The need of rural America for the redemptive promise and power of the gospel has never been greater. Rampant addiction, an unprecedented breakdown of the family, and rapidly aging and dwindling churches are among the greatest challenges facing this predominantly overlooked mission field. What has been affectionately described as the heartland of America, a symbol of all that’s wholesome, natural and innocent, is having a spiritual coronary. The rural mission field is not only for those looking to retire or waiting until a better ministry opportunity comes along with a large church in the big city. The rural mission field is dying for faith-filled, Spirit-reliant disciples who believe that in the Kingdom of God, needs are opportunities and that with God, all things are possible. As much as this is true of the challenges facing rural missions, and the caliber of disciples needed to embrace the challenge, there is yet another need that, if left unmet, will ensure the failure of rural missions.
The rural mission field can be brutal for the unprepared and ill-equipped. A Bible degree or preaching certificate alone will no more equip a young evangelist or his family for the challenges of the rural mission field than a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and a rifle with a handful of cartridges will equip a soldier for battle. The absence of adequate and regular field support makes for casualties and AWOLS on the spiritual battlefield of rural missions. I know this for a fact. In the last three years alone, I’ve witnessed four young men within a 50 mile radius of each other leave rural ministry; two of the four left full-time ministry altogether. This cannot continue if rural America is going to be evangelized; and rural America must be evangelized. So what must we do?
The following is direct feedback from the wife of a young evangelist serving in a rural community of approximately 1,500. The congregation they serve is like so many rural churches today, a declining attendance of 50 or fewer members, the majority 60 or older. This couple and their two young children have been on the rural mission field for three years. They recently turned down a very attractive offer to move to a larger church in an urban center. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it reflects the level of commitment and depth of love they have for the rural mission field. The following direct statements are invaluable because they are key to meeting real needs that will not only keep these ministers in the rural mission field, but thriving there too. Listen carefully:
- A mentor and counselor for my husband – “I’m a peer; not a mentor.I’m his wife and best friend, but not wise advisor; not objective 3rd My husband gets depressed and I’m a terrible counselor.”
- A mentor for me – “Motherhood is harder and more complicated than I planned for.My Christian moms at [omitted] aren’t in a place to provide me with spiritual guidance. Sometimes people forget that ‘The Preacher’s Wife’ isn’t a real social title. I’m a Christian whose husband preaches. I need a mentor who won’t pity the preacher’s wife.”
- Marriage counseling and support – “We’re okay right now, but it would be helpful to have mentorship here too.We’re just winging it all with love and the Holy Spirit. … Oh, and books, lots of books.”
- Better opportunities for sabbaticals – “I just want to hide in the woods with Jesus for a bit. Pray for a whole weekend. Go to a lectureship. Be together with my husband and be able to study and pray together without him being distracted.”
- Spiritual food for our family – “My kids don’t like going to church because it’s a place to be quiet. I can’t listen to sermons because I’m keeping kids in pews or teaching their bible class. (This is the BIGGEST BURNOUT source for me.) Women’s Bible studies aren’t very deep. My husband is always writing a lesson.Who’s teaching him?”
- A bigger ministry team – “What if there were more of us? Another minister? Couple? What if I could pay the bills, my husband work without a salary and the church hired a second minister?”
What did you hear? Depending on your background—male or female, urban or rural, paid or vocational ministry, shepherd or evangelist, Millennial, GenX or Baby Boomer—it’s likely you heard some things slightly differently than the other. But one thing should stand out to us all: there was an obvious cry for spiritual, relational, and ministry support and guidance while on the field.
We must see rural ministry as a mission field. As we typically send foreign missionaries as teams with varying degrees of ongoing support over the course of the mission, we must do the same for those serving in rural missions. This will happen when church leaderships, both urban and rural, as well as Christian universities and schools of preaching recognize the formidable challenges, and equally exciting opportunities, awaiting those disciples eager to build the Kingdom of God in rural America.
We must listen carefully to this feedback and then do something about it. There are over 50,000,000 people living in rural America and we are our brother’s keeper. Perhaps the words of this young rural missionary, wife, and mother can serve as a catalyst for such action. I pray they do. The rural American mission field cannot afford to lose another missionary because of our ignorance, or worse, failure to act.