One year ago today, almost to the minute, I finished a cycling trek across the state of Oklahoma. I didn’t ride alone, but with two men who have been friends, mentors and confidants for over 30 years. Kurt Siebold rode with me through the daily 100 degree temperatures. Ted Merritt drove our support vehicle and showed up at just the right times with cold water or better still, ice cold watermelon! Beginning at the farthest western tip of the panhandle, just a few miles from Black Mesa, OK, after six days, 550 miles, 14 counties, and too many small towns for me to remember, we pedaled into Broken Bow, OK, in the southeastern corner of the state. What an amazing experience! What a wide open window into the hearts of the people who live in rural America and the opportunities to bring the grace and truth of Jesus to this largely over-looked, yet equally receptive mission field!
So many churches are dwindling and dying off in rural Oklahoma and the rural US at large. It is increasingly visible in the rural communities I serve and visit regularly; including the ones I cycled through a year ago. What can we as Jesus followers and His church, learn from my short little sojourn across the state of Oklahoma and her many and often over-looked rural spaces? What must happen for the Kingdom of God to thrive in rural communities? I can answer those questions from one conversation I had with a waitress in a sushi restaurant in Antlers, OK, population 2400 (yes, sushi).
Antlers is the county seat of Pushmataha County. It is a “resort” town serving as a gateway to the Kiamichi Mountains. Nestled in the pine covered hills of eastern Oklahoma, close to Beaver’s Bend State Park, it is a sportsman’s paradise. Like so many rural communities in Oklahoma and the US, it is home to people who share a complicated and powerful connection. They will come together in a heart-beat whenever and regardless of whomever tragedy strikes, all for one and one for all, while at the same time knowing each other’s business to the point of annoyance and insult, obviously the result of a steady stream of town gossip. This complicated sort of rural connection that hosts both concern and carelessness embodies an enviable strength because it has the capacity to transcend its obvious weaknesses and rapidly come together for the greater good of the community. It also lends significant weight to the response I got from the waitress that I am about to share with you. She speaks with authority as a representative of this tightly knit community that mirrors so many, many more in rural America; a community that because it is tightly knitted, offers great opportunities for rapid and lasting Kingdom growth. If you share my passion for bringing Kingdom life to the rural American mission field, then hear what this waitress had to say:
“So, tell me about the churches in this town. What are they like?” I asked her as we were finishing our meal and she was clearing a table next to us.
“Well, I don’t go to church myself, but I have a friend that goes to _________________. Did you see it when you come into town? It’s on the south side of the road.”
I acknowledged seeing the building when we rode into town.
“She used to be a drug addict, but she isn’t now. She quit using since she became a part of that church.”
She continued, “And there’s the “Preacher Man.”
“The ‘Preacher Man?’ Who is he?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s the preacher at _________________. He does construction and then preaches at that church. A few years ago when that big tornado come through and tore up a bunch of places he was out helping everyone clean up and rebuild. We just call him the ‘Preacher Man. “
Did you hear what I heard? What did this waitress who is not a Christian, but a qualified spokesperson to answer my question regarding “the churches” in her rural, close-nit town have to say? From her personal observation, the churches and the leaders associated with them that had caught her attention and were worth mentioning, possessed two distinctive characteristics:
First, the church was a place where people experienced substantive change – a place where even a drug addict that anyone else would typically write-off or lock up found not just acceptance, but an environment that led to their recovery. But wait, drug addicts are not the only humans that need to experience substantive change! Every one of us who comprise the human race is in desperate need of substantive change! We are all addicts of sin. Sin, at its core, is simply slavery to self will instead of God’s will. Jesus came to set us free from the tyranny of self promotion, protection and indulgence. Christ’s church must be the place where all of us sin addicts find and experience deliverance from our sin and self addiction, not just the drug addicts.
Second, church leaders were out in the community, in the middle of the mess, so to speak, serving and giving of themselves to meet real needs and expressing their genuine concern through compassionate action. Leaders in the church, be they evangelists, shepherds, deacons, ministry leaders, small group leaders, men or women, any of us who claim to “lead” must no longer “step up” to lead, but rather, step down. As church leaders we must spend less time in our offices and church buildings and much more time in the public squares and the homes and businesses of the people we are called to love. We must better embrace our Lord’s call to greatness in His Kingdom – a call embodied when we step down into the muck and the mire of the lost and hurting world around us and offer our time, our energy and resources in humble and very personally present service. When leaders in Christ’s church do this, the un-churched and unconverted in our rural communities will especially take notice just as my waitress friend did and the church will multiply because we will prove the love we preach through our actions.
It’s been a year today since my cycling trek across Oklahoma’s rural spaces has ended. I’ve reminisced with my buddies Kurt and Ted in the last week over our shared journey. I will always remember the experience we shared. I even have a few more stories to tell about the trip! But most importantly today, I want to share a few of the most significant insights I gained from that journey down the back roads and lesser known byways of rural Oklahoma, and likewise rural America. Rural America is a mission field ripe for the harvest. It is a seedbed for significant Kingdom growth and impact. Rural America is ready and looking for two things from its churches and their leaders: a place for substantive change and love through action. Are we listening?