Rural church rising…again!

June 6th, 2023

“But I’m in a rural context—can fresh expressions work?” Throughout a decade of leading fresh expressions trainings, this is a frequently raised question.

I have served rural congregations for almost 15 years. In each of those congregations we cultivated multiple fresh expressions of church across an entire area, and the inherited congregations experienced new forms of vitality as a result.

In an earlier post, Tyler Kleeberger and I demonstrated that early American Methodism was primarily a rural phenomenon. In the century-long period between the American Revolution and the Civil War (approximately 1765 to 1861), insurgent movements of democratized Christianity took place amid a massive population increase that was expanding westward. This population boom was overwhelmingly rural. Circuit riders crisscrossed vast expanses of terrain, leaving in their wake a constellation of fledgling expressions of church. 

Emerging American Christianity was a fire in the fields, a barnstorm in the backcountry, and the people called Methodists helped light the flame. In the country, circuits consisted of networks of congregations spread across vast distances. Sometimes they met in barns, houses, fields, or crossroads.

The rural church is rising… again! 

Fresh Expressions have the potential to form anywhere, largely because they emerge from a process of prayerful listening to the context. Rural people in particular understand two guiding principles that make our parishes fertile ground for new expressions to arise… Somewhereness and Somebodiness.


Somewhereness is another way to talk about “place economy.” This is a description used in the agrarian tradition that refers to a community living in proper relation to itself, for holistic flourishing and sustainability. 

Our place is not simply a kind of placeholder. It’s a living breathing ecosystem where one can be seen, known, and nurtured. 

Economy from the agrarian perspective is how a place enacts a shared life together through the dispersal and management of resources, which includes financial and material resources but also the allocation of time, energy, labor, and attention.

Somewhereness is about loving the creation of which we are inextricably bound, including every little cell that makes up every creature, flower, and person. To understand somewhereness, the French word terroir is helpful. 

Every place has a unique flavor or a distinct taste. The terroir (French—from medieval Latin territorium) refers to the totality of tones, textures, and tastes. Every context has a unique one-of-a-kind flavor and a unique set of ingredients to compose that flavor into its best possible realization. 

Think of how the natural environment of a grapevine influences what kind of wine is produced. Cumulative factors such as soil, topography, and climate contribute to the terroir. The characteristics of a wine’s taste are a result of the contextual factors involved in its growth and production. 

When wine or chocolate or coffee has a distinct flavor or scent, our gustatory and olfactory senses are discerning the terroir—the somewhereness. 

The terroir of our context cannot be experienced by reading statistical reports or asking others to measure it. We must immerse ourselves in the context in order to taste the somewhereness. We raise our hand to the most vulnerable place on our body: our face. We take a risk. We let it wash over our tongue. We digest it. It becomes part of us. If it’s spoiled, it can make us sick. If it’s whole, it can awaken and lubricate our consciousness, or even impair it. 

This is why the first step in every fresh expression is always deep listening to God and to the context.[1]

What is the somewhereness of our community? What are the key factors that make it what it is? Where did it come from? Where is it now? What’s life-giving about our somewhere? What resources and opportunities are there? Where are the sore spots that need healing? Where is it heading in its current trajectory? Where is cosmic collision with the new creation breaking into your place? Where are some serious course corrections needed? 

The fresh-expressions way is about cultivating communities of the kingdom in the everyday rhythms and spaces where people already do life. Christian community is forming at the barn, bar, lakeside, local diner, farmers market, and so on. But it’s also forming in telephone conferences, Zoom rooms, and virtual-reality headsets. We call this a blended ecology of church, and its power lies in how the church’s life can spread out across the whole ecosystem. 

Teams go into these various spaces, following a journey of listening, loving, building relationships, sharing Jesus, forming church, repeat. This is the pathway we follow in the fresh expressions movement. This activity cultivates little islands of new creation dotting the landscape. Every space in the community is a potential habitat of the Spirit, and every person plays a role. This helps us restore a sense of somewhereness to our parish. 

The groups that form in these spaces can be centered around all kinds of common interests, passions, and hobbies. Christian community can form around social justice, food production, or creation care. Christians and non-Christians can work together for the betterment of the whole parish.

 Somewhereness, a missional posture of placefulness, is essential to begin healing a sick mother of a planet. It helps us see how the kingdom of God is growing subversively all through our parish like a mustard seed (Luke 13:18-21). It puts us in proximity to our neighbor, where we can seek the good of our place and learn to love those we share our place with more fully. Which means somewhereness must always include somebodiness.


People in rural contexts can suffer from a diminished sense of somebodiness. In Fresh Expressions of the Rural Church we pulled together research to describe the “rural consciousness,” which often includes a perception that rural people are antiquated, not respected by urbanites, and that rural areas do not receive their fair share of decision-making power or public resources for which they pay taxes.

Here is a unique opportunity for the rural church to offer the gift of communal life in Jesus, where everyone is equally a somebody. Where our identities are grounded, formed, and reformed in Christ. 

In speaking to young Black students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on October 26, 1967, about creating a blueprint for their lives, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared about what he called the “principle of somebodiness.” 

King believed that essential to a life’s blueprint was that a person needed to have a deep belief in their own dignity and worth. He called his hearers to believe in “your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”[2]

In a world in which some judged people based on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character, King was teaching these young people that they were beautiful, that they mattered, that they were created in the image of God. He was shaping these young minds to see themselves as persons of sacred worth and infinite value. 

In Jesus’s teaching to love our neighbor as ourselves, the implicit assumption is that we will have a healthy sense of self-love. If we love ourselves badly, we will most likely love our neighbor badly as well. Or as we say in the recovery fellowships, “you can’t give what you don’t have.”

Growing in our love for God instills a divine sense of somebodiness. But we can’t stop there. We must extend that same somebodiness to every person we encounter. Somebodiness includes loving our neighbors into a fuller sense of flourishing.

As primarily a rural movement, early American Methodism employed the method of camp meetings. The camp meetings were places that broke down the repressive social structures. They were thin places, where men, women, and children, of every race and class, came together as equal somebodies, a transcendent embodiment of the gracious gift of life. These radically democratized gatherings challenged the dominating narratives of society. 

Over time, the gatherings were domesticated, and “respectable” Christianity enforced the death-dealing stereotypes about race. Rural fresh expressions can be a new embodiment of those early campmeetings. It’s very difficult to challenge racist, sexist, and classist structures that can find safe harbor in rural congregations. In some cases, trying to change that culture from the inside will require a miracle, not that God is beyond that sort of thing. 

Here we can take from the playbook of the early insurgent forms of Christianity that gave birth and shape to the United States. I have discovered that creating new forms of community alongside existing ones can lead to a transformation of the whole ecosystem. Over time, as those communities live together in a symbiotic relationship, the dark and longstanding “isms” of congregations can be healed. This is indeed what happened at Wildwood UMC.

The rural church can be a significant change agent in this way. In the wilderness, we are uniquely positioned to create alternate forms of community that can heal the world. These are nascent communities where a sense of somebodiness can be equally shared among all people and where a diverse body of people can be united by their common humanity. 

This transformation is possible not only regarding racism but also in the context of political extremism, prison reform, economic disadvantages, pollution, or climate change. These communities can form and exist alongside existing congregations and over time. The healing they create floods into the larger community and can even seep through the stainedglass windows of our congregations.

The world needs rural fresh expressions now more than ever before. The rural church is rising… again!

Grab your team and join other leaders and congregations from across the US for the Rural Church Rising summit on October 27-28, 2023 in north central Florida. Speakers include Elaine Heath, Tex Sample, Tom Berlin, Corey Jones, Luke Edwards, and many more! 

If my team can walk alongside you on the journey, reach out to us at


[1] I commend to you a practical resource from my student Luke Edwards:

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