I have a hunch that you’ve never heard the greatest preacher in America. He’s likely never written a book, he probably has 35 Twitter followers and he leads a tiny congregation about forty-five miles west of nowhere. He’s not well known but he’s faithful; God is using him and his church is blessed.
But the same can’t be said for the pastor of every rural church. I live in an area covered up with church buildings. With so many churches, you would think that every marriage in our community is thriving and that we’re on our third consecutive year of revival. But, that’s not the case. Homes are wrecked here just like anywhere else and, sadly, revival is a date on the calendar rather than a genuine work of the Holy Spirit.
There are many reasons for this but one of them is poor leadership. That is, some (many?) rural, southern churches seem to be led by pastors who care more about pleasing the congregational power brokers than they do about pleasing God.
Rather than a hireling or someone just passing the time until a better offer from the city comes along, rural churches need pastors who would rather be fired for doing God’s will rather than going along to get along. Tickling itching ears isn’t reserved only for false prophets; it’s a popular practice among those hoping to hold onto their position.
I write this not from ivory suburban towers nor hallowed academic halls. I write from a life much-lived in rural, southern areas and ministry practiced here. While the same needs may exist in other areas around the country, here are three things that southern, rural churches desperately need from their pastors.
We tend to use the preaching to the choir phrase when someone is being redundant or trying to convince people who are already on board. It’s almost like preaching to the choir is a bad thing. In rural, southern churches, preaching to the choir is a necessary thing.
Shortly after I became a pastor in my rural community, I preached a sermon against abortion. At the end of the service a couple came up to me and thanked me for being brave. Preaching a sermon against abortion in a rural, southern church is not brave. Preaching a sermon against no-fault divorce in a rural, southern church is brave.
In many of these churches, preaching at them is perfectly acceptable. By them I mean the “really bad sinner” or those on the opposite side of the politically acceptable aisle. Exposing the sins of the culture will get you some amens. Preaching to us is what could get you in trouble. But that’s exactly the kind of preaching that churches in the rural south need. Warning against so-called gay marriage might not hit anyone in the building; biblical teaching about remarriage just might.
Many southern rural churches seem like extensions of a political party. When some politician from a hippie bastion tries to pass some ridiculous law, the pastor will preach against it, start a campaign against it or, take to Facebook Live. But when a politician from the same side of the political aisle as most of the congregation gets caught doing or saying something that goes against Scripture, that same pastor finds it hard to be critical.
Rural churches needs pastors who are bold enough to expose the false gospel of civil religion under the light of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Blind political loyalty eventually turns us into hypocrites. The rural South doesn’t need more blind political loyalty. It needs pastors who are bold enough to proclaim the blood of Christ alone is sufficient to atone for the sins of the members of any political party.
I know of a youth minister who nearly lost his job at a large, inner city church because of his outreach to black kids growing up in the shadow of his church’s steeple. Soon after, that church relocated to the suburbs. The problem is even worse in rural areas where some churches would rather die than even make an attempt to reach the ethnically diverse and changing community that surrounds them.
Too many in our churches have convinced themselves that racism is nothing more than the cry of spoiled college kids. But, all it takes is one conversation with a racial or ethnic minority to reveal that racism is very much alive and well.
Predominantly white churches in the rural south need pastors who will lovingly remind them that racism isn’t someone else’s problem; it’s our problem. Not just our ancestors’ problem—our problem. Our churches need pastors who will tell them that the black family next door matters and then lead them in loving that family. And when tragedy strikes that black family—or the Mexican family or the Indian family or the Middle Eastern family—rather than retreating back to political and racial safe spaces, they need a pastor who crosses those barriers with the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Churches where the bylaws and “the way it’s always been” have carried more weight than the Great Commandment and the Great Commission must repent. Churches more steeped in culture and political alignment must change.
Without repentance many of these churches will die. I pray that God will instead send them a courageous, consistent, compassionate pastor no one has ever heard of.
Featured image credit, edited for size.