Change and the Rural Church
I. The rural church is not a body that changes quickly. This is a good and right thing. The church should be slow to change: it should take its time to discern, with the patience of the ages, between what changes are of God and which are merely transient, passing fads. Part of the strength of the rural church is its ‘everlasting’ quality, its ability to hold onto the anchor of ancient truth and tradition amid the ebbs and flows of its surrounding culture. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
II. “Change” of any kind has not been good to many rural people. In the twentieth century, rural people saw the “progressive” changes brought in by the outside world result in the death of its family farms, the loss of its manufacturing industries, the closing of its family-owned small businesses, the devastation of its landscapes, and the exodus of its children to far-away universities and cities. Other cultural changes around issues morality, sexuality, and religion seemed to contribute to the breakdown of the institutions of marriage, the family, and the church. The pastoral leadership of rural churches has often turned every two or three years - the gifted clergy go on to “bigger and better” things, leaving the church behind to start again. You can perhaps understand why “change” is often not a good word to many rural people. Amid the seismic changes that have taken place around them, rural people often hope that church, at least, can be the one place of unchanging constancy, the fixed point in a storm.
III. Rural people are often traditional by nature. They value the importance of history, and of the continuity of the present and future with the past. This is partly because, unlike many other modern people, they often actually know the local past: they know the history of their area, the history of their families, and the history of their churches. They may actually expect to live in the same place for the rest of their lives. They deeply value and hold sacred many of the traditions that have been passed down to them, and which connect them with their ancestors.
IV. At times the positive respect of the past in rural people can become something more destructive, confining imaginations and trapping a congregation in stasis and stagnation. The congregation becomes frozen in time, more a museum for saints than an urgent care hospital for sinners. This mindset combines with the general human tendency towards the comfortable familiar to shut the congregation off from the inflow of the Spirit’s grace. The great religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan has noted that there is a difference between “tradition,” “the living faith of the dead,” and “traditionalism,” or “the dead faith of the living.” Another way to put this is to think about the distinction between a tradition and a habit. A tradition is something done repeatedly because it is consciously recognized as valuable in some way: we can articulate why it is important. A habit, on the other hand, is something we do repeatedly, but may perhaps have no idea why we do it – we just do it because we always have. The oft-spoken church line, “Well, we’ve just always done it that way” may betray a dead habit, rather than a living tradition. Some rural churches have had their value of tradition become traditionalism instead, and are thus resistant to the changes that might bring them life.
V. And yet, behold, God is always doing a new thing. The Eternal and Unchanging One is also the God who works through the Holy Spirit to continually disrupt and frustrate human complacency. Nothing can stay tied down for too long with this God. Following the risen Jesus means a kind of perpetual itinerancy of life: change is part of the scenery when you walk behind Jesus. As Wesleyans, we believe that God is continually changing us: our Methodist words for “change” are “repentance” and “sanctification.” Rural people, and all people, need to understand that change is in the very nature of God, whom we glimpse as the never-ending perichoretic dance among the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also need to understand that change is a truth of life as well: change is the one constant of mortal existence. Even sitting still, we are being changed by the passing of time: as G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “All (traditionalism) is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white fence post alone it will soon be a black fence post.” The question is not whether to change, but whether the changes are for good or for ill, for growth or decay. Chesterton envisions all of us as being within the stream of time, working either with or against the current of mortality, but always moving or being moved. “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living stream can go against it,” he writes. Too many rural churches have been “left alone” by their pastoral leadership for too long, to drift downstream with the current: and as a result that have experienced a torrent of changes – negative ones. The rural church needs pastoral leaders who are willing to lead their churches upstream.
(The next post will address, "So how do we introduce change in a tradition-bound rural church?")