Why You Need to Know What’s Happening on God’s Island

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A flooding tide on Tangier

Earl Swift spent the better part of a year on Tangier Island and grew to love the people and the culture of the place.  But when he wrote about the experience for his new book, his takeaway was not subtle.  It’s there in the title.  He believes the island is not long for this world.

I read Swift’s book with the same eyes he does.  On the one hand I see the beauty of a place so small and personal that you can’t talk about it without nicknames and stories.  On the other hand, it is dropping into the Chesapeake Bay, and it may be a bellwether for other places, like my own Eastern Shore, that are facing the same fate.

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island is the culmination of Swift’s decades-long fascination with life on this tump in the middle of America’s greatest bay (sorry, San Francisco).  He’s written about the place before, as in The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.  But here he dives deep, giving the reader the sweep of history, the passion of religion, and the romance and trial of making a living from the waters—all the elements that make Tangier such an irreplaceable culture.

Full disclosure: I’m a frequent visitor to Tangier as the United Methodist District Superintendent for this region.  Swain Memorial and its congregants, by some measures, are the largest church on my district. When Swift mentions names, I can picture the faces.  When he talks about the Heistin’ Bridge and the Slab, I know where they are.  He even grants me an appearance on page 246. So I’m not a disinterested reader and in the mix of the more global story of climate change, important though it is, and the particulars of the settlement, my sympathies are always with the folks I know.

They are vividly portrayed here. Mary Stuart Parks down at the Fisherman’s Corner restaurant.  Lonnie Moore and his crab potting operation.  Carol Pruitt Moore and her regular curation of the disappearing Uppards—the marshy, northern outpost of Tangier on which the whole island depends.

None gets more attention than Ooker Eskridge, the town’s mayor and biggest celebrity, thanks to his regular interviews and highly-publicized interaction with Donald Trump in the summer of 2017.  Following a CNN profile of the island in which Ooker and many of the regulars in the “Situation Room” at the old health center professed their love for the president and made a plea for him to come and “Build us a wall!” around Tangier, Ooker got a phone call from Trump and appeared on a climate change panel with Al Gore.

The resulting social media circus turned Eskridge, and the island, into a caricature of themselves, with hateful Twitter posts declaring that their support for a man who denied climate change left them “getting what they ASKED FOR!” “You’re all #Trump supporters and deserve what Nature gives you: submersion,” one tweet on CNN’s account read. (368)

By the time you arrive at this story at the end of the book, Swift has thoroughly insulated you from the online ignorance that labels the islanders so harshly.  He obviously spent many days and hours with Ooker and the other watermen, learning their craft, seeing with their eyes, and sympathizing with their worldview, if not fully embracing it.  The island natives are not naive and Swift embraces their complexity.

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Earl Swift

Swift is a great storyteller and his descriptions of working the water are rich, giving you the feel of being there.  He doles out the mysterious life cycle of the Chesapeake blue crab in small segments, allowing you to marvel at the creature instead of being overwhelmed by the detail.  The watermen also come to life in stages as you get to know their idiosyncrasies and firmly held convictions.

But nothing diminishes the dire framework within which these stories are told.  In addition to the title, the sub-headings give away the perspective.  Headings like “And Every Island Fled Away” and “Eyeing the End Times” have scriptural overtones, but Swift takes them literally. Erosion. Climate change.  Whatever you call it, the island is just one big storm away from a fatal inundation.

The recent announcement that the state and Army Corps of Engineers are finally moving toward construction of a jetty to protect the western entrance to the main channel through Tangier is a happy ending to a long struggle chronicled in the book.  But the Corps’ Dan Schulte, who co-authored a paper for Scientific Reports in 2015, says the jetty “doesn’t do anything about the bigger problems.” (259)  Without protecting the Uppards and building up the island in other ways, Swift believes, based on Schulte’s research, “you’ll be able to drive a workboat over most of Tangier by 2063.” (258)

Swift also highlights other vulnerabilities: a declining and aging population, loss of young people to the mainland, a fragile economy, an uncertain stock of crab and oysters, a beloved but threatened K-12 school, and a growing drug problem.  Swift asks Lance Daley, who helps run the family grocery store on the island, whether he worries about the future of his business and the island. “‘Not really,’ he said.  He paused, then changed his mind: ‘Well, I guess we do.’” (230)

That’s the sort of hesitating trust I sense in the people of Tangier.  They are no strangers to loss.  Prayer times regularly recall islanders lost at sea in the past.  Swift vividly describes two of those wrecks that happened in the last thirteen years.

IMG_3692But there’s a sturdy persistence, too—something that is inseparable from the faith in God that is never far from the lips of a Tangier Christian.  It can sometimes border on a fatalism that trusts that “God takes care of things” (and therefore we don’t).  But more often it is a trust that the God, who sent a visionary Methodist lay preacher named Joshua Thomas to the island around 1799 and whose Spirit has brooded over the island in the centuries since, will not fail them now.

I often say, (based on my understanding of the island’s history as chronicled by the great Eastern Shore historian, Kirk Mariner, whose name Swift, regretfully, does not mention outside the notes), that great moments in the spiritual life of the Eastern Shore, from camp meetings to revivals, often begin on Tangier.  Perhaps it takes the sensitivity of a people who live on the margins of the world and in total dependence on the the waters of the Bay to see what God is up to.

Earl Swift believes that Tangier’s story is a part of a bigger story, too, though his is a mournful tale of inevitable loss.  I’ve got a different horizon in mind, but I’m glad he paused, with his obvious skills, to pay attention to this place and the threats to it.  He has produced a great book that deserves to be read far beyond what Mariner called “God’s Island.”

There’s Something Still the Matter with Kansas: Thomas Frank and a Sinking Society

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Thomas Frank is the kind of writer who gets trotted out when the national media wants to cast its distracted gaze on the hinterlands.  It helped that he wrote a book a decade and more back about his home state titled What’s the Matter with Kansas? After the 2016 election a whole lot of pundits wanted to know the answer to that question.  Why would so many people in the heartland vote for a candidate with big city, Acela Corridor brashness and a class profile so different from the majority of his voters?

When he wrote that book in 2004, Frank was pointing to the populism to come, noting the many working class folks who have been growing ever more distanced from the elite who, unlike them, have benefitted from the cosmopolitan world that global economic trading and technological innovation have created.  Frank himself may have wandered from his thesis in the Obama years, if the essays collected in his latest book are any indication.  Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society shows a writer searching for a master narrative that only snaps into focus with the presidential election.

To crib from Samuel Johnson, there’s nothing like a catastrophe to concentrate the mind.

Catastrophe.  Oblivion.  A sinking ship.  That’s what Frank sees when he looks at America.  (The ship also graces the cover of the book.)  In early essays dating from 2011-2014, his targets are diffuse.  As in Sarah Kendzior’s essays in her recent collection, The View from Flyover Country, Frank’s preoccupations in this period are with the academic world, journalism, inequality, and even the empty sloganeering of civic boosters.  (Don’t get him started on ‘vibrancy’!)

As the apocalypse…er…election approaches, however, you can see him returning to Kansas, and Missouri, and all the places that were enthralled with the Trump candidacy, trying to figure out what is going on. He recognizes that the ever-present populist impulse in rural America has no voice on the left today.  Democratic leaders, who used to champion the interests of unions and the working class against Wall St. have now thrown their lot with money.  Insurgent voices were actively marginalized and the professional class has developed a ‘softly, softly’ approach to change.  Big ideas couldn’t succeed, this group felt, so they had to be smothered.

At the same time, as prosperous, two-coast America divorced itself from the deindustralized, depopulating, despairing countryside, “the Trump movement [was characterized] as a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race hatred.  Its partisans not only are incomprehensible, they are not really worth comprehending.” (173)

Rural America picked up on the condescension, and Frank sees it as an indication of one of the key challenges facing those who would turn the country a different way.  “It is uncompromising moral stridor that has come to dominate the opinion pages and the airwaves of the enlightened—a continuous outpouring of agony and aghastitude at Trump and his works.” (218)  Without some introspection and reconnection with its traditional base, Frank feels, the Democratic Party is condemned to a future in which the only satisfaction it can expect is “a finger wagging in some vulgar proletarian’s face, forever.” (222)

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Thomas Frank

I was glad that Frank eventually found his groove in this book.  Before he returned, late in the book, to Marceline, Missouri to see what had happened to Walt Disney’s hometown Main Street, (the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A.), I worried that he had was leaving the Midwest behind for shinier objects elsewhere.  But the crisis of the current moment brought him back to his roots.  

The title bespeaks a gloomy outlook.  “This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve,” he says on the opening page. (1)  But for all his alarm bells about “the golden age of corruption,” (2) “the casual dishonesty of politics” spilling over into everyday life (4), and the con game the economy has become for so many Americans, Frank still believes in the essential wisdom of where he came from.  Even if he doesn’t think we’re in that Kansas anymore.

Metropolitan Books provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Letter to My Haitian Neighbor As You Leave Town

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I saw you yesterday pulling on a frayed nylon cord to tie down the mattresses on the roof of your car.  You’re leaving town and we never got to say ‘hello.’

I’ve seen you in the Food Lion and the Wal-mart and I’ve been tempted to try to speak.  But my high school French, which I would use to approximate your Creole, always comes out as rusty Spanish—the language I’m used to breaking out in talking to my immigrant neighbors.  I know.  Haiti is a long way from Mexico in so many ways, but I’m sometimes laughably limited.  I also order in Spanish at the Chinese restaurant.  

So, no, we haven’t said ‘hello.’

And now you’re leaving.

I imagine that it has been a strange sojourn for you here in this small town.  Traveling to this rural peninsula in Virginia to work on farms and in chicken processing plants must have seemed a hopeful opportunity after the earthquake in 2010.  Our government gave you Temporary Protected Status to allow Haiti to recover and now it has revoked that authorization, giving you until next summer to go home.

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photo by Kaique Rocha via Pexels

Our town changed when the Haitian community came.  Oh, not in the ways some politicians say.  You didn’t run down the town.  You occupied buildings that would have remained vacant.  You didn’t ruin the economy.  You kept Dollar General and our legendary five-and-dime humming.  You opened a Caribbean market on the square.  You began a church.  You filled jobs when the poultry farms expanded.  Crime didn’t spike.  The town police say we have one of the lowest crime rates in the state.  

So, even though we never got to know one another, I felt like our town was better with you here.  I wish we’d gotten to share stories.  It is not good for people sharing the same land to be ignorant of each other’s deepest hopes and needs.  We need to see each other’s humanity.

The Bible I preach from tells us to love the sojourner because we were once sojourners [Deuteronomy 10:19].  A wandering Aramean was our ancestor. [Deut. 26:5]  We will always share something with the immigrant.

These are hard times for immigrants in my country.  Most of us found our way here from someplace else, but we have begun to believe that ‘foreign’ means ‘threatening.’  We talk about immigrants as criminal, predatory, and dangerous.  We use verbs like “infest” to describe your actions.  Our fear leads us to closing our eyes to the gifts you bring and the people you are.  Our fear leads us to cruelty.  Unfathomable cruelty.

This week we couldn’t close our eyes because we couldn’t close our ears.  The sounds of children being torn from their parents to be caged in old Wal-marts converted into warehouses couldn’t be ignored. Something is broken, not only in our immigration system, but in our spirits as well. And the most vulnerable, as always, suffer the consequences.

Your story is not so loud.  You came quietly and you are leaving just as quietly.  If I had not passed you yesterday, I would not have known.  I would just notice slowly that the town was changing again.  The malanga and plantains would disappear from the shelves.  I would notice fewer people walking around town and wonder where they’d gone.  There won’t be crying children on the news when you leave.  Just more silence.

Like much of rural America, our silence is growing as our population is declining.  Each year in our county there are more deaths than births.  The most common narrative for our young people is that they leave for college or job opportunities elsewhere and they don’t come back.  The result is a spiritual crisis of confidence.  You interrupted our stories of decline. You helped us understand that we are not dead.  But we live by being connected.

abandoned-america-american-221327Yes, we need border control.  We need an immigration reform that makes sense—that keeps people and businesses from having to live in a furtive secret economy.  And if you have the opportunity to return to your home after it has recovered from a devastating disaster (something that I don’t believe has really happened in Haiti), of course, that is a good thing. 

But I will miss you.  You reminded me that our stereotypes of what we are can be challenged.  That we could be something different.  Something more.

I watched your car as it bumped out of the dirt driveway and onto the road, the edges of the mattresses flopping over the rooftop.  The back right wheel lacked a hubcap and there was a worrying squeal coming from the engine.  I wondered where you were headed.  I wondered if you would make it safely.

I wondered where we were headed, too.

Thanks to Yossi Klein Halevi and his Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor for the inspiration for this letter.

Small Towns as Moral Communities: A Review of The Left Behind

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photo by Jamie Mink via Unsplash

Here’s the plot: a ragtag group of survivors suddenly discovers that people who have been a significant part of their lives have moved on leaving them in a desperate moral quandary as they try to piece together what has happened and work for a better future.  No, it’s not Tim LeHaye’s rapture series, Left Behind.  It’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, the latest book from Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton social scientist and Kansas native.

Wuthnow, like a lot of us in the aftermath of the 2016 election, has been taking a hard look at what’s happened in rural America.  I have lamented on this site about the easy and dangerous caricatures we fall into in trying to understand what’s happening in the Heartlands.  On the one hand, there is a tendency for bluer places to see all of red America as a reactionary landscape of racism, misogyny, and economic resentment.  On the other hand, rural America sometimes adopts a stereotyped vision of itself, hanging on to symbolic grievances (like the “War on Christmas”) and denying its own complexity.

Wuthnow tries to get under the surface of the Great Divide in this book by putting the focus on something larger than individual perspectives. 

“My argument,” he says, “is that understanding rural America requires seeing the place in which its residents live as moral communities…a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right things.” (4)

There’s a lot of familiar territory to be trod here.  Drawing on lots of research over the last 20 years, Wuthnow documents a familiar litany of rural challenges: population decline, a rural brain drain, teen pregnancy, drugs, lack of jobs, and the age-old friction between ‘born heres’ and ‘come heres.’  But he puts these perceived threats within a larger, unsettling framework. 

“Being part of a moral community, even when it sits lightly on people’s shoulders, means that sensing your community is declining and your young people are falling behind is a reflection in small measure on you…you are part of a failing community.” (78)

This almost imperceptible psychological burden can curdle into fear and anger—fear that a way of life is slipping away and anger that, as it does, it is “being discredited and attacked from the outside.” (79)  

 

Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow

Even though Wuthnow talks to a lot of fearful and angry people in this book, his larger point is that the realities of rural life are not dependent on emotions.  There are systemic things eating away at old certainties, as well.  Small communities have depended on an ethos that believes that “when problems arise, we can fix them.”  The flotilla of small boat rescues after Hurricane Harvey last fall represents an ideal of what rural America believes about its potential.

Systemic problems are harder to pull out of the floodwaters, though.  Real change involves being part of regional, state, and federal organizations who bring resources, but also bureaucratic intricacies and arcane policies that don’t make sense.  When economic development happens in small towns, it often means that a new company comes in that needs expertise and skills that also have to come from elsewhere.  

“If rural people are susceptible to appeals that blame others—Washington, minorities, immigrants—for their problems, we must recognize clearly the psychological toll that seemingly insurmountable problems take on rural people themselves.” (91)

RELIGION AND CHURCHES IN RURAL AMERICA

Throughout the book, Wuthow notes the role that religion plays in rural life.  He sees the struggles churches are having.  Herb and Linda Tobias attend a Baptist church in the Midwest, but they “admit to being disgruntled because it’s been hard for their small community to attract good preachers and the one who came last year leaves them shaking their heads sometimes.” (92)  

colin-maynard-280700-unsplashDenominational churches struggle as well, although they play an interesting role in forcing some conversations that might not happen otherwise.  For instance, United Methodists and other mainline churches have asked their local congregations to discuss the issues of gay ordination for clergy and same-sex marriage.  “That meant people who quietly supported one side or the other had to make their positions known.” (134)  The result has been a few church splits while other congregations find ways to stay together despite disagreements.

“There’s a paradox in all this, though,” Wuthnow says.  “On the one hand, the conversations about gay rights and marriage equality wouldn’t have happened in rural communities…if there hadn’t been prompting from outside…On the other hand, it was precisely these outside promptings that rural communities disliked, just as they did Washington telling them to purchase healthcare and quit reading the Ten Commandments in school.” (135-36)

The Left Behind leaves the reader, (or at least this reader), longing for more.  Wuthnow makes the curious decision to turn his three principal research sites (small towns in the Midwest, New England, and the Deep South) into generic communities with names like Gulfdale and Fairfield.  The individual stories, which could have added more vivid interest, remain in the background, but perhaps that is best for a broad sociological look.  

The idea of small towns as moral communities is useful and helps keep the individual perspectives in context, but there is much more to be said about the ways the moral narratives that bind communities together are being manipulated by larger forces, like national media and institutions.  Wuthnow downplays the work of Arlie Russell Hochschild in her Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right because he feels it focused too narrowly on the Lake Charles, Louisiana area, (which, at 200,000 people, he feels is too large to be rural).  But Rochschild, as I noted in reviewing her book and in a subsequent interview, is mining a similar deep story that feels more visceral.

The land is crumbling in The Left Behind.  It’s all burning down in Hochschild’s book.

This is a good addition to the literature on rural America in the Age of the Great Divide.  It describes the landscape I know, which feels so distant from the shiny, globalized cities on the television screen.  Wuthnow sees that, while no one has been raptured, a whole lot of the country feels left behind.

**Princeton University Press provided me a copy of this book for review.

6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here! – Part 2

In Part One of Ben Rigsby’s post on reviving a church in a small town he talked about life-changing worship and reaching new people.  In this post he discusses 4 more steps to growing a rural church…

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Ben Rigsby (2nd from right) gathers with a small group at Murn’s Cafe in Archer City, TX

  1. It takes critical mass to launch a church, it takes the same to revive

This is a tough one to look in the face. Unfortunately, I’ve learned this lesson a couple times. When a new person visits your church, it needs to look like something is happening. The energy of worship must be present as soon as they enter the doors. You wouldn’t go back to a restaurant that never had cars in the parking lot and maybe one other couple in the whole building. Especially if that place only had mediocre food.

But a place that has a full parking lot and a buzz of energy as soon as the doors open tells you something is happening here. You’ll even put up with lower quality food if everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. Why should church be any different?

If your congregation isn’t big enough to fill your sanctuary to this level of energy, maybe you need more small groups. Small groups are an entry way into the church. Once, you’ve got enough people attending those, then put them together for worship. Why should Methodists be afraid of Small Groups? It’s what started this whole thing anyway! Small groups also give the church sustainability that will endure whoever the person sitting in the pastor’s office might be.

  1. Take an Honest look at WHO you’re trying to reach
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First United Methodist, Archer City

I’ve seen too many of our peers set off to reach their community of low income Hispanic families with a bunch of wealthy, white-haired, old ladies. The results are mostly the same. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but is it a battle you really want to fight?

If you’re in a traditional, rural, older town that loves piano and organ music, do not cram guitars and drop-down screens down their throats because you read about it in a magazine! It’s much easier to start an additional worship service than to dilute the one they love. Take a serious inventory of what you honestly have, and who you would honestly like to reach. Remember the first 200 people will determine what the next 200 look and act like.

  1. Find a mentor or coach

As much as we know after seminary, we all have a few weak spots. I needed a coach to encourage me and challenge me. This doesn’t have to be a paid relationship either. Henry Cloud wrote The Power of the Other, and in it I learned how all great leaders have a person who challenges them to go beyond their limits. Find a person who can do that for you. Then, be that person for your church leaders. You should be their greatest cheerleader.

In between sessions with your coach there are millions of coaches available to you through books. I enjoy Audible.com audiobooks because rural pastors spend a lot of time on the road—might as well make it count! I try to read as much as I can.

  1. “Pray like everything depends on God, and work like everything depends on you”

IMG_6724I don’t know where I picked up that saying, but if fits…it fits. Do not neglect the Spirit. Never neglect your own soul in the process. I know that pastors are told this at every conference we ever go to, but the ability to pray and meditate is not only necessary but establishes a good example for your congregation. Also, be open in sharing your spiritual practices with your congregation. Many of them don’t have a spiritual practice because they have never seen it demonstrated and wouldn’t know the first thing about meditating. They want to be taught.

Start Creating Your Slice of Heaven

There are plenty of reasons why you can’t build a church in a rural community. There are lists of problems, from money to facilities. There are people who will tell you the best you can do is to hold their hand while they (the church) dies. I don’t think Jesus would have ever said those words. I seem to remember him to say something more like, “Lazarus, come out!” and he did, and Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Now, it’s time for us to get to it!

fumc-headshots-archer-city-uvrphotography-2-240x300Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist Pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

 

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6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here!: Guest Blogger Ben Rigsby

Anybody who’s spent more than a minute with me since last summer has heard me yammer on about the people l met in Archer City, Texas on my leave. One of those folks is the dynamic pastor of First UMC, the Rev. Ben RIgsby.  You don’t often find church planters on the rural frontier but Ben proved to me that the things he learned about church planting in the big city can work in the countryside, too. Ben blogs over on Leaving the Herd and he agreed to share a little of what he’s learned. (By the way, I second his recommendation of El Diablo at Murn’s!) – Alex

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Ben Rigsby mid-baptism at First UMC, Archer City, TX

For the last two years I’ve been in heaven. Well, it’s a little slice of Texas that feels like heaven. The town is outside of Wichita Falls and has big skies and more mesquite trees than Dallas has people. The town has two water towers for a skyline, and except for a couple movie appearances and a famous book store, there’s not much reason you’d “just stop by.” But this town is full of life and passionate about their task of transforming the world.

The rural church ministry of Archer City, TX is alive and growing. That’s right, I said growing. And I don’t mean in some southern charm, “the people are only growing in their faith” kind of way. I mean double the number of people in worship in under 2 years.  Along with double-digit professions of faith and more baptisms than I can count. (I’m sure the office manager could give me a number if I asked.)

In the meantime, they have led the community in fundraising for “missions” (though we wouldn’t call them that). They have raised more money in two year’s time than they are able to pay the preacher full time.

It all happened because they began to see their little old church as a new church start. 

Here’s how they applied New Church Start tactics to a “declining congregation” and reaped the benefits:

  1. fullsizeoutput_1874Ask yourself if your church REALLY has something “life changing” to offer in worship.

Would a new person experience God there on any given Sunday? How sure are we? Is there a dynamic and passionate sermon delivered every Sunday? Can we count on the choir (which has tripled at First UMC, Archer City) to bring a volume to the music that’s inspiring?

I once heard it said, “To change a person’s life, you’ve got to first change their day.” Sunday is the day we will change their lives, every Sunday. After all, it could be the last worship service they ever make it to. (No, we do not do weekly Altar Calls and ask if they know where they are going when they die!) The congregation comes with the expectation they will receive a warm welcome, a good message that engages their minds and hearts, and inspirational music.

Is each worship service built around the gospel message? Does your service come with good news or is it full of “you should do…”? How does it relate to the average person?

Additionally, as Pastor, I make a point of stepping out of the pulpit and handing it over at least once a quarter. However, I am confident the guest speakers (even on Youth Sunday) will deliver a sermon as good or better than I could. I look for speakers who can deliver and they are told “we need a phenomenal sermon, so bring your best.”

  1. “Reaching new people is a contact sport” – Jim Griffith

In The Misfit Mission, Scott Crostek talks about putting a handful of pennies in his pocket and moving one over to the other side each time he talks to someone about the church. If he hadn’t moved all the pennies, he wasn’t done for the day. While I never went that far, it certainly is necessary that you are highly visible. Your whole congregation must be in the community & talking about your church. Both parts must be there. It’s not enough to just be in the community or to just be talking about your church in your office.

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Ben with El Diablo at Murn’s

There is a little café called Murn’s here in Archer City. Almost the whole town shows up every day for lunch. (If you’re ever there, you MUST try the El Diablo. Preachers eating The Devil just makes me chuckle!) I try to be there as much as possible. Before long the entire waitstaff was going to the church on Sunday, unless they had to work. Even then, they wanted to know what they missed! In the process, I’ve had more than a few conversations with other people about coming to the church. Make the time to get out of the office and be with people, there is NOTHING more important.

Jim Griffith of New Church Leadership Institute says, “Most Methodist ministers rarely encounter 100 people outside the church. Ministers give excuses like, ‘all my friends are church people’.”

Jim replies, “That’s pathetic. You need to make new friends.” We have a fantastic opportunity to model our expectations for our members with the way we reach the community.

89% of new church members attended church on the arm of a friend. Will you be that friend?

In the next post, Ben talks about 4 more steps to reviving a church in a small town

Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

The Tale the Blowflies Tell: A Review of The Dry by Jane Harper

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photo by Dominik Martin via Unsplash

It begins with the blowflies, as good a symbol as any for what happens to rural areas when the weather turns stagnant, hot, and deadly.  They know the smell of death and where to find it.  So it’s an ominous sign when these end-time harbingers descend upon a small farm in the Australian bush outside the town of Kiewarra and find three bodies.  The town is in trouble.

Jane Harper’s debut thriller, The Dry, is not in my usual reading wheelhouse.  I generally don’t like books where I can feel the mechanics of the plot whirring beneath the page heading for an inevitable tidy resolution.  And sure enough, The Dry heads inexorably toward such a conclusion in which red herrings are exposed and surprise twists revealed.  It’s all very cinematic, (Reese Witherspoon has the production rights), and I was suitably caught off guard by the way it all wound up.

But then again, I never guess these things.

51MFa84Sb9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_What attracts me in literature is the untidy and unfinished.  The ways we find ourselves in the grip of unseen forces like history, race, and desire.  The ways the land speaks in our stories and shapes our souls.  The ways we find ourselves stripped of pretension, bared to the bone, and utterly dependent on an elusive, assured God.

I could see enough of that in The Dry to pick it up.  As readers of Heartlands will know, tales of rural places always catch my eye, and Harper does a wonderful job of bringing the Australian backcountry to life.

Kiewarra suffers from many of the same ailments as many an American small town.  Empty stores line the town street.  The schools are underfunded and dependent on charitable foundations that might release a few thousands.  The police force is a skeleton crew.

Aaron Falk, who returns to Kiewarra from Melbourne when a childhood friend and two members of his family turn up dead, also knows how things can curdle when the town turns against you.  In Melbourne, at least, “he wasn’t watched by curious eyes that knew every last thing about him.  His neighbors didn’t judge him, or harass him and spread rumors about his family….They left him alone.” (144).

Falk left as a teenager, run out of town with his father after Ellie, one of his classmates, drowned in the river (now a dried-up bed because of the drought).  The name ‘Falk’ was on a note in her pocket and the town began to believe that maybe the drowning wasn’t accidental and that either of the male Falks might be the culprit.

His dad died and Falk eventually became an agent of the Australian finance intelligence unit.  Now he is back in a town that didn’t want him, paying respects to his friend, Luke, who seemingly had taken a shotgun to his wife and 6-year-old son and then turned it on himself.  Of course, there’s more to that story, as there is to the mystery of what happened to Ellie twenty years before.  Falk gets drawn into the investigation and sticks around until both mysteries are solved.

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Jane Harper

Harper uses an unusual technique of doling out another omniscient narrator’s voice as the mystery unspools.  The other voice narrates what happened in the past with rich detail.  I think it works.

What really makes the book, however, is the setting and the determination to present characters that become real people.  And the blowflies, who hover over everything.  There’s a tale of whodunit to be told, but there are much larger stories, too.  Where do you find life when everything around you becomes tinder for an inevitable fire?  Where’s the river to quench the dry?

Lay Minister Expels Ghosts, Sees Two Rural Churches Turnaround

IMG_5424“I look around my church and all I see are ghosts.”  It was time for a pastoral change and I was meeting with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee in my role as the District Superintendent, preparing the church and myself as we looked toward the appointment of a new pastor.  The woman speaking was a longtime member and she was having a hard time being hopeful about the future.  Too many good memories in the past.  Too many people she had known lost to death and moves.  Too many ghosts.

The small churches of Calhoun and Drake’s Chapel in rural Missouri were feeling haunted, too, when their District Superintendent (DS) asked a lay speaker named Margie Briggs to step in for a time.  The beloved pastor of the church, facing who knows what demons in his own life, had committed suicide at his home on a Sunday morning.  Margie stepped in for a few months to serve the two small churches, whose average combined worship attendance was about 14.

When another local pastor was assigned, he served a few months but then left under a cloud after absconding with the Salvation Army kettle and a consequent visit from the local police.  The DS called Margie again.  “Can you just get them through until Christmas?” he asked.  Over ten years later, she’s still there.

51pCNACoaPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Given the sad history of her predecessors and the sparse numbers in the pews, the revival of these two rural churches under Margie’s leadership seems miraculous.  But as Briggs describes it in her new book, Can You Just Get Them Through Until Christmas?: The Turnaround Story of One Lay Minister and Two Small, Rural Churches [Cass Community Publishing House, 2017], the building blocks to recovery were simple and fairly traditional—an openness to God, outreach to the needs of the community, and leadership that was determined “to greet new and different people.”(x)

Lay ministers like Margie Briggs have always been a part of the Methodist leadership pool, but they are taking on a growing role in rural areas where churches are struggling to support credentialed clergy.  Many of them are part-time and bi-vocational, but most are extremely dedicated to the churches they serve, offering them a chance to create new chapters in ministry.  Some lay ministers are seeing growth and new relevance for congregations that thought their best times were in the past.

“Small churches don’t need to create a system of small groups to help people fit in,” Briggs says in her introduction, “they are natural places of intimacy.”(x)  They can use this natural gift to make a difference in their communities in making disciples.

Over the course of 23 short chapters, Briggs tells episodes in the story of the Calhoun & Drake’s Chapel turnaround.  She describes physical improvements to make the church spaces lighter and more welcoming.  But the churches not only upgraded the inside of the church, they moved outside for ice cream socials in the parking lot and put floats in the Calhoun Colt Show parade.  When they planned a one-day Vacation Bible School and only one child showed up, they jumped in the car, drove around the neighborhood, and collected children.  They exchanged youth mission teams with a church in downtown Detroit, did luncheons for public school teachers, and began a prison outreach ministry.

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Margie Briggs

“It is so easy to be consumed by what a small-membership church cannot do,” Briggs says (75).  But she describes how each of these ministries began with a small, manageable step and grew on the enthusiasm and compassion of those who participated.  It also helped that Briggs herself seems to have a contagious spirit and a commitment to excellence.

“Unless we are going to give up on every town or village across the country with under 2,500 people,” Bishop Robert Farr says in an epilogue to the book, “we need to figure out how to create, encourage and renew compelling and competent small churches, engaged in ministry that is dedicated to reaching new people and doing whatever it takes.” (100)  He notes two key components in this renewal—lay leaders “who are in love with Jesus, people and their mission field” and a willingness on the part of the congregation to change. (100)

Briggs encouraging book, (which includes a study guide), makes the daunting task of helping small, rural churches thrive seem possible and even, dare I say, fun.  At the very least she makes it clear that we don’t have to live with the ghosts of what’s gone before.  We can trust that God will do a new thing even in old places.

How to Make Your Church Inefficient: The Winn Collier interview continues (2 of 3)

fullsizeoutput_18a7In the first part of my interview with Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Charlottesville and author of Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church, we talked about his decision to set his novel in a small town.  We also talked about the use of letters as a way to tell the story of a pastor and his congregation.  In this segment we dig deeper into why small congregations should treasure a particular kind of inefficiency.  Click on the title link for my review of the book.

I know you lived in Waco, Texas.  Did you grow up there?

From sixth grade on, yes.

Before Chip and Joanna Gaines turned it into what it is today right?

Exactly.  Now it is the Magnolia Mecca.

Yes, and with the new Baylor football stadium.

Oh, it’s massive.  Yeah, it’s changed drastically since when I was there.

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Winn Collier

So, when you were there it was probably more of a small city.  You’re living in a small city now.  How much is Charlottesville or the places you’ve lived before in the place you imagine in the new book? 

[The fictional town of Granby is] definitely smaller than any place I’ve lived so in that sense its feels very different but it feels like a lot of places that I’ve maybe visited.  It’s probably more like places that I drive through and maybe towns that I’ve visited when we lived in Colorado.  One of my favorite authors is Kent Haruf and all of his stories are set in one fictional town in Colorado, and there’s just something I think that I love about that.  So it’s just where I go.

Where I live now on the Eastern Shore is very rural and I’m working with a whole lot of churches that feel like the kind of church you’re imagining in the book.  Confronting a  narrative of despair and decline is a huge challenge.  Do you see new opportunities even in places like that?

Absolutely!  I absolutely do.  In fact I think in some ways these small, rural churches are actually on the front lines of what’s happening because it’s a place where we are grappling with the most human realities that we are struggling with.  Sometimes in massive churches with massive resources, that are run in many ways like a Fortune 500 corporation, they are actually more disconnected from some of the harsher struggles that our communities are facing.

I’m not trying to paint one as bad and the other one as good. I think these large churches also are able to amass energy and resources towards large questions and they are able to ignite some kind of movement and responses to things.  Sometimes it’s really helpful and sometimes it’s very short-sighted.

In some of our larger expressions of faith it’s just very difficult to keep the human at the center and if the incarnation tells us anything is that this joining of humanity with God is at the very heart of what God’s doing in the world.  To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships.

In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.  It has its own struggles.  It has its own questions about sustainability and we have to be creative about those sorts of things, but there are things a small church is attuned to and can respond to and be for people that a large church absolutely never can.

“To be large and efficient you have to, in some ways, reduce the inefficiency of what comes from human relationships. In the smaller churches that’s not even a question.  Everything is inefficient. And that’s seen typically as a real negative and I want to say: Let’s flip that story because it’s not.”

In some ways, lots of small churches spread all over the vastness of our country is actually our hope way more than a growing handful of massive churches.  So I think that there’s actually a lot of hope there and in lots of churches where people are.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_What I find most encouraging and interesting and hopeful is those small churches that really are reflections of their community.  They really are a part of the fabric of the life of that community.  They’re living out a parish model that most of the rest of us are doing our best to try to fabricate and so were left at the end of the day doing the best we can.  We do have to do the best we can but doing the best we can is trying to fabricate something.  That’s why we have things such as small group ministry.  It’s important because where else are you going to get connected?  But we have to be honest and say were having to do this because we are so uprooted and because our lives are no longer bound together.

Yeah.

We’re no longer working in a couple square blocks or neighboring our neighbors farm, and were no longer going to one another’s place when it’s time to harvest, pulling up tobacco or corn or what have you.  We’re no longer showing up at the same diner at noon for lunch as three or four of our other friends and we’re going to see them two or three times a week because there’s only one or two places to eat in town.  We have three churches to choose from and it’s one of the three and five times a year those churches are going to get together and do pancake suppers.

That kind of life that was so common fifty years ago, for many of us, because we’ve moved to urban centers, has been obliterated and so now we’re trying to find ways to get people in proximity.  That’s always, to some degree, going to feel orchestrated because it is.  In small churches all they have is each other and the storyline they’re being told is that’s the problem, and I think it’s a gift.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Charlottesville.  His blog can be found at winncollier.com

The final segment of this interview, ‘God, love, God, love,’ can be found here.

The Lure of Small Towns: The Heartlands Interview with Winn Collier – (1 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeWinn Collier’s new book, Love Big. Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, is a generous celebration of the potential of church.  In my review I noted that it is a gentle, human love story between a pastor and his congregation told in the form of letters written to the church over the course of his tenure.  Winn is not only an author but the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In the course of this interview we talked about the book, the realities of small church ministry, the writing life, and even church security in the wake of the Texas church shooting.

Winn: So, you were telling me about your blog.

Alex: Yeah, I started it after the election last year, thinking that the theme I wanted to work on was: Why don’t I understand the place where I live anymore?  It has developed into an exploration of the Great Divide that we’re in and also rural life and rural ministry.  So it’s not only that I appreciate you having a new book, but that it’s written to a small town church.  It feels like it’s right in the wheelhouse for this blog.

Well, hopefully it resonates somewhere with some folks.

What has the response been like so far?

It’s definitely been far different from any of my other books, but I feel like that’s such a low bar. Definitely getting more responses, more curiosity about it, more notes, people saying kind things about it and stuff. So, in that sense it feels like its connecting with certain people,

I’m definitely hearing more from some different groups, saying, “Hey I think we’d actually like to read this and talk about it.”  And from lots of different angles—like one pastor wants to give it to his Elder Board because he struggled trying to explain some things of where he’s coming from, he feels like the book gives a language for them.

Another pastor wants his church to read it because he feels like it will start some conversations that might open up some possibilities for them. And then there’s a group of retired Presbyterian pastors that meet cordially and they want to read it and me to come talk with them about it. So, in that sense, the narrative form of it maybe has allowed some possibilities that maybe other forms might not.  So I’m thankful for all that.

This isn’t your first foray into letter writing as a literary form though is it?  Wasn’t your first book in a similar style?

41DSa3mfXpL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_No, it was my second book [Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of François Fenelon] and it was letters that François Fenelon wrote to friends that I reworked.

This book obviously is also [written as series of letters], but a good friend of mine, who lives in Colorado, and I write letters to each other on our blogs.  So that’s connected with a whole other sort of group of readers which has been kind of interesting.  It does seem like something about me keeps coming back to that.  There’s something about that that resonates with me.

Is it the second person voice?

I think it’s the relational component, that it’s been written to a particular person or persons. The way I enjoy letters, is it kind of gets to the point and there’s something about the particularity, like you’re writing to particular people.  It’s so steeped in friendship and there’s something about the form that’s so counter to the realities that we live right now.  Nobody writes letters anymore.

Yeah.

I do wonder: How is that changing us?  How does it change us that most of our communication now happens in email blasts?  There’s a lot of good about that—I can communicate with our church in a rapid fashion and its very nice for the budget, doesn’t require the manpower, office staff, stamps and  envelopes and even the time—but also I wonder if we’ve grappled at all with what we’ve lost because it’s not our world anymore and I don’t know what to do with that.

Right. It’s not just the texture of the paper but the texture of the communication too.

Yeah, that’s right.

So why a small town?

41q15SgR88L._AC_US218_A couple different reasons.  It wasn’t a conscious choice.  Partly what’s important for me to say is that this book didn’t come with a message.  The fiction wasn’t just a tangential device I chose because I thought it would be the most effective way to get out the message I wanted to get out.  It was a story, and it was one that was going to be told in letters and we would see where that would go, not because it was going to be a pastor writing to his church, (which is different than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead which was a pastor writing to his son, telling his own story).

This is really different and it forced me to think about: there’s lots of things a pastor actually wouldn’t say in a letter to his entire church community.  I had to think long and hard about what kinds of stories he could tell that he would feel he had permission to tell, all these sorts of things.

So the fact that it is a small town was just the way the story came to me.

Then the question would be: Why did the story come to me that way?  There’s something inside me that’s resisting the storyline that’s often getting played out which is overtly or covertly signaling that large and urban is better…that the center of power definitely is moving to the urban centers.  Sometimes I wonder if the [last presidential] election is a reaction to that…kind of a last grasping.  A ‘no!’

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_But it’s inevitable.  It’s happening and it’s a train that’s left the station.  But it’s not the whole story.  There is something in small towns that I find myself drawn to because there are still vestiges of a kind of humanity possible there that I don’t want to completely lose.

I also don’t want to in any way idealize it.  There is also another kind of humanity that happens in urban places that’s a new expression and I’m not discounting that in any way.  I’m also not saying that small rural towns are always these humanizing places because sometimes they’re just desolate. I totally get that.

But there is something that’s at least possible in those spaces that no longer feels possible in larger urban areas.

The second reason would be that I spent the last 5 to 6 years immersed in Wendell Berry’s fiction, so it seems obvious that my brain would probably naturally go to some place like that.

Winn’s blog is at winncollier.com.  The second segment of this interview, How to Make Your Church Inefficient, can be found here.