The Rural Church Network met last week on the campus of the University of the South.
This group, comprised of persons from national denominational offices and seminaries with responsibilities for rural church work and training, meets twice each year at various locations. For more than a quarter of a century it has shared resources, concerns, information and efforts to expand and strengthen the Kingdom of God is the rural communities of North America.
Active in the group are persons on the national staffs of the United Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, Uniting Church of Canada, Church of the Brethren and Roman Catholics. Less active have been staff from the United Church of Christ, American Baptist Churches and the Cumberland Presbyterians.
Conspicuously absent since 1997 have been the Southern Baptists. That year, when the denomination reorganized under the design adopted two years earlier as “The Covenant for the 21st Century,” there were more than 20,000 rural congregations with more than 8 million members contributing to the Cooperative Program. This was more than half of the constituency of the SBC. If this rural constituency were a denomination on its own, it would be the third largest in North America.
An online search of the various entities of the Southern Baptist Convention did not find any staff dealing with rural church and community needs and issues. Nor did any resources specifically for rural churches, or any statements related to rural issues appear. So, while “The Covenant for the 21st Century” promised to serve all of the churches in the convention, it seems that the rural and small-town ones are being treated with “benign neglect.”
It appears that virtually all of the attention and resources of the entities of the SBC have been showered upon the major metropolises and their suburbs. The roots of the Baptist movement in the South are being ignored. The unique needs of rural and small town congregations, the “center of gravity” of the movement, are no longer on the denominational agenda.
Conversely, the participants at the Rural Church Network last week shared with one another around six areas of concern for Christian persons living and serving Christ in rural North America–healthy congregations, training for rural pastors, advocacy for rural-justice concerns and issues with the federal government, moral and social issues with rural bases, cooperative ministries in rural settings and the production of resources that were directed toward undergirding the work of the rural and small-town congregations.
It struck me as I listened that much of what was presented at the meeting would be of benefit to the rural half of the Baptist movement. And it struck me that the Baptist movement, centered as it is in the most rural and the poorest portion of North America, could have provided valuable insight and resources to the other denominations. I felt that it was poor stewardship to neither hear from or share with the others.
In this article, given the nature of this electronic publication, I will focus only on those things related to public policy and moral and social issues in rural North America as presented at the RCN meeting last week:
–The consolidation of the processing and distribution of food stuffs in the hands a very few mammoth corporations is meaning that farmers and farm workers are not receiving a just wage for their work.
–The expanding genetic engineering of plants and livestock threatens our food supply. So does the narrowing, resultant, “genetic pool” for many plants and domestic animals threaten a continuing adequate supply of foodstuffs.
–Urban sprawl is chewing up vast amounts of needed farm land.
–The depopulation of many rural areas threatens the continued operation of many rural and small town churches.
–Access to health care in many rural communities of North America continues to be a problem.
–Global warming of the climate will ultimately impact the food supply.
–Poverty continues to be a deep problem in many rural areas. The “drug abuse” problem has become epidemic in these and other areas.
–A new farm bill will be crafted in 2007. The denominations will need to speak to it from a perspective of economic and ecological justice.
I was pleased that some denominations are studying and expressing opinions about these and other issues that are impacting rural North America. I was sorry that mine was not.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala. He formerly was associate director of the Rural-Urban Missions Department at the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, which was consolidated with other agencies and renamed the North American Mission Board in 1997.