A Place Altogether Different
One of the delights of living in England is venturing off the main roads into the little villages that dot the countryside. At the heart of many of these picturesque villages is a small church that has stood for hundreds of years, a reminder the role churches used to play in holding these communities together.
Whenever I get the chance, I wander into these churches. I love the musty smell of the old stonework, the silence, and the sense of being in a place altogether different from the world outside. And when I sit in one of the old pews, I think about those who have sat in them over the last five hundred years. Who shepherded them as they lived their lives in this place? How were they equipped to live faithfully in this context?
Sadly, many of these churches are now mostly empty. The imposing stone structures continue to testify to the indelible mark Christianity made on this country, but the hollow echoes inside the walls serve as a reminder that this mark is increasingly just a feature of history that has little bearing on modern society. In early January, I found myself in one such church in a small village in North Yorkshire, scanning over the minutes from a recent Parochial Church Council meeting. I discovered that among the prominent items of business were finding the money to hire someone to remove the mouse that had made its home inside the organ, and figuring out who was going to fix the gate in the churchyard that didnâ€™t latch properly. That these sorts of mundane concerns dominate the agenda of churches like this is simply representative of what happens to a dying church as it goes into preservation mode. Of course, when your vicar is also responsible for five other neighbouring parishes, it is hard to do much else.
These last-ditch efforts to preserve a decaying and seemingly futureless community are present not only in the church, but often resemble the stories of what we might call the forgotten placesâ€”the smaller towns and rural areas (and occasionally cities) that often lay far beyond our field of vision, well hidden in the shadows of our periphery.
Everywhere you turn, the urban life is being sold as the way forward. Trendy apartments, diverse communities, the arts sceneâ€”this is the life you want. And for many, it is the stuff of the imagination. Itâ€™s the oasis on the horizon, the place where hopes and dreams can be fulfilled. Itâ€™s the place that ceaselessly buzzes with activity, the place where we can find and experience so many things that we feel are essential to enjoying life to the fullest.
Most of us donâ€™t live in the forgotten places. In the majority of Western countries, well over 70% of the population now live in cities. While this includes outlying suburban areas, there is an increasing emphasis on the importance and value of urban centres, both in terms of what they contribute to culture and what benefits they offer residents. Indeed, there is an abundance of research and studies documenting the significance of the city, and few would argue that cities do not play a defining role in shaping the culture of a state or nation. This is why there has been also been big push in recent decades by missiologists and church leaders for the church to focus its attention on the major urban centres.
The forgotten places do not occupy a prominent place in our thinking anymore, largely because our perceptions of them are often shaped by the constructs of such mediums as literature and film, where they are usually portrayed either as idyllic little communities, protected from the corrupting influences of the city, where everything is right with the world and people live contented and intimate communal lives, or as backwards and completely out of touch with reality, a place of boredom and despair that the protagonist longs to distance herself from.
Those who live in the forgotten places may wish for the former, or look back with rose-coloured glasses to a time when, in their memory, their town or village resembled such an idyll, but the reality comes a bit closer to the latter. These forgotten places often feel the burden of being forgotten. A simple look at the statistics proves the point: higher rates of suicide, unemployment, and poverty, aging populations, and increasing instability as traditional economic structures such as agriculture and manufacturing change and disappear are common characteristics of these places. Some benefit from changing economies, especially those sustained by the tourism industry, but this often comes at the expense of the communityâ€™s identity.
I live in the city of Hull, in the northeast of England, and although it is a city of 250,000, it is unique in having many of the characteristics of a forgotten place despite its size. Unemployment here is among the highest in the U.K. and child poverty rates are off the charts. The industry that once sustained the city has all but disappeared and has not been replaced. Few people know that Hull was one of the most heavily bombed cities during the Second World War, and none of the funding that London and Coventry received to rebuild found its way here. The city is also off the beaten path, at the end of the A63, on the way to nowhere. Itâ€™s one of those places youâ€™d only go to if you had to. Needless to say, places like this are often marked by a prevailing sense of demoralization.
A Unique Challenge for the Church
Unique challenges face the church in contexts like this. With some exceptions, the presence of the church in these forgotten places is shrinking. Certainly the steady diminishing of populations as people move to the cities contributes to this. But the forgotten places are often forgotten by the church as well, leaving Christians little hope of countering this demoralization, and few resources to actively work towards the flourishing of these places.
Many pastors and church leaders have a paradigm of â€œsuccessful ministry,â€ and if weâ€™re honest, that picture probably doesnâ€™t include a small church of thirty in a village fifty miles from the nearest Wal*Mart, where agendas will include planning church picnics and meeting with contractors to get quotes on repairing the most recent roof leak. These places, instead, often function as the places for young pastors to cut their teeth in ministry before they move into more prestigious positions. Wendell Berry, in his essay â€œGod and Country,â€ laments this practice:
Common in the churches of my experience [is the practice] of using rural ministry as a training ground for young ministers and as a means of subsidizing their education . . . These student ministers invariably leave the rural congregations that have sponsored or endured their education as soon as possible once they have their diplomas in hand . . . The country people will be used to educate ministers for the benefit of city people (in wealthier churches) who, obviously, are thought more deserving of educated ministers.
The prioritizing of city churches is linked with the idea that urban life is always unordinary. That is, one can always find something unique and fresh and exciting in the city because of its diversity. City churches present an alluring charm to many pastors because of the thought of shepherding a diverse congregation with a myriad of gifts and talents, personalities, and struggles and the seeming plethora of opportunities to influence, impact, and transform a community.
We like big stories of gloryâ€”drug addicts coming to faith, once-troubled teens now taking leadership roles in the church, lawyers becoming Christians and doing pro bono work for the impoverished communities yet again threatened by the building project of a multi-million dollar corporation.
But what about the ordinary? Well, itâ€™s not so exciting. Darryl Hart points out:
Evangelicals are disposed to understand grace and faith in extraordinary categories and so overlook stories of ordinary believers, routine piety, and even rural congregations as insignificant. Discontent with the average and routine aspects of natural life and of grace appears to breed a similar dissatisfaction with humble ministries in places of little interest to the editors of the [New York] Times.
Leading people who were born and raised in the church down the slow and steady path of sanctification doesnâ€™t scream â€œsuccess!â€ in the same way as leading someone through a Damascus Road conversion and seeing them go on to influence hundreds of others. Ministry in the forgotten places carries the perception of being ordinaryâ€”boring, reallyâ€”and we want something more than that.
The church I serve has both kinds of stories. Weâ€™ve seen people undergo radical transformations as theyâ€™ve come to faith, and God is already using some of them in powerful ways. Many more, though, are on the road of gradual growth, and we commit ourselves to walking side by side with them. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, and other times it is smooth sailing and we cover a good distance as we work together to mould ourselves after the image of Christ and submit ourselves to his Lordship.
A few weeks ago, I had four university physics students sitting in my living room talking about calling and vocation. One of them vocalized a thought common in young peopleâ€™s minds: that to truly serve God in this world, you needed to get into some kind of formal ministry. Since Iâ€™ve been reading Albert Woltersâ€™s Creation Regained with them, this segued into a great conversation on the implications of a thoroughly biblical doctrine of creation and what that means for our work in this world. â€œSo God could be calling us to serve him as physicists?â€ they asked. That moment of growth is a few healthy steps forward on the road of discipleship. It is simple and ordinary, but anything but boring. Rather, it excites me to think about what this deepening understanding will look like in the future as they seek to serve the Lord in the different callings given to them.
Often we pit the value of cities against those of forgotten places. The scales for evaluating each place are usually based on the benefits they afford us. The city gives us opportunities for influence and achieving great things for God, while a small, quaint village gives us an opportunity to enjoy a nice picnic on a summer day. Were we to look beyond ourselves, however, and evaluate each place based on the opportunities it provides us as Christians to serve God and to seek the advancement of his Kingdom by fulfilling the different callings he gives us, we might find that the scales are a bit more balanced.
Why Should we Care?
Why should we care about the forgotten places? Ultimately, we ought to seek the flourishing of these forgotten places because they are not outside the scope of the redemption that comes through Jesus Christ. Our witness to the reality of the Kingdom of God is not limited to urban areas. In calling us to make disciples of all nations, Jesus never added the qualification that this be limited to the people we find in cities. In the call to do justice, the Bible does not expect this to only be done within the confines of an urban area. The Lordship of Christ extends to all of life, including the lives lived out and shared by those in the forgotten places.
In light of the significant role cities play in shaping a society or nation, the question of what the forgotten places might contribute bears consideration. As a pastor, I find myself having to answer this question somewhat vaguely. Iâ€™m not an economist or an expert on public policy, and I donâ€™t seek to make any pronouncements in areas I know very little about. However, I can suggest a few areas that bear further consideration, based upon my own experience living in one of these forgotten places.
In the first place, to expect contributions to a society or nation from the forgotten places, whether economic or cultural, we need to first consider how we might empower the people living in these places. As I said above, the residents of these forgotten places often bear the burden of being forgotten and tend to focus their concerns on preservation. To begin to make contributions to culture and society or economies, people first need to feel as if they can make those contributions.
Our diocese employs someone who carries the title of â€œsocial responsibility officer,â€ and his role is essentially to support churches in the diocese who are working in their communities. When I first moved here, I had coffee with him and he told me that this lack of empowerment is a defining feature of this city and many people here have very low aspirations, especially because of the lack of investment after the war and after the main fishing industry disappeared. He made a curious link between the geography of this area, which is very flat, and the way people look at the world: â€œI think itâ€™s true to say that when you canâ€™t see anywhere else but the other side of the street from your house, unless you look straight up, then getting perspective on the world is a bit more difficult.â€
One thing this place desperately needs is new investment. Many companies bypass Hull when considering locations for new operations. Part of this has to do with its more isolated location within England. However, many things about this city commend itself to investorsâ€”a large potential and committed workforce (the population of Hull is anything but transient), easy access to the continent, as well as comparatively inexpensive real estate and rent prices. Ideal opportunities exist here for business owners to seek out the possibilities of investing here and contributing to a relatively forgotten place thriving with potential.
Those who invest in places like this would discover one of the glowing characteristics that many of the forgotten places share: the people who live in them deeply love their homes. I meet people here all the time who would not consider leaving because they love this place, including those who come to university here or move here later in life. Given their love for this place, they care about its well-being and have a desire to see it flourish.
New investment means, however, that the forgotten places must cope with changing economies. One of the ways these places can contribute to this is by fostering a culture of entrepreneurship amongst its young people. Young people usually leave these places because they feel there are no opportunities for them as they grow up. Cultivate aspirations of leading their communities forward and contributing to the growth of their local economies as entrepreneurs, however, and they begin to take hold of a renewed vision for the betterment of the common good in these places.
Another question that we need to answer is what might be done to equip Christians to live faithfully in these places. This is a task that falls to the church. Just like the communities they find themselves in, churches in the forgotten places are often forced into preservation mode. Usually this means that churches will contribute little to the communities they inhabit, and holistic discipleship will not be a primary focus. Instead, the â€œsinking shipâ€ paradigm often takes over, and if the church has any outward focus at all, it will simply be to try and convert some people.
Hope: Needed in the Nooks and Crannies of our World
But it is exactly in this context where hope has disappeared that the church needs to step up and be a beacon of hope. This certainly includes the work of proclaiming the gospel and bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ, but it also means equipping believers to take Calvin Seerveldâ€™s idea of reformational Christian living seriously, where:
human life [is] dominated by the biblical motive of re-forming traditions of people, re-forming existing social conditions, re-forming projected human structurations of life that will set the pattern for generations to come, re-forming activity in all areas of reality until it all be conformed to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
(From â€œChristian Workers, Uniteâ€)
This work of bearing witness to the Kingdom of God and the redemption of all of life that comes through Jesus Christ is not just the work of Christians in cities, but it is a call that goes out to all believers, everywhere. This means that the Christian small-business owner in the town of 3,000 people must be equipped for his calling just as much as the Christian CEO of a much larger corporation in Chicago. It means equipping the teacher in rural Wales with the same vision for education as the teacher in an impoverished area of the Bronx. The churchâ€™s work of discipleship in the forgotten places must have the same all-of-life focus that discipleship has in the cities.
Christians must be just as active in the public squares of the forgotten placesâ€”small as they may beâ€”as they are in the public squares of the city. Here too we must work for justice and challenge the institutions and structures that oppress our communities, here too we must seek shalom and the restoration of relationships, and here too we must endeavour to see these places flourish. This begins with a worshipping community that forms disciples as the gospel is faithfully proclaimed, the sacraments are faithfully administered, and the rule of King Jesus is brought to bear on all of life.
The forgotten places are not going to go away. Though the increasing urbanisation of our world will undoubtedly continue, some people will remain where they are, whether out of necessity or desire. As Christians, let our commitment to shalom and to flourishing not be limited to one part of our society, influential as that part may be. Instead, letâ€™s seek the peace and prosperity of everyone, in every place. Christ reigns as King over all of creation, and we ought to make that reality known wherever he has placed us.