Finding Hope for Rural America in St Johns

© 2017 Robert Osburn

From the outside, it all looks so peaceful.  There is a predictable cadence to rural life, even the obligatory pessimism of farmers who’ve seen too many downpours and droughts to dare hope that this year’s might be the bumper crop they always wanted.  Too many rocks batter the farm equipment that inevitably breaks down just when you are planting a crop that must be in the ground before that big thunderstorm on the horizon moves in. 

But hope always springs anew on the prairies. And so you plant those fields that are too muddy, all because you think that this year, maybe, just maybe, your bumper crop will sell for sky-high prices.

If only. 

Today, rural America’s problems go much deeper than uncertainty over the price of grain or the latest weather forecast.  Rural America is becoming a wasteland for lost souls on drugs.  They find cheap old, semi-abandoned farmhouses to rent, and either waste away, cook the meth, or use the opioids that eventually kill them.  In either case, their children suffer, sometimes tragically.  For some, it’s where you go when you have been abandoned by a society made for the successful, smart, and savvy.

Rural alienation is undoubtedly a component of the resurgent populism that has befuddled interpreters and social analysts since the election of President Trump.  That Jesus’s compassion extends universally to the harried and harassed (Mt. 9:36) ought to generate a search for ministry models that genuinely serve rural communities while also exalting Christ.  46 million Americans, or 15% of our population, reside in rural areas, served by somewhere around 200,000 churches.  The good news, as I suggested over a year ago, and as Ed Stetzer did in a recent Christianity Today article, is that those rural churches are returning to their evangelical roots. 

But, that’s not the only good news about rural churches.  At least one church, in sprawling rural central Michigan, is pioneering a replicable strategy that serves the broken and left behind in rural areas, and without a single penny of government money.

Sponsored by First Baptist Church of St Johns, Beacon of Hope Family Care Center offers participants one on one appointments with volunteer advisors, a Learn and Earn program that ties completion of a variety of activities with receipt of material support, a food pantry, and used clothing and household supplies. In addition, weekly Bible study groups are available for women, and Beacon of Hope recently conducted its first Faith and Finances group using curriculum developed by the Chalmers Center for low-income individuals. 

Program participants tend to be “folks who fall between the cracks,” reports Bob Showers, Chair of the Clinton County (Michigan) Board of Commissioners (where St Johns is located).   In other words, participants make too much income or possess too many assets to access traditional welfare services, but otherwise share the problems and perspectives of lower-class people whose social capital, education, and social functioning tend to ostracize them from the mainstream of rural life.

What Ron Sider and Heidi Unruh call church-based social ministry looks very different in rural than in urban settings with their often-well-funded rescue missions and vast array of social services.  Rural communities have, however, traditionally nurtured social capital, where farmers often work each other’s fields during illnesses. Thus, social services have traditionally not been needed.  But, that reality is changing.  North Carolina State University’s Allen Stanton writes of two views of rural communities: “The first is in idyllic terms, with rural communities romanticized as relaxed, simple and honest places. The second often comes from a place of pity: rural life is seen only as a world of lagging economies, failing school systems and poor access to health care.”

Rural churches have always played an outsized role in rural social capital formation, but, now, as rural communities are struggling, the need is greater than ever.  Tipton (Michigan) Community Church offers a bi-weekly Saturday dinner for the community.  Redland Baptist Church in Valdosta, GA runs an annual “Christmastime at Camp Rock” event that serves rural children in the foster care system.  The larger picture is that rural churches can be centers for redemptive change, finding positive solutions to rural problems, but their numbers are few.

St John’s Beacon of Hope rural church social ministry model is not only replicable, but also rich with lessons for other rural churches.  First, understanding the psychology behind participation is particularly important in rural communities where neighbors watch neighbors.  Until 1997, Beacon of Hope was a crisis pregnancy center, but most rural women seeking abortions preferred the anonymity of nearby Lansing, the state capitol.  Rural church social ministry programs work best when they avoid stigmatization, and thus some 15 years ago Beacon of Hope transformed into its current ministry model.  The church is solidly pro-life, but rural social dynamics undermine a ministry focus on crisis pregnancy counseling.

Secondly, leadership matters.  Wise pastors will identify gifted leaders (perhaps under-utilized but well-trained women) to lead social ministries like Beacon of Hope.  Pastor Tim Knaus is keenly aware that the success of Beacon of Hope is largely due to the leadership of church member Karen Leif whose doctorate is in child development. Leif is highly skilled, and wise rural pastoral leaders will actively look for similarly-skilled women and men who may have recently retired from government social services and who are looking to be empowered for ministry. Duke Divinity School’s new program devoted to rural ministry (and rumors of one opening at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center) can offer useful resources in this regard.

Thirdly, rural church social ministries must not shed their faith-based foundation, as have, sadly, many Christian social service agencies around the world.  Beacon of Hope has instead leaned into the Christian faith. Dr. Leif and Gail Perez, a Beacon volunteer, have written over 10 Bible studies that use simple terminology and an easy-to-read format that makes the Bible accessible to participants. The result is nothing short of phenomenal. Participants report that the studies help them understand the Bible and grow in their faith. Some have even called them "addictive," saying they couldn't stop working until the entire study was complete. One reported that "my walk with the Lord is strong because of Beacon of Hope…the Bible studies have given me the history of the Bible.”  Another noted that “all of the classes I have taken has helped me to connect more to God and my family.” Some participants have trusted Christ and joined the church, reports Leif, who, rather than reveling in academic sophistication, makes herself “all things to all people” (I Corinthians 9:22).  Hundreds of participants, many of whom had never read the Bible before, are immersed in God's word.

Fourthly, serve people, not clients. Several years ago, First Baptist church elders struggled with the implications of the run-away best seller and game-changer by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts (2014).  To emphasize that no one was a passive taker, the ministry now views those they serve as “participants.”  Jesus called his followers “brothers” (Mt. 28:10). One participant said that “I just love all the instructors here. They are more than that; they are friends.”

Fifthly, rural church social ministries must work from a posture of shared brokenness, not superiority.  As noted by Corbett and Fikkert, that we are all desperately needy sinners mitigates the tendency to superiority in serving those with less physical and psychic resources. Leif admits that, after working with this ministry for nearly 15 years, she has become less judgmental of people as she has discovered the extent of their life traumas.  This awareness, in turn, has generated a greater realization that all she has is a gift of God. She goes on: “I have learned that Beacon of Hope is God’s ministry and not mine… I have come to realize that every single thing in my life is a gift from God and that He didn’t give it to me to hoard but to use.”

Finally, rural church social ministries must scale appropriately, if only because of the limited resources in what are often relatively small churches.  Beacon of Hope offers their services on Tuesdays, which ensures that their 90 plus volunteers are not exhausted by the kind of daily services offered in urban ministry settings. When Jesus tells His disciples to “count the cost,” there is no hint of condemnation, merely the application of wisdom (Luke 14:25-33).    

Challenges remain. Integrating low-income participants into a very middle-class church community, whether rural or urban, takes work, and the obstacles are many, including dealing with children who struggle with developmental and behavioral issues. 

Nevertheless, the Beacon of Hope rural church social ministry model is a beacon to other rural churches struggling to respond to aching needs in their communities. 

There is hope for rural America. How about a pilgrimage to St Johns to find out why?

Note: The May 27-28, 2017 edition of the Wall Street Journal has a major front-page article detailing the severity of rural suffering.