Living Faithfully in the Rural Town
Living Faithfully in the Rural Town

Living Faithfully in the Rural Town

Once we know God, the primary calling He has for any of us is to be his man or woman in our own little corner of the world.

December 1 st 2010
Appears in Winter 2010

I grew up in southeast Wyoming in the 1950s and 60s on a cattle and sheep ranch. We had classic wide-open vistas, where rolling hills marked the transition from the Great Plains to the Rockies. Sparse water meant that trees grew only along the creeks. The majority of the world's pronghorn antelope population grazed our state.

It was all pretty organic and peaceful until an odd sort of progress appeared. Our countryside suddenly became home to the nation's intercontinental anti-ballistic missile system. Atlas missiles came first, followed by Minutemen, and finally MX missiles. It was the same story in western Nebraska, the Dakotas, eastern Montana, and northeast Colorado. The sites on our ranch are all decommissioned now. We still benefit from the broad gravel roads leading to the chain link enclosures, though blue Air Force pickups and fuzzy-cheeked airmen no longer visit.

I rarely gave it a thought, but periodically I'd remind myself of the local impact of their presence and the sobering message it conveyed. We were expendable. Someone deep in the bowels of a brick building in D.C. had long since determined that if we had to give up a small pile of poker chips to the Russians, let it be the few citizens and the sage brush of the ranch lands east of the Rocky Mountains.

Is it too dramatic to suggest that the rural church has long occupied the same niche in the ecclesiastical world? It still feels expendable out here. Oh, it's not that anyone singled us out, but the neglect is undeniable. Are there conferences uniquely for rural Christians? Do seminaries crank out graduates to serve in settings where fifty church attendees is a full house? I was delighted to read a book review recently where the author had explored the benefits of the small church, but I didn't know if his definition of small would quite match mine. (When the combined ages of the pianist and the organist are more than 150, that's a small church.) Most of us have heard far more about the conditions in South American, African, or Asian villages than those in Broadus, Montana or Lusk, Wyoming.

That's not to say, however, that Christ doesn't dwell here. I came back to the ranch with my wife and baby daughter as I neared thirty, fresh from five years of campus ministry and a year at Regent College, knowing just what to expect. A good job and decent house awaited us. I looked forward to continuing as I had grown up, working outdoors and with my father. My wife was a farm girl so we knew the culture. Mostly, it fit. And our little church has been there all along to provide a spiritual and focal point around which we can structure our lives.

Some things my rural church does quite well (and when I say rural, I'm talking about fifty folks on a good Sunday). Nobody gets lost in the shuffle. They may be new for a time, but with a little perseverance they can be teaching a Sunday school class or performing special music in short order. Here, the individual matters.

Our people also stand tall in a crisis. One of our young moms became a widow all too soon a year ago. We couldn't save her from the heartbreak, but child care, casseroles, and financial assistance appeared abundantly. A family environment shapes the congregation. Tiny kids, young adults, forty-somethings, and seniors march side by side in interdependence with not enough of any age group to form a majority.

These multi-generational relationships then play out broadly in the course of community activity. Folks don't go to church on Sunday only to disappear the rest of the week. Our kids all go to the same school. We're neighbours, and we share fence lines. Several of the men serve the volunteer fire department. There's no such thing as anonymity. We know all of each other's hats. Our Christianity touches the whole of life.

There are of course, weeds in the garden. Rural churches tend to be about fifteen to twenty years behind the rest of the world. Little churches like mine tend to worry more about survival than being on the cutting edge. Well-worn search committees often enlist pastors, not to serve as prophetic figures, but rather to marry, bury, keep the doors open, and perhaps even mow around the church.

The rural decline that threatens most of the small towns of the Great Plains takes its toll as well. The rippling effect of fewer operators on bigger farms shrinks school populations, dries up opportunities for younger families, and leaves towns and churches alike with aging demographics. We honoured those grandparents present on Grandparent's Day last spring, and when three-fourths of the congregation stood up, I knew we were in trouble.

But wonderful stories emerge year after year against this sobering backdrop generation after generation. Here is one. Meet Pat.

Pat met Chuck at a Christian college in the south. A year later they returned to his western Nebraska farm, where they still reside during the warm months. Though she was a transplant who was not yet twenty when she arrived, Pat brought sterling qualities to her new geography—most notably a keen followership of Jesus, industriousness, and hospitality. Her life verse seems to have been from Colossians 2:17: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus . . . ." Those themes have exhibited themselves now for nearly sixty years with a wonderful impact.

Her Christianity found expression in a Swedish Baptist church nearby where she could always be counted on to sing in the choir, teach a class, host a Bible study, or support the pastor. For weddings and funerals, she helped staff the kitchen. Here special events had a home-grown feel, but they were fastidiously accomplished—days of work expended for a few hours of enjoyment. She contributed to all that and raised three sturdy disciples in the process.

Back home, she never shrank from a task: planting, painting, quilting, reading, learning, and rallying her family or the employees who shared the yard to spiff things up. They brought in a flag pole to display Old Glory, though the closest neighbours lived a mile away. For the 100th anniversary of the family farm, they erected a monument down by the vegetable patch—each family bringing special stones to incorporate into the foundation.

Hospitality manifested itself in hosting parties for whatever age group Chuck and Pat or their kids happened to be part of. They enrolled on a registry of homes willing to host missionaries passing through the region. Foreign students came for weekends from the university a hundred miles away, and some became lifelong friends. Wandering relatives and immigrant farm workers all got the same kind treatment. Is it ministry to offer three desserts to dinner guests instead of just one? To help with the dishes at every meal ever eaten both home and away? I say yes.

Pat's life, however, didn't all transpire in the sea of rural tranquility that you might expect from quiet farm living. The family didn't escape the farm crisis of the 1980s, nor the bankruptcy that came with it. That took years to work through, but was nothing compared to the forty months of breast cancer that eventually took their daughter's life in 1991. Such experiences either damage people irreparably or cause them to press on in faith, looking forward to a heavenly reunion. This family pressed on bravely and endured the divorce of another child, then rejoiced when the couple remarried several years later.

When she turned seventy, Pat told me she had ten good years left. Now, nearing 78, she's still on the job, still making things happen, both small and large, on a wide variety of fronts.

When I think of faithful living, I can't help but return to the conclusion of Schindler's List, rogue that Oskar Schindler was. Recall how the Holocaust survivors he had protected fashioned a ring out of melted dental work, inscribed it with a verse from the Talmud and presented it: "He who saves a single life saves the world entire." It suggests to me that once we know God, the primary calling He has for any of us is to be his man or woman in our own little corner of the world.

I know some fine politicians, hard working ranchers, worthy clergymen, skilled teachers, and lots of folks who the world would call successful. I don't, however, know anyone who's done a better job with her life than Pat—most of it, fifty miles from the first big town.

Topics: Religion
Dan Kirkbride
Dan Kirkbride

Dan Kirkbride settled on his ranch near Chugwater, Wyoming 28 years ago and is also completing eight years as a county commissioner. Married to his lovely wife, Lynn, and the father of five, he patrols the prairies with his black lab, Sully, in a world of brazen wind, wily coyotes, mountain mahogany, solitude and sparkling stars.


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