I learned something startling from this Jake Meador piece about small town religious life. What would you expect to see, he asks, if Evangelicals “fondness for big” runs amok?:
First, we’d expect to see rural places become ecclesial deserts, marked by dying mainline congregations starved for orthodox preaching. We’d see Catholic parishes in similar disrepair. In the suburbs and cities, we’d expect to see wide-scale burnout among church leaders—leaders who feel trapped in unsustainable ministry models that, due to crazy workloads and job responsibilities, leave little room for family, the Sabbath, or simple pleasures. We’d expect to see young people grow disillusioned with the project-oriented nature of church, longing instead for small-scale intimacy. We’d expect, in other words, to find a church with plenty of accomplishments, but lacking spiritual formation and deeply woven community.
Pardon my bluntness, but we’d expect to find something that looks like what we have today.
A true story from the ecclesial desert: A good friend of mine recently filled the pulpit at a United Church of Christ in small-town Nebraska. He thundered away from his text, preaching sin and repentance and redemption in Christ. When he was done, an old farmer from the church came forward to shake his hand. The farmer said, “Usually the preaching here is awful. I sleep through the sermon more often than not. But what you said today, young man—that was preaching.”
Of course, paltry preaching can be found everywhere. Likewise with strong evangelical preaching. But small towns struggle to secure pastors in a way that urban churches often don’t. In an urban context, elderly believers can usually find with a couple miles a church where the preaching consistently centers on the gospel. For the farmers here in Nebraska, that’s not really an option. The mainline church is often all they have. This means that churchgoers often have young, inexperienced, and extremely liberal pastors who have been forced into the job and will leave at first opportunity. Poorly taught but basically orthodox Christians in small towns often must choose between consistently bad preaching or no church at all.
Meador encourages his readers to learn to love small-town life. Brian Gumm writes that it’s very hard to do this without a local economy:
Small towns all across the Midwest and Plains states – Meador’s Nebraska and my Iowa – are drying up and blowing away, and with them go the sticker virtues [Note: "Sticker" is a Wendell Berry term meaning people who stay around a town, versus "boomers," who leave when they've used up the place. -- RD]. A significant factor in this withering has to do with the emergence of large-scale agriculture, the food system it props up (among other systems), and the economic system that makes it all tick. These have had a devastating effect on small-scale farmers and the rural communities they clustered around.
Drive around rural Iowa and you can see this plain as day: Farm fields, equipment, and buildings are bigger; but houses in the country are fewer. The downtowns of both Toledo and neighboring Tama are in sad shape. Houses in town regularly fall into disrepair. Service industry jobs are the norm here, and professional work is hard to come by. Labor for material production happens at large-scale companies that make products that go into products that go into products, and these jobs often entail a commute to larger surrounding cities and towns. Some even commute to Des Moines, an hour away.
These economic shifts have contributed to an unraveling of the moral fabric of our community. My wife has said the difference between her hometown of 15 years ago and now is staggering, and we were already starting to see fabric fraying when we were in high school in the early and mid-90s. She’s now a mental health worker in our community and the needs are great – substance abuse, domestic violence, self injury, depression, etc. – and the workers few, with prescription meds often the only recourse in the absence of a community of care, support, and nurture.
Gumm’s remark that I have optimism, or romanticism, about small town life because I haven’t dealt with the economic question. He has a good point, and reminded me that I never link on this blog to posts on the other blog I write, a tiny one about West Feliciana Parish politics. We are having a parish presidential election in a couple of weeks. Economic development and its lack is the big issue. As I’ve been writing lately on that blog, if we don’t have economic development, we are going to lose everything good about our parish. Our economic problems are complicated, and don’t bear going into here. The most important thing to know is that the parish leadership has done little to nothing successful to bring new businesses. The parish depends heavily on taxes from a nuclear power plant. We’ve known since it went online 30 years ago how much the tax depreciation would be at the end of the reactor’s run. Three decades we’ve had to diversify our businesses in town. Very little has happened. This year was the first time the sch00l system had layoffs.
In our parish, people say that we can’t be like Zachary, nearby town that’s booming. It’s sprawlsville, and we don’t want that. But boy, we sure could use some of Zachary’s problems. They have a thriving economy. We don’t. The town across the creek from us is Jackson, which went into decline after the town’s main industry, government-supported facilities, began serious cutbacks. It’s a complicated story, but basically when a town heavily dependent on one industry substantially lost that industry, the domino effect of decline began. Businesses began to close, people lost their jobs, property values declined, as did the public schools. I wrote a blog entry saying that we in St. Francisville may not want to be like sprawling Zachary, but if we don’t do something to diversify and build the economy as our main industry, the nuclear power plant, depreciates in tax value, we are going to turn into Jackson.
A Jackson reader of my blog wrote indignantly to concede that indeed his town had gone downhilll, and to explain in greater detail exactly how it happened. Yet he took deep umbrage that I would cast aspersions on the quality of life in Jackson. Sorry, but this doesn’t add up. Sentimentality doesn’t pay the bills, or build affordable housing, or keep the schools open. Yet we see this same sentimentality at work in West Feliciana as we approach this important election. The two main candidates are both good men. One believes in keeping things as they are, and says there’s no big problem here. The other says that we are headed for oblivion if we don’t make some real and serious changes to attract economic development. Listening to them talk at a community meeting, I thought of Il Gattopardi and his realization that things in Sicily had to change for everything to stay the same. That is, the reform candidate is absolutely right: the young people are moving away because there are relatively few jobs, and little affordable housing. If we don’t change in ways that will make many of us uncomfortable, we are going to lose the good that we have now. Without the basis of a healthy local economy, none of the rest of what we love culturally is sustainable.
West Feliciana has been coasting for 30 years off tax revenue from the nuclear plant, and our leaders have wasted three decades failing to capitalize economically on the great advantages that tax revenue gave us. Now that the plant is depreciating, as we all knew it would after 30 years, some are still living in denial about the seriousness of the situation in front of us. I haven’t been writing about that on this blog because I’ve been doing so on the little, local one. But maybe this is a good time to talk about it here. When my dad was a young man, West Feliciana had far more businesses in town, and was more economically diverse. We may be wealthier now than we were before the nuke plant came, but we are arguably in a more precarious economic condition — and we have failed to perceive the threat our economic structure poses to our way of life. We’ve sat here thinking that things would take care of themselves, that they would always be like this. That’s not good stewardship.