Elizabeth Glass-Turner ~ Folk Religion & Ford Pick-Ups: How a Missiological Approach can Transform Small-Town Ministry

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I’m a Yankee.

Specifically, I was born in central Michigan, where the air is scented with pine needles and damp sand.

I live in northeastern Texas – a region known for its own Piney Woods – but a world away from the cornfields of the Midwest, where I grew up.

It may seem like a small question, but how does someone from the Big Ten have a fruitful ministry in Texas when, just a few years ago, she neither knew nor cared about the famed University of Texas vs. Texas A & M rivalry?

I remember asking seminary friends who hailed from Texas (and a proud, boisterous lot they were) where, in the Lone Star state, they were from. They would tell me (proudly and boisterously) and all I could return was a blank, uncomprehending smile. One friend told me that she had gone to Texas A & M. This was accompanied by an air of deep significance, like a secret handshake or a password.

If she had said University of Michigan or Michigan State, I would have comprehended; Purdue or IU, I would have known intuitively that she was stamping her identity, proclaiming her camp.

After living in Texas for several years, I sent her a message on Facebook: I get it now.

Cultural elitists from coastal metropolises probably see all small towns in the flyover zone as one in the same.

They, in fact, are not: a reality borne in on me in my first year of pastoral ministry – and this “profound” reflection came from pastor’s kid – and not only a pastor’s kid, but a pastor’s niece, and a pastor’s granddaughter, and a pastor’s daughter-in-law. I grew up swimming in pastors. The windows I looked out of as a child were parsonage windows. How could I be surprised that local context mattered?

Luckily, the Texan-ness of Texas seemed foreign to me, and that was beneficial, even if it yielded some culture shock – because I automatically began to respond, not so much as a local pastor, but as a missionary. (Please don’t be offended, Texans – I invite any Texan who moves to Michigan to view those inscrutable northerners in precisely the same way.)

Specifically, of all my ministry classes in college and seminary, I drew on “Primal and Folk Religions” and “Contextual Theology” as resources. Not because I have witch doctors feeding baby chickens poison in order to divine whether or not a woman is telling the truth, but rather, because every culture has symbols that carry meaning – explicit and implicit – and language, traditions and acts carry layers of meaning that sometimes take decades for anthropologists to tease out and discern.

I couldn’t afford decades.

My little frontier church was lurching towards disaster when I arrived. For years part of a two-point charge, congregants seemed accustomed to a certain level of benign neglect. Immediately before I arrived, the charge was split; but so, too, was the level of employment: the church would have its own pastor, but the pastor would be part-time.

So I had a church in decline with wistful memories of full pews,  a spate of deaths leaving raw grief, and an identity crisis – in the midst of a regional context that centered on agricultural and environmental disaster in the form of an epically damaging drought that affected the economy at state, regional and local levels.

Here are a few missiological principles that helped to breed renewal, optimism and fruitfulness.

1.) Respect the local culture for what it is.

It doesn’t have to reflect your personal tastes: I’ll never carry a camouflage purse emblazoned with a rhinestone cross, okay? But people here like what they like, just like Jersey Shore likes its tans and the Pacific Northwest likes its ethically sourced, organic free-range chicken.

If you disdain the local culture in which you find yourself, it will come through. I’m proud of where I come from; I grin gleefully if my Detroit Tigers beat the Texas Rangers; that’s who I am. But I respect the people here, which means that I respect this culture of rodeos and firearms, of trapping feral hogs and driving forty miles to get to the nearest Target.

I don’t have to like the blistering heat or the “water bugs” (code for giant roaches); but if I am to have a fruitful ministry, I must genuinely like the people.

Understanding a bit of area history helps uncover how a local culture has developed, too. I was amazed at how many residents regularly carry concealed weapons, for instance.

But consider this: the oldest houses in some East Coast towns I’ve visited have plaques bearing the year they were built – and many of those plaques start with the digits 16…imagine a house standing in the United States built in the 1600’s. Our little town here wasn’t founded until the very late 1800’s; Texas wasn’t a state until 1845. (Before that, it had won its independence from Mexico, meaning that when it joined the U.S., it was its own free republic.) And ranches are huge, with “the law” centralized in scattered towns that are few and far between. In short: if you’re a middle-aged resident whose family is from this area, it’s likely you had a grandparent or great-grandparent who was responsible, a la the Wild West, for protecting their family in a very real and vivid way.

What does that mean for a part-time pastor of a flagging mainline denomination rural church? It means that many of my members don’t live “in town” but drive in to church from outlying areas without thinking twice about the mileage. It means that there is a strong streak of independence and mistrust of centralized authority. It means that there is a hybrid blend of self-sufficiency and conscientiousness of the importance of looking out for one’s neighbor. And it means that every week, in the weekly mailer, there’s an ad for “licensed to carry concealed” classes.

Understand how the local culture developed. Respect it for what it is. Only then can you empower your local congregation to discover how the Gospel of Jesus Christ can flourish in the local soil, and what unique growth can occur.

2.) Actively observe and listen for the first year, at least. You are watching local customs, learning local words, discovering patterns. This could take twenty years, not just one: but one year’s worth of good watching and listening can leverage a small window of opportunity.

I learned that the local high school has its homecoming every four years rather than every year, and that girls are given mums to wear. I had to explicitly ask if they were chrysanthemums before learning what a “mum” is (a large badge of ribbons, for lack of a better description). With several teachers and school board members in church on Sunday mornings, it was good to know.

I learned that several significant town figures and, more pertinently, church members, had very recently died, and that the wounds of these losses were raw and gaping within my congregation; it needed healing, then, before turning too forcefully outward in its vision.

I learned that in the surrounding area, there was still a culture that reflected the reality that many residents were only second or third generation immigrants, many from eastern Europe, with the delicious result that every donut shop (and there are a staggering number of donut shops) sells little pigs in a blanket called “kolaches.”

All of these examples aren’t just anecdotal sketches: they’re examples of collecting information, of sifting what is important and what isn’t, of analyzing behavior, mood and attitudes in an attempt to establish a sense of local cultural norms.

Because in ministry, leaders are called to discern cultural norms and to seek change through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, or to seek opportunity for a dovetailing connection between culture and faith, or to seek adoption of those norms as a vehicle of communicating faith. And while the church universal bickers about how to respond to cultural currents on a macro level, I believe that a vibrant local church will, on a micro level, discern its place in local culture consciously or unconsciously.

This shows up in such mundane matters as discussing the possibility of holding a drawing for a firearm as part of a fundraiser (remember our regional history) or hosting a senior luncheon for every single graduating student of the local high school (most community events revolve around the local school system). But it also show up in slightly more potent situations – such as when a Caucasian church family adopts an African American daughter; and while on the national scale this may not register as culturally significant, on the local level, it distinctly challenges cultural norms – unfortunately, a great deal of latent racism.

Absorbing local patterns can help prevent blunders, too: reflecting on an annual event that had seen waning success with every passing year, I was tempted to do away with it altogether and plan an alternate event – until I realized that as much as the fundraising aspect was discussed, the event functioned much more potently as a gathering of community and, even more, as a way of honoring the people who had recently died, who had figured so largely in its organization every year. But I had to tease out what was explicitly communicated about the event from what was implicit and behind-the-scenes. Recognizing the emotional and even spiritual import of this, a serious mistake was avoided: the event stayed as it was. (Cultural anthropologists and religious phenomenologists spend years attempting to glean from “the locals” the levels of significance of certain rites. Surely we pastors can spend a fraction of the same effort; after all, we share the Word Made Flesh.)

3.) Discern the particular strengths of your individual members and congregation as a whole.

In my experience, churches have a difficult time seeing themselves accurately: either they think they have everything in the world to offer, or they question whether they have anything of value to offer. And a fruitful ministry in a small church requires leadership that gently holds up an honest mirror.

When I arrived, it was like the article that recounted an experiment in which women were asked to describe themselves to an artist who couldn’t see them, and then were also drawn simply by an artist’s observations. The two pictures represented a stark contrast: in almost every case, the sketches created only by a woman’s description of herself showed distorted features that were unattractive compared to the image drawn simply by an artist looking at the subject. What a telling study.

And in this age of Starbucksation, small local churches often feel they’re unable to offer anything of worth compared to large, shiny metropolitan churches pastored by impeccable grins; which is tragic, because both churches offer Jesus Christ; and that is the only thing of lasting worth that either church has, no matter what the insurers say.

So because you respect the local culture for what it is, and because you’ve listened and observed local values and traditions and norms, you’re now able to call forth the unique gifts of this specific body of believers in this particular local context; and to affirm that unique offering as valuable.

One of the strengths of my little church was the number of dedicated (read: burned out) volunteers, many of whom were strong women of immense leadership abilities. But as I heard one male athlete say once, “guys, it’s not just about the biceps and abs: if the rest of you is unfit you’ll just look ridiculous.” I felt it would be valuable to draw out some of the quiet abilities and gifts of our men. I approached a father of three that I perceived to have innate leadership and asked if he was interested in starting a men’s group of any kind – Bible study, prayer, study group, projects, anything. He led a cluster of men who began meeting weekly to work on property improvements; they developed camaraderie, tore out an old sidewalk, put in a new one, added handicapped accessibility, offered friendship to a hurting widower, enclosed a cluttered carport as a multi-purpose storage space, tore out overgrown landscaping and established new plantings, took out old tree limbs, repaired the sanctuary ceiling…

These “outward and visible signs of an inner invisible grace” began to cheer discouraged hearts; the community driving by saw signs of life and liveliness. I had a vision: spreading out volunteer responsibility, disbursing power to multiple stakeholders, engaging men beyond Sunday morning worship: and because I entrusted the nuts and bolts of the vision to the local church members themselves (remember the independence, self-sufficiency and mistrust of centralized authority?), they implemented their version of preparing to invite Kingdom opportunities into their midst.

And in several instances, I encouraged and invited “grass roots” implementation of a broader vision that was constantly threaded through Sunday morning sermons: how is God calling us to be a light in our particular community? As I saw it, it was my job to be out front, proclaiming the Gospel hope of Jesus Christ, steering vision, but not imposing my idea of what the particular cultural incarnation of that Gospel vision must be.

In that way, when the pastor leaves a local setting, the cultural embodiment of that Gospel vision has the opportunity to live on because it is rooted in local soil. We have enough short-lived programs that survive with an individual pastor’s tenure but fade as soon as that individual is gone. And why do they fade? Because they’re artificially imposed as a blanket response by the pastor everywhere the pastor goes – and if it works one place, the pastor reasons, it will work another. And if it doesn’t, the pastor blames the congregation.

Meanwhile, in small town Texas, the little church that had stood so battered and worn now stands refurbished and proud. Discouraged tones have been replaced with optimism, confidence and vision. The number of Sunday School classes offered grew by 300%. Church members began initiating and carrying out stellar events that fostered community, spread the Word and offered healing and hope. Record numbers of visitors began to show up on attendance sheets. Despite heavy losses occurring due to deaths of elderly members, church membership held steady due to the number of new members being added. A crop of new babies led to the need to get the nursery in order.

Not every small rural church will embrace a vision and hope for the future.

But perhaps it’s time to see how many would be willing, if only we gave them our best.

Which is what they – and the Gospel of Jesus Christ – deserve.

8 COMMENTS

    • While I know there are toxic small churches that are ingrown and poisonous, I think many are overlooked simply because the skill of pastoring a small membership church isn’t valued much anymore and therefore few know how to really instruct students in how to do it. Dr. Keith Drury of the Wesleyan Church instilled in his students an appreciation for the nuts and bolts of practical ministry.

  1. Great witness! May your tribe increase. Hope for revival is not in the megachurch, but the countless UM congregations that have the same potential as this one.

  2. Elizabeth, just found your article. Thank you for eloquently confirming what many of us, especially local pastors, believe about “the little church in the village.” Keep up the good Gospel work.

    • I think many pastors have had to explain or defend their vocational choices to the extent that they feel the need to “validate” their ministry by means of service in increasingly grandiose contexts. And much of ministry is thankless, and I think “promotion” is seen as confirmation of the worth of what we do.

      But many Christians belong to small or mid-sized congregations, and yes, I agree, it’s helpful to remember that just like in acting, “there’s no small part.” If we really affirm the value of every individual, we affirm the value of individuals in thousands of little micro-cultures across our country. Attempting to understand those micro-cultures, for me, is a gesture of respect.

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