© 2015 Robert Osburn
Slightly revised 2/4/16
It had been over 50 years since I last entered the doors of Tipton Community Church, a rural Michigan congregation whose building testifies to the influence of its New England Congregationalist roots. Around the time I graduated from elementary to junior high school in 1963, our family had drifted away. The pressures of part-time farming, on top of full-time factory work, were too much for my father. The fact that the church hired a theologically liberal Congregational pastor was incidental to our departure.
The fact was that he was from liberal Ann Arbor (where, six years later, I would begin studies at the University of Michigan) and, no surprise at that time, he wanted to talk about sex. Well, that was, to put it mildly, controversial in our little town of 200. Far more important was the fact that a theological die was cast in that church: A new and liberal gospel would fill the pulpit, and another Congregational church was about to go to seed.
As early as 1972, author Dean Kelley forecast that liberal churches would slowly decline while conservative churches would grow. And, 44 years later, his prediction that people would flock to churches that address spiritual needs instead of political (and sexual) rhetoric has been borne out. The numbers are shocking, but one metric of liberal decline stands out: Since 1963, the US population has grown by 60%, while the percentage of mainline Protestants (mostly liberal churches) has declined by 25%.
And now, over 50 years after the switch from conservative to liberal theology in that little rural church, has the pendulum swung back toward an evangelical pulpit? Here’s why I think this is the case: As aging liberal pastors have retired or died, they are not replaced. And why is that? At a time when roughly 60% of American seminarians are in evangelical seminaries, the smaller cohort of theologically liberal pastors cling to the ideologically friendly environs of large urban centers like Ann Arbor, or Minnesota’s Twin Cities, for examples. So rural churches like Tipton’s either die or they hire the conservative evangelical pastors who still yearn to shepherd farmers, rural blue collar types, and those folks who love the ground more than a latte at Starbucks.
And that is just what I learned last Fall when I re-entered (for my father’s funeral) the little church of my youth. Now shepherded by a warm-hearted evangelical, the church pews are once again filling. Along the same lines, a Congregational church in a western Kansas town, faced with the same problem (no liberal clergyperson willing to settle on those lonely prairies), asked a local seminary-trained evangelical high school teacher to take their pulpit. Sure enough, the newly-reborn church sports Bible studies and calls to follow Jesus, and pews are filling because hearts are being healed.
All this amounts to evidence that rural churches (and rural regions of North America) are being re-evangelized. This is truly a “back to the future” scenario. As frontiersmen and young farmers poured out of America’s Eastern states in the 19th century, they headed west, along with revivalist preachers and New England Calvinist Congregationalists. In the 19th century they evangelized and launched thousands of rural churches that were almost all evangelical, except for Roman Catholic parishes.
And now, after more than a half-century of liberal, pew-emptying Protestant therapy-masked-as-theology, those churches are being swept back into the arms of the Savior. Rural folks are relearning a faith that has always infused rural Midwesterners with a sturdy confidence that can withstand the topsy-turvy weather of a fickle climate famous for tornadoes, blizzards, and droughts.
The fact that evangelicals are once again taking over rural Protestant churches in American is especially good news because of the growing divide between the well-educated, prosperous, family-centric culture of America’s suburbs and the poorly-educated, down-on-their-luck, fragmented families that are increasingly finding refuge in rural towns where housing is cheap, but hopelessness and drug use are rampant. If ever there is a time for evangelicals to breathe new life into rural American towns and villages, the time is now. As more evangelical pastors fan out into these rural communities, reminiscent of earlier gospel preachers who traveled by horseback, they will find hurting, empty, broken hearts and lives eager for the healing, renewing power of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel is returning to America’s countryside, and none too soon. There is hope blossoming on the Prairies.