching and sharing what we’ve learned, I have seen far too many people turn their backs on the people standing below them to climb higher in their self-righteousness and delusional beliefs that they understand the Bible better than anyone, including Christ himself.
Now, obviously I do believe education is valuable, and having traveled between the worlds of small-town life and larger churches, I’ve seen just as much snobbery sent from smaller, rural churches who often believe that learning and education is dangerous and unsafe. I have seen members use the term “liberal” in a pejorative fashion to declare everything that happens in larger churches immoral and in opposition to God’s word. Rarely do they attribute these differences to interpretation of Scripture or situatedness; instead, I hear members of rural congregations condemning entire churches with praise teams or trunk-or-treat parties. Deep down, these people honestly believe these things, and instead of cutting them off for “small-town” beliefs, it is time for engagement from both sides.
Instead of this condemnation, it is time for engagement without an agenda.
The church (made up of the people, not of our tiny factions or buildings) must come together and realize that ultimately, we all want the same things. We all want to worship God, whether we are in a living room with ten others or in an auditorium with 800. We are all blessed by Christ’s sacrifice. We are all called to live lives worthy of the callings we have received. These callings may be different. And that is okay.
A person’s faith should match his or her life. Why should I expect a farmer with a 10th grade education to be concerned with academic matters? I wouldn’t expect a Bible professor to know the ins and outs of working cattle or planting sorghum (although if he did, that would be cool). And since we are all members of the same body where all parts are vital, we should celebrate these variations.
The snobbery that the educated have towards small, rural churches must end.
And the fear that rural, uneducated members have toward the educated needs to be taken seriously.
Engagement between small, rural churches and larger, urban churches needs to happen, and it needs to happen without an agenda.
Whether your high horse is made of several degrees and a sophisticated theology, a simple “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” statement, or even an actual horse, it is time to come down off of it. There is no place whatsoever for this snobbery in the kingdom of God. When we meet together with an attitude of humility, we can come together over our similarities and remember that we ultimately all desire the same things, whether we are rural, urban, or a mixture of both. If you have advanced degrees and biblical knowledge, your duty is to share what you know kindly and in a manner worthy of this gospel. Your duty is also to listen to those whose experiences differ from your own. And if you scoff at academia, your duty is also to engage in the body of Christ with members who don’t think like you. And whatever translation of the Bible you prefer to use, it is your duty to remember that the unity of the body of Christ always takes precedence over your preferences, whether they be cultivated by academia, small-town life, or anything else.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series developed in conjunction with the Ministering in the Small Church track at ACU Summit, Sept. 17-20, 2017.
Alyssa Johnson recently finished her master’s degree in English at Abilene Christian University and plans to start working on a PhD in English at Texas Christian University in the fall. She grew up as a preacher’s kid in several small towns throughout Texas. She works with Lake Cisco Christian Camp in various capacities throughout the year, and she loves the chance to minister to these kids and watch them grow. Alyssa is an advanced swing dancer, an amateur theologian, and a mediocre ukulele player.