Why Evangelicals Need ‘Ruthie Leming’
Jake Meador, the superb young Evangelical writer making a life for himself and his family in Lincoln, Nebraska, has done me the very great honor of writing a rave review of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming for Christianity Today. Jake says that the book has a special message for American Evangelicals. Excerpts:
In A Quest for Godliness, J. I. Packer said that the Puritans of old, in contrast to contemporary evangelicals, were marked by a greater maturity. In reading Dreher’s reflections on small-town life, and seeing his desire to savor its beauty despite all the pain, I couldn’t help thinking: Here is a mature writer speaking words American evangelicals desperately need to hear.
We evangelicals tend to be a numbers-driven group. In the 1990s, the seeker-sensitive era had us tracking our church attendance and building multi-million dollar buildings to accommodate our megachurch congregations. Now in a more pessimistic era, pollster George Barna has us tracking the number of young people leaving the church. And in between those extremes we keep plenty of other numbers, measuring everything from the number of people helped by our charitable work abroad to the number of people we want to reach with a given outreach event or church plant. As we often do, we mimic the prevailing norms of a success-driven modern culture that tends to believe that if something can’t be measured, that’s because it doesn’t really exist.
But Dreher’s chronicle of St. Francisville and his sister’s life teaches us that one cannot quantify the most important things in life. Dreher had enjoyed professional success in New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia but when Ruthie was sick, she had an entire town circle around her. For the duration of her sickness, her family never came home to a dirty house and never lacked for meals or emotional support. The townspeople even arranged a benefit concert to help raise money for Ruthie’s medical bills. In just one day, the town of 1,700 people raised $42,000.
Contemporary American storytelling has a funny relationship to small-town America. On the one hand, we can tell stories that show a great love and deep understanding for it, as in NBC’s marvelous Friday Night Lights. And yet in my own state of Nebraska, it’s become something of a rite of passage for students at our flagship university in Lincoln to bemoan small-town life and vow to flee the state as soon as possible upon graduation. They’ll settle in a big coastal city where they’ll achieve all sorts of success. They’ll finalize their divorce from their small-town roots—and in most cases they’ll do so rather happily, as they find opportunities to mock and belittle “flyover country.”
The same kind of brain drain is happening in Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and North Dakota, and it is wreaking havoc on our region. Worst of all, because the majority of people talking about small-town life are the “leavers” now working in New York, Chicago, D.C., and San Francisco, the image that often emerges is unflattering at best. In contrast, we seldom hear the stories of the “stickers,” people like Ruthie Leming and her husband Mike.
For our part, American evangelicals have followed a similar trajectory. We’ve largely abandoned small towns (try finding an evangelical congregation in most small towns in Nebraska), we’ve seldom challenged our young people to return home, and we’ve often embraced a philosophy of ministry that judges success on the basis of attendance, money raised, or some other measure that will by definition favor cities and larger communities. Yet when we consider the story of the Christian church, we’re reminded that small places have a vital role to play in God’s kingdom.
Read the whole review here. Jake, thank you a thousand times for your generous words.
Buy my book here — or better, if you’re in northern Virginia, see you tonight at the Tysons Corner B&N! I’ve been out in the District and suburbs today, and very busy with my pen; you can find signed copies at the B&N near Metro Center, the B&N in Potomac Yards, the B&N in Clarendon, and the B&N in Bethesda, as well as two at Kramerbooks near Dupont. Tomorrow night: Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC.