Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
The Rev. Allen T. Stanton is tired of hearing church leaders talk about the future of rural congregations with excessive nostalgia or pity.
“I can’t tell you how many conferences I’ve gone to, or how many meetings I’ve been in with denominational leaders where, when we’re talking about rural churches, we’re either talking about Wendell Berry or J.D. Vance,” Stanton said.
On one hand, there’s the revered Kentucky author whose agrarianism may trigger some of us to idealize rural living to the point that we would starve to death once the frost had taken the last heirloom tomato. And then there’s Vance, whose memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, pathologizes rural America as violent, self-defeating, and beyond redemption.
Stanton says there’s another way to talk about rural America and rural churches. That’s to look at the assets of rural churches and encourage congregations to build on them on their own terms, not on the terms imposed by others.
Stanton lays out his argument and approach in his recently released book, Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations (Rowman & Littlefield).
Stanton grew up in Nashville, North Carolina, a town of about 5,500 people 40 miles northeast of Raleigh. He attended Wake Forest University and Duke Divinity School. He’s an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and served a small North Carolina church before becoming executive director of the Turner Center for Rural Vitality at the University of Tennessee Southern in Pulaski, Tennessee. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tim Marema, The Daily Yonder: Obviously you care a lot about rural places, and you have a lot of experience in small towns and rural communities. What made you want to write this book?
Allen T. Stanton: I think it [came out of] frustration. I would go to conference after conference, and I would hear about all the things that rural churches should be doing to be like the city churches. And I’ll give you an example. There’s a friend of mine who wrote a book and they talk about how to support small churches? And one of his categories for a small church is one that’s a “not-yet-big church.” Now, if you’re in a rural place of 7,000 people, just statistically speaking, your church is not going to have 3,000 members. I mean, it’s just not going to happen. There was some frustration around what rural churches were.
It was also a lot of frustration around how we recruit people into rural communities and how we think about rural ministry and the potential for rural ministry. In the church world, right now in the theological world, you see people going to seminary for different reasons than they used to. It used to be that you would go in and you would be ordained and you would serve a church and that was your career. Now we’re seeing a lot of people who’ve come to seminary because they want to get involved in nonprofit work, or they want to find a way of advocating for social justice or social change. They want to link it in their faith. They don’t see themselves serving the church in the same way that a typical pastor would.
When I was thinking about writing this book, I had that in mind as well, because I was so frustrated with the way we talk about rural pastors—and our denomination in particular. But just in general, we get someone out of seminary, we send them to a rural church and we say like, “All right, hang out here for a few years. And then we’ll move you to do real ministry. And you can do that social justice work in downtown Nashville or Charlotte or Raleigh or whatever it is.”
But I, when I look at rural places, I see the opportunity to actually make immediate change. Because if you can do a literacy program over the summer, which is not a hard thing to do, if you have a bunch of retired teachers who want to help people in their community, you can actually get kids up to a third-grade reading level pretty quickly without spending a lot of money to do it, and that’ll have a profound impact on your community. If you really want to do that sort of economic development or nonprofit leadership, the rural church is a great place to do it.
We don’t really talk about rural ministry like that. We don’t recruit rural pastors for that. [Instead] rural churches are a stepping stone, or we put in leadership that is on its way out. They’re about to retire. And we want them to serve out their last years. That was part of it, that frustration.
And then there’s also a hopefulness where I want people to see all the gifts and opportunities that are there for rural places.
DY: You lay out a set of assets that many small, rural churches have that might be a foundation they can build on. What are those?
AS: Rural congregations have several really good qualities. First, they are permanent. They’ve been there for a long time, through lots of change.
Second, they’re trusted institutions, which is kind of rare in today’s world. People tend to trust their rural congregation. They’ve seen the whole stories of people, and people know each other in those places.
They’re one of the few permanent anchor institutions in a lot of these communities. … So we don’t have those anchor institutions that would pour in resources. We don’t have the philanthropies. What we have is a lot of Dollar Generals and a lot of churches.
Which leads to the other thing, which is the rural church is one of the few places where you have a large cross section of the community gathering each week. You’re your full self within the church. And that means that you can also do high impact, low-cost programs because you have your nurses, you have your teachers, you have small business owners, elected officials, and they’re gathering in a common space. They have common values. They care about the community and they’re in a place that’s already trusted.
So if you can leverage those resources in a really healthy way, you can actually make the rural church be a place that is about community leadership and about community transformation so that it is the agent of change leading economic and community development.
DY: Sometimes in churches there might be this tension that “we’re here to praise the Lord and save souls, we’re not here to be a social-service agency.” You addressed that with this unique idea of community development as evangelism. Tell me about how you see that working.
AS: When we work with churches, one of the hardest things is that they don’t see a connection between their core theology and the community development stuff. We did a survey of churches in Tennessee, for instance, and we found that people really believe that they should be doing mission work and they really believed in leadership development, and they believed in their theology. But they didn’t see a connection between those things, which is weird.
But when you read scripture, there’s a clear economic and sociological element to it. Jesus talks a lot about economics. Jesus talks about eradicating hunger. Jesus talks about making a more just economic system, and there’s a holistic element to it. The ethics of scripture are wrapped up in the ethic of the community, and it’s a political, sociological, economic reality. What I’ve argued for is that churches should see that evangelism is more broadly construed than just saying, “We want people to come to our church and we want people to just convert.” It’s about unveiling what it means to be part of the Kingdom of God.
And that has an economic reality, that has a sociological reality, it has a political reality. When you’re thinking about what it means to be part of the Kingdom of God, you’re also thinking about the holistic development of a youth who is in your community. What does it mean for them to have a good mentor to develop psychologically? What does it mean for them to have a sociological toolkit to imagine what their possibilities might be? What does it mean to help them develop job skills? And what does it mean to be a small business owner who cares about your community? How do you think about those things? The church is the place where you can actually have that conversation in earnest.
DY: Say more about what you mean by the Kingdom of God within this rural context.
AS: Jesus in scripture talks about the Kingdom of God. Jesus is not talking about heaven. It’s something that is supposed to be a political reality here.
Zacchaeus is a really great example of this. Zacchaeus is in a tree, and Jesus comes by and says, “I see you up there doing this thing. I’m going to come to your house later.” And everybody’s aghast at this because Zacchaeus is a crook. He’s a tax collector. And what happens is this fundamental, ethical and economic transformation. Zacchaeus says, “Wait a minute, Jesus has recognized who I am. He has reminded me of the story that I’m a part of and so I’m going to go away from the economic things that I was doing that were crimes. I was stealing from people, and I’m going to repay everyone four times what I stole from them.”
What you see is not just Zacchaeus becoming a good Christian and following Jesus around as a spiritual dimension. Jesus has invited him into this wider story. He says in scripture, “Abraham is your ancestor. You’re one of Abraham’s children.” He connects them to this larger story, which has an ethical and economic dimension to it. And then Jesus is basically saying, “You can participate in this by rectifying all the sins that you’ve done here on earth.”
So when I think about the Kingdom of God, I think about that ethical dimension as well. It’s not just something that happens in this far off spiritual dimension. It is something that happens in the way we interact with each other. And the way we use our money, the way we’re forming people. And when we think about workforce development, it’s something about how we’re treating employees. All those are elements of the Kingdom of God. If we’re going to be bringing people into that, we have to understand the role we play as congregation members.
DY: Is there something about rural communities or rural experience or the scale of rural living that would help people see those principles you’re talking about?
AS: I think so. Just because it’s scaled down a little bit. But you can miss it too. I mean, rural places can hide a lot of poverty. Rural places can hide a lot of injustice. But one of the reasons I love being in a rural community is that if I drive from one side of my small town to another side, I’m going to encounter different socioeconomic sections. You can’t really ignore it in the same way you could, if you live in Brentwood [Tennessee] or Franklin or downtown Nashville, where you can stay kind of within your own socioeconomic sphere.
We also can’t ignore it because I go to church with a lot of different people. People in my church, some of them work on the line at one of the local manufacturing firms. And on the same hand, I’m in church with several professors and the CEO of our hospital and former university board of trustee members. Just by being in a rural church, I am seeing this huge cross section of my community every week. And I think that’s really important to me to see this holistic side of the community.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.