Circles that heal: fresh expressions of the rural church

October 24th, 2021

We drove off a main highway, down a winding dirt road. We were in the middle of nowhere. No post office. No stop lights. No gas station. And most certainly, no Walmart! At the fork in the dirt road, we came across the familiar site of a cross on a white, wood-sided church. 

The building was constructed in the one-room church design that was typical in the 1880s. The sanctuary functioned as worship space, a Sunday-school classroom, and the pastor’s office. Then, of course, we noticed the spot where the outhouse once stood. Later the congregation added a small kitchen, a few Sunday school classrooms, and a bathroom with indoor plumbing. Then came the fellowship hall addition, a single room, lined with long tables for the potluck. 

We entered the sanctuary for the first time late on a Sunday afternoon, at the invitation of the congregation. A special guest musical group of local celebrity acclaim called the “Over-all Gang” was playing harps, banjos, a kick drum, and an unfamiliar odd instrument called an autoharp (a string instrument belonging to the zither family). Then I noticed they were barefoot! Not just the musicians but the dozen or so members of the congregation. Most of them had taken off their shoes and slid them under the pews. 

I’m a city boy. I was born in Gainesville, and raised in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Ocala, Florida, known to the locals as the “white ghetto.” I grew up with a corner store, baseball field, recreation center, restaurants, and of course several churches, all within walking distance. In some ways, I felt like I had crossed into a different reality. My wife Jill, and our blended family of eight children, felt like all eyes were on us. Not only because we arrived late (got lost on the rough back roads with no street signs and no GPS) but because we were the new pastoral family with this congregation. 

The Holy Spirit nudged us, so we took off our shoes and joined the community. We started to feel the music, to sway a little bit, and then even to clap and raise our hands—like halfway, you know—the conservative Methodist thing to do! 

In between songs, someone from the Over-all Gang would go to “testifying.” These short narratives in between songs had a similar structure: I’ve been through a struggle, it was hard, but God is faithful! Then there were shouts, amens, and more music. The musical celebration which they referred to as a “sing” continued for a couple hours. Then we crossed over into the one room fellowship hall, a much newer shed-like building, where covered dishes were sitting on long tables. 

We sat with these people who seemed strange to us, and we ate together, and then something sacred began to happen. People came to introduce themselves, telling us the different dishes they brought and what we needed to make sure and try. The spread was impressive, just about every kind of meat you can imagine, all fried, then a mix of collard greens, and other vegetables, each mixed with bacon or pork of some kind. But the dessert table, literally “took the cake” as even more fantastic.

We listened to people’s stories and learned their names. It was particularly challenging to follow the genetic threads in the conversation because every person there was somehow related. Each one descended from the great matriarch, who sat smiling gently at the head of the table. When the time was right, I made my way to sit beside her and ask her name. I felt like I was somehow bowing my knee to the bishop of this strange land. Her words were graceful, joyful, and full of southern charm. By “kissing her ring,” we were somehow being brought into the family. 

Slowly, they began to bring me, a city slicker who didn’t know to take my shoes off, as someone who had never seen nor heard of a zither or an Autoharp, into the sacred fold. In just a couple weeks, we would return not as guests but as the appointed clergy. 

I was enfolded in a circle of healing. A circle that shattered my stereotypes, deflated my ego, and put me back together as a more whole person. A decade later, alongside my wife and co-pastor Jill, we are still serving rural congregations. It’s an honor and a privilege. 

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Front porch church—a Fresh Expression of healing

Jesus was a country boy. He was a rural person who came from a rural place, the little hamlet of Nazareth (probable population, 400). Jesus was known as the “son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Which elicited the following jest from the would-be follower Nathanael, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Most of Jesus’s ministry took place in the rural context. And Jesus spoke in a language and in parables contextually appropriate for rural people. 

One of Jesus’s notable healing miracles took place in Capernaum, which is called a “city” in the passage but was likely a village of approximately 1,500 people. As soon as Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, real church began. They went over to Simon Peter’s house, where the incredible power to heal even in-laws was unleashed! Word spread, and suddenly the whole town was on Peter’s front porch. They brought to Jesus all who were sick, mad, or addicted, and Jesus healed them one by one (Mark 1: 28-34).

Who knew that church could take place in ordinary places like a front porch? Church in the rural places—a church in the wild. We call communities like this “fresh expressions” today. Church for people who don’t go to church. This was a fresh expression of healing, outside the centers of religious and imperial power.

The circle of life

I’m an 80s baby. I think every generation since the 1940s has their formative Disney film, and ours was the Lion King. The now classic film opens with a song called The Circle of Life

Some say eat or be eaten.
Some say live and let live.
But all are agreed as they join the stampede.
You should never take more than you give.

In the circle of life.
it's the wheel of fortune.
It's the leap of faith.
It's the band of hope,
till we find our place
on the path unwinding
in the circle, the circle of life.

Some of us fall by the wayside,
and some of us soar to the stars,
and some of us sail through our troubles,
and some have to live with the scars.

I never understood the meaning of these words until I learned to live incarnationally with rural people. They taught me that what I once considered to be weird and outdated ways and rituals, are faithful acts of Christian subversion. They sing, testifiy, and dance their faith. This sustains their hope, as the stampede of extraction, commoditization, and violence tramples the land. They hold onto the decency to never take more than you give. In their community, meeting relational felt needs is part of the art of neighborliness. They live in harmony with the land, and by their labor and sweat, we have food on our tables.   

Now, life is not all experienced like a bowl of cherries in the rural land. I was surprised to discover all the same problems exist there as in the city, but sometimes in different forms. Alcoholic fathers still beat their kids, cousins still commit suicide, and people still sell their bodies in exchange for drugs. Much of trafficking activity takes place in the church parking lot, since it’s the only neutral community space for miles around. 

But there’s also healing here too. We build circles of trust where conversation and care can take place. This is where Jesus does his best work, just like in Capernaum. In the isolation, community is a form of resistance. In the rural church we create space for connection, and this can take place in informal spaces, not just in the church sanctuary.

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Rural church as a circle of healing

Ever since my first appointment as a “supply pastor,” I’ve been learning that church can spring up anywhere under the right conditions. For example, we went to the next town up the road and asked the servers in the diner (our “persons of peace” Luke 10:6) what church would look like for them. Turns out, it looked like church happening there in the restaurant where they worked, over loaded barbecue tables. 

In the span of one year, our little congregation of 12 grew to almost 100. This was miraculous; we had the highest percentage increase in attendance in the whole state of Florida! But then again, we did double the congregation on our first Sunday with our family of eight kids. But the people who call rural home taught me that “church” needs three critical attributes: church needs to be accessible, safe, and real.

Let’s take a look at these three attributes.

  • Accessible: These communities form in the normal spaces where people gather and speak plain truth for plain people. The only requirement for membership is a “desire to flee the wrath to come.” This church is close, in our neighborhood, and speaks a common language, just as Jesus did when he “came and made his home among us” (John 1:14).
  • Safe: These communities meet in small, intimate groups. All people from every walk of life are welcome, and harmful behaviors are not tolerated. It’s a place of healing, not harm, an environment of grace, an inclusive space where the “good news” is made available to all (Luke 4:18–19).
  • Real: People are invited to come to terms with and express their brokenness. We can ask some version of “How goes it with your soul?” People are invited to name their woundedness in a community of reciprocity and mutual support. They process their pain in uncensored language, with prayer that brings real healing (James 5:16).

These small communities are places of embodied hospitality. A community that is accessible, safe, and real can give people space to express their struggles and find healing. They make room for every person to play a part in the circle of life. The rural church sustains me in this way. Indeed, rural churches are critical arteries for the whole body of Christ.

Michael Adam Beck and Tyler Kleeberger are collaborating on the book, Fresh Expressions of the Rural Church, forthcoming from Abingdon Press in the summer of 2022.

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