The good news of complete desperation

October 18th, 2021

Have you ever considered what type of burning bush Moses encountered when God showed up?  The invasive species called "burning bush" (euonymus alatus) takes its colloquial name from the story.

Exodus 3 tells us the bush was aflame though not consumed when Moses spotted it in the wilderness.  Putting plant taxonomy aside, is there any value in considering the binomial nomenclature of the burning shrub in the wilderness? Ancient rabbinic commentaries on the book of Exodus believed the curious endeavor was worth pursuing. The rural church may want to follow the lead of such an uncanny cue. 

Decline of rural places

The juxtaposition of my two most recent residencies is quite contrary: Pasadena, California and Metamora, Ohio (population 645). Metamora is best found on a map by looking West from Toledo and peering right up against the Michigan border. The miniscule town is within the Evergreen School District, a composition of what was once six small villages and several townships that remain mostly as address indicators spawning from their usage as travel connections in the days of railroads and horses. There are a few small industries and lots of agriculture. As someone previously dedicated to the urban experience, I will be the first to tell you that Metamora passes all the marks of being rural – including the general decline occurring within most rural communities during the 21st century. 

As it goes with most rural villages, the once thriving and sufficient economies that supported the towns and tributary landscapes are gone. The intergenerational pattern of heirs is a rarity, and the abandoned homes sit waiting for a return that only tends to occur for funerals. Vacancy is normal and, in turn, it is often agreed that rural places are backwards, under-developed, provincial, and primitive. This inferior perception also justified that the greatest usefulness of rural places is to be developed by the kind souls who intervene on our behalf for the sake of business expansion. Corporations found land and a workforce (often with lighter taxes), and rural places got jobs, metropolitan services, and access to products once considered luxurious. Rural places were no longer needed outside of the recreational retreat or retirement to the countryside. Increases in transportation and access to “culture” made rural areas a place to live by happenstance or unfortunate inheritance. 

Thus, rural places finally arrived to have the civilized disconnection and ease at the mere cost of abandoning what held these communities together. Such is the narrative for periphery economies: we became an export of raw materials, of which our people are considered a part. Local influence was replaced with absentee control.

Yet the current transience and loss of economic vitality, alongside the willingness to placate industrialization and specialization in a globalized world, has not only made us primarily consumers, we have also lost our connection to the land we no longer live from and to the neighbors we once depended on. We are pursuing employment for a wage in order to pour our capital into places not our own. Mutual responsibility is no longer necessary, and we have also become useless to each other. The deal rural places made came with fine print that enlisted a dependence on people we did not know and who did not care about us. No longer do rural places provide for themselves. Responsibility was handed over to the civilized influence that nonchalantly separated us from the very source of our life that once made rural areas subsistent and connected. 

What does the death of a community cost? What is the result of the displacement of 24 million farmers? What happens when people leave or detach from a community? Rural dislocation and rural decline have been unfortunate dance partners, turning rural places into a desolate wilderness. 

Rural places are now the places called nowhere, made up of people called no one. 

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The good news of complete desperation

I came to Metamora, Ohio both out of naiveté and reluctance. I was poor, unemployed, and desperately searching for stability after moving from California. Receiving a call to a pastoral appointment offered reprieve. The situation was a bit disconcerting, however. The appointment needed filling because the pastor at the church had died unexpectedly, and the church was on the brink of closing. 

I drove out to the church to see what I was in for. Suburban development slowly evolved to cornfields; a setting both unfamiliar and daunting. There was no development, barely any industry, and an almost imperceptible amount of human activity. There was also no church. A dilapidated building sat near the one street light in the village – a representation of how the whole village felt. The church hadn’t been used in over a decade, having been condemned because of black mold.

This wasn’t just a rural church. It was a rural church in the middle of nowhere, with a dwindled congregation, and every conceivable setback I could imagine beckoning that this church had hit rock bottom. Needless to say, I asked for a new appointment. 

A few weeks went by, then a few months. I started to feel strangely at home, and the thought of an appointment change slowly faded from my purview. The stories and history of a unique place emerged from the rural stereotypes, and a reverent hope hummed beneath the surface of death and decline. Even as an inexperienced 24-year-old, I was welcomed into their fold. I realized, then, that the places called nowhere with people called no one were not only falsely described but actually contained a necessary ingredient for future possibility. 

Hear this good news: the story of God always begins in the wilderness. 

The Christian tradition is adamant that when God acts in the world, it is always with the people and the places least expected; the people called no one in the places called nowhere. 

This little, old rural church embodied the hope of the wild; the catalyzing force of emptiness and struggle that so often marks Israel’s wandering, exile, and renewal. Complete desperation, when vulnerably embraced, leads to imagination. Desperation can take us where comfort cannot.

As I sat around a table with the few congregants who had trekked through the metaphorical desert, I asked what we were going to do. Their response? “We can either close our doors or start over. We might as well try something new.”

When people ask me what they should do to revive their rural church, I coyly remark that they should put black mold in their buildings. The greatest catalyst for the church today just may be complete desperation. That’s where God’s work always begins.  

Reimagining the church as thornbushes

The church ain’t what it used to be – especially the rural church – and the decline of places parallels the decline of the church. As we’ve lost the interdependence of communal life, we’ve also lost the ancient identity of the church’s propensity. To confront the catastrophe of rural decline, we may also need to reconsider the very essence of the church. We need to reimagine the church, because in reimagining the church, we may reimagine our places. 

This is why the ancient rabbis earnestly declared that the bush of Exodus 3 was, of course, a thornbush. When the Divine presence creatively manifested by name to unleash Israel’s covenant in the world, it came through the same medium that imaginatively related to the esteemed edenic garden of Genesis. As the commentary goes, the garden of creation was surrounded by thornbushes as a hedge of protection; a source of preservation to foster the vitality of that lively existence. The intention of the bush theophany was illumined – Israel, too, was meant to be a thornbush for the world; that which protects, preserves, and sees to the life of all creation. Israel was to be a thornbush for the flourishment of the earth. 

If the church is the continuation of such a covenantal vision, is the church meant to be a thornbush for the world today? As we scan the dismal landscapes in our desolate wilderness, we ought to take solace in our history. One may wonder, is there an organization, a group, or a movement dedicated to making the world good and fostering the health of places by taking responsibility for its future through ordering its present life? There is. The local congregation has been on this mission since that bush was aflame.

The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed a similar daring vision. In speaking to the covenantal people when they were staring at a future that looked nonexistent, the prophet sent word for how the Jewish people were to embrace their bleak situation and imagine a new future:

“But promote the welfare (shalom) of the place where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because its welfare (shalom) depends on your welfare (shalom)” (Jeremiah 29:7 CEB).

How will the exiles endure? What is their directive in a world that has been destroyed? See to the welfare – the shalom – of the places where they are. 

The rural church may need to become thornbushes in the places where they are. Be a subversive body for the good of the larger body. Be a signpost for God's reign by offering healing and hope, cultivating transformation, and supporting and guiding our communities toward God’s dream for the world. 

If the local church has the best propensity to form, nurture, support, create belonging, and compel relational and economic life, rural churches can be the hope of rural places. Rural churches can be that force to honor a place’s memory, adapt to a place’s context, and through shared history, shared vision, proximity, and permanence, tangibly enact God reign in the small places by fostering its health and seeking its shalom.

What would it look like if God is in charge here? As with the wilderness meeting tent in the book of Leviticus, we can embody God’s story in such a way to activate the imagination of the gardens we serve and give a glimpse of what is possible. 

That’s what we asked ourselves at this little, old church in Metamora, Ohio. We put our energy into throwing barn parties, creating third spaces for the community to gather, starting a food cooperative to support local farmers and producers, and offering opportunities to be and learn together that reflected the context of where we were and who we were with. We stopped trying to do the normal conception of church better, and we started imagining how we could do church differently; which wasn’t about being new or cool or exciting. Rather, we embraced the ancient art of being meaningfully adapted to our place as thornbushes.

What would happen if churches used their buildings as a third space in declining rural areas who have little access to gather neighbors together? What would happen if rural churches prioritized the support of small, diversified farms and local businesses? What if local churches utilized church property to cooperate in local food production? How might local churches use their platform, their message, and their organizational capital to mobilize the meeting of needs and catalyze the gifts of the people who call that place home? How can we foster a way of living that is adapted to our particular context? 

What else could the church be?

Reimagining the church in rural areas might be the only thing we can do in our present circumstances; but it might also be the only thing we ought to do. 

May we embrace the vulnerability of desperation.
May we take advantage of the wilderness’s bountiful imagination.
May we seize the propensity of the local church.
May we see ourselves as thornbushes.

And may the world never be the same.

Forthcoming in the summer of 2022, Fresh Expressions of the Rural Church, coauthored by Michael Adam Beck and Tyler Kleeberger.

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