The settlement and development of rural America was driven by a social vision attributed to Thomas Jefferson. He believed that our nation would become primarily characterized by the majority of people living and working on small farms.
Nearby, typically within three miles, there would be a village where the farmers could market their products and access the goods and services that they needed for their lives. In the villages one would find schools, churches, merchants, physicians, blacksmiths and other professionals.
Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, signed into law the Homestead Act, which allowed for families to obtain 160 acres of new land from the government by settling on it. By the end of the 19th century the continent was settled up. Small farms and villages that served the farm families dotted the land.
Industrialization in the 20th century caused this Jeffersonian vision to no longer be practical for the nation. Agriculture followed the lead of manufacturing. It mechanized. To support this, farms got larger. Farm workers were displaced. Many moved to the cities and to industrial jobs.
The villages dried up. Schools were consolidated. So were other services. The quality of life in rural areas was diminished.
For years many of us in rural America have tried to patch up what remains, hoping to regain something of the “golden years” of the early 1900s. Others have come to the understanding that this is not possible.
Rather, there is a need for the formation of a new vision for our rural areas. It must be one that comprehends the diversity of rural America. Hopefully, it will be one informed by biblical values.
Several of us attempted to outline the basic components of such a new vision in a textbook for rural pastors, Rural Ministry. It was edited by Shannon Jung and published by Abingdon Press in 1998. Our list included the following eight points.
1. Agriculture and other natural resource-based economic activity should be sustainable and renewable.
2. Rural persons/families should be able to enjoy the just fruits of their labors.
3. Policies and practices of the American government and economy have often contributed to personal and community disadvantage in rural America, and these areas of neglect should be redressed through policies geared toward justice and fairness.
4.The old six-mile boundaries of community–the driving paradigm of the settlement period–is no longer functional. The 30-mile (or county) model seems to be emerging; so, we are called to work diligently to form and model new communities.
5. Rural people should be presented the good news of the gospel and encouraged to respond by ever praising Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.
6. Rural people should be taught about the beliefs and values of the Christian life and encouraged to apply them to their daily lives.
7. Rural people have a special calling to be stewards of the natural resources God has placed in the world.
8. Worshiping/ministering congregations of Christian faith should be available to all rural people.
If this list were to be accepted by the general public, its implementation would involve actions by several stakeholders.
The federal government will need to develop policies that will support a vibrant rural economy which is protective of the natural environment.
Local churches and communities will need to be supportive of these policies and also pitch in to develop good gospel churches. They will need to plant some new churches. They will need to assist in the consolidation of others. And they will need to consider new methods of providing the ministry of church in sparsely populated places.
What we call for is a “rechurching” of rural America. I hope that the denominations will join in at this point and be very strategic about planting and supporting the appropriate kinds of congregations needed for the diversity of rural America. This includes new ethnic congregations, churches for retirement and recreational communities, lay-led congregations, house churches, and several others.
They will also need to work to develop good communities. Often this will involve villages and small towns which formerly competed with one another learning to cooperate
As he left office recently, Tommy Thompson, Secretary of the Health and Human Welfare Department, declared that we must protect our food supply from terrorists. Those who listened with a “rural ear” applauded. Having a safe and adequate food supply here at home must be a central concern of the federal government. Perhaps, this threat may open the opportunity for a larger and more serious discussion related to the formation of a new vision for rural America. It is long overdue.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.