Reimagining the church in the wild

August 5th, 2022

There exists a land containing a vast array of features – the Mediterranean Sea and its coastlands, mountainous hills, dry steppes, temperate vegetation, and vast stretches of desert – that also occupies a vigorous depth of history. More people and empires have claimed this relatively small patch of territory than almost any other. From African migrants to small Bronze Age tribes, the bridge between the three continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe has seen occupation by the Hittites, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabians, Byzantines, Ottomans, French, British, and a host of other nation-states vying for its geographical importance and ideological significance. From the earliest days of recorded history, especially in days when water travel was difficult, this territory was a prized gem. As technology, trade, and religious organization increased, it became even more important as it hosted ancestral meaning to blossoming peoples and, again, was how you traveled from one part of the world to another. Hence, this stretch of land making up part of the fertile crescent has also been dubbed “The Conqueror’s Causeway.” 

We are, of course, talking about the Levant. Depending on the time of history, it’s been called lots of things; the Middle East, the Holy Land, Palestine, Israel, Canaan, or simply the given territorial title of whoever happened to be in control at the time. Yet, the diverse topographical landscape and the chaotic geographical history aside, this land was not always deserving of much attention. 

Examining the Paleolithic and Neolithic Ages (history up to approximately 4000 BCE) and even the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BCE), the Levant was a fringe area – especially in comparison to its neighboring counterparts such as Mesopotamia and Egypt. The land was relatively uninhabited in contrast to these so-called cradles of civilization. There was a lack of agricultural, technological, and sociological development leaving the territory much more undeveloped and both backwards and behind up against the burgeoning nations and kingdoms in the awakening of centralization. A lack of irrigation and saltless water sources made the cultural motifs of the day difficult. There were few sources of minable minerals or sought-after luxuries and the land had not been centralized, developed, or otherwise outfitted for the harnessed power of bureaucratization that nearby regions had catalyzed. The Levant was just a stretch of land. From the perspective of the ancient version of the metropolis, this was the wilderness.

The Modern Wilderness

Despite globalization and technological advances in travel that make almost every square inch of the world accessible, there still exists supposed wild places. Third-world nations are viewed similarly to the ancient Levant and some remote areas still lack the inhabitance and sociological “development” expected of the modern, industrial project. There are still swaths of regions, territories, and places that appear stuck in the past or that are categorized as uninhabited. 

The Levant was a nowhere and our world still retains an array of “nowheres” scattered about the landscape. 

If we were to use modern metrics to classify an area as wilderness, there would technically be very few. In fact, most categorical wildernesses are either uninhabitable terrains such as vast deserts or arctic tundra or, they have been intentionally kept wild in the form of becoming a park. At this point, most places are settled, they have electricity, and, usually, some form of transportation. The denotation of wilderness, therefore, may be less about sociological structures and more about cultural perception. Developing nations, by all means, are very much inhabited and have a very real identity. In fact, most supposed backwards, undeveloped places are the result of economic imperialism; where the identity of a place was removed for the sake of natural resource exploitation (sometimes referred to as core and periphery economies). Just because one form of society calls another one “primitive,” “provincial,” or “uninhabited” doesn’t mean that it actually is. By all means, the ancient Levant was still rife with nomadic, semi-nomadic, and even settled tribes. Yet, because it did not fit the civilized standards of the day, it was deemed wild. 

One type of modern terrain that may have this perception today are rural places. The average citizen may step into such places and remark on the peace, quiet, and possibly even the beauty. You can see for miles. It’s so simple. Sometimes, these can be honorable remarks. However, I find it interesting that even when rural places are praised, they are being described by what they lack. Often, these rustic remarks are easily paired with descriptors akin to the ancient Levant. Backwards, unconventional, desolate. They, too, are either remote or primed for economic opportunity and cultural development. 

To be fair, the comparison of rural areas, especially in the United States, can only be claimed as wildernesses by metaphor. Yet, the metaphor, especially in the dominant public purview, is accurate. At the least, the modern wilderness incorporates the places that are behind; where traveling there feels like going back in time. Places where nothing is happening. Places of nowhere. 

Increasingly, and despite vast metropolitan development, rural places are becoming desolate landscapes rife with wild connotation. How these places are described sociologically is, in my opinion, quite important; especially in the current phenomenon of rural decline. Do the supposed “nowheres” actually have benefits? Should these modern wildernesses garner usefulness, influence, or prestige? At the least, should be viewed and engaged with respect? 

However, the description of wilderness – and the long excursion into the historical Levant – implies further admonition to those within the theological scope of Christianity that further confronts the current rural problem: The wilderness and its associated places are the setting for almost every act of Divine intervention. We may, therefore, want to consider the role of such wild places as the Divine narrative continues in our day. 

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On Traveling to the Land of Canaan

The story of Abraham in the book of Genesis includes what may be the origins of this theological and Biblical precedent. A subtle, yet necessary detail which is often overlooked appears in Genesis chapter 11 and sets the framework for the very essence of Israel’s covenant:

“Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (son of Haran), and his son Abram’s wife, Sarai his daughter-in-law. They left Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan…” (Genesis 11:31).

There is a progressive generation of conflict throughout Genesis concerning the development of human civilization. From brothers killing brothers over hunter-gatherer and agricultural disputes (Genesis 4:1-16) to a conglomerating human society becoming so violent that God restarts creation (Genesis 6-9) and the ultimate marker of progress – a tower that reaches to the skies is pursuit of immortality; all led by Nimrod, “A mighty warrior…” (Genesis 10:8) – the writing of Genesis seems specifically inclined to consider that the technological and sociological progress of civilization had its compromises. 

Abram – whose name has not yet been changed to its covenantal version of Abraham – begins his journey in Ur; a geographical location that reflects one of those birthplaces of civilization. Ur was the first dominant city in ancient Mesopotamia that was home to the Sumerians. Eventually, this area would become dominated by Babylon. Babel, Babylon, and Ur of the Chaldeans – this is the epicenter of progress and civilization and the mighty forces of culture.

The origins of Israel begin with leaving such a place.

The land of Canaan is, of course, a section of the ancient Levant. One component of interest is that the place Abram is told to go is what would become the bridge of three continents (as well as the Conqueror’s Causeway – a bit of a premonition to Israel’s conflict-ridden future). But this unusual destination beckons with a notion of theological significance as it would have been the complete opposite of Ur. This land was nothing compared to the cradle of civilization with its towering buildings, centralized bureaucracies, and economic and technological advancement. 

Abram leaves the height of the world to go to the perceived middle of nowhere. In fact, in this larger region referred to as the fertile crescent in the ancient Near East, Abram’s travels would have taken him and his family through from the birthplace of civilization through progressively smaller cities and eventually to the supposed wilderness. Imagine leaving New York City and journeying through Philadelphia, then Pittsburgh, a brief stop in Cleveland and Chicago, and ending up in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa. That’s what Abram is doing in Genesis 11.

The action of God in history almost always follows this pattern. Moses leaves the dynamism of Egypt to meet God at Sinai; Elijah retreats to a remote overlook to hear the still, small voice; Isaiah declares that Israel’s future will begin in a desolate landscape; Paul leaves the Damascus Road and first removes himself to the nothingness of Arabia; and Jesus, of course, is from Nazareth – Hicksville personified. 

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

The places called nowhere and the people called no one are the center of God’s work in the world. The Biblical precedent appears to be that when God is going to act, God begins in places such as these. 

The Rural Church & God’s Unfolding Narrative

There is something about rural places, especially in light of their decline and cultural perception, that parallels this Biblical precedent. While the general social mantras are worth countering, I wonder if those who claim adherence to the Christian faith ought to be making such a precedent a priority. Or, at the least, giving such places credibility as opposed to placating the apathy of backwardness, provinciality, or various forms of cultural imperialism.  

Often, rural places are socially relegated to fringe. Unfortunately, the same posture is usually taken in Christian ecclesiology. Yet, the story of the Biblical covenant is one of emphasizing the wilderness. And here, we must ask how this emphasis might take shape in our day.

Within the scope of modern rural decline, where rural communities are perceived more and more akin to the ancient Levant or Nazareth, full of forgotten people in forgotten places, how might the story of God continue in the vast restoration project with its roots in the etiological beginnings of Genesis? Is there an organization, a movement, or a body that exists to continue this Divine intervention? Is there a chosen medium God uses to catalyze the potential and see to the future of the landscapes and communities of the world?

There is. And despite an ecclesiological history rife with problems and failures, the local church may just be that which might not only bring about the ideological horizon of Christian teleology in declining, desolate landscapes – it might also be the instrument of God’s immanent renewal of the world.  

The claim might be outrageous, but if the departure from Ur, the nothingness of Sinai, and the remoteness of Galilee are any inclination, local churches in rural communities might be the very hope of these modern versions of the wilderness; which, of course, means they might hold the hope for all places.  

A healthy rural church could be that which changes everything and, if the work of God always begins in the wilderness, rural places are primed to channel the renewal of both the church and the world. Theologically, rural places may just be the desolate wilderness where God’s work is primed to unfold. They are important, if not essential. We need to begin by thinking differently about rural places. We also need to think differently about rural churches.

Maybe God is again beckoning us to leave Ur and begin building a good world from the apparent emptiness. Maybe our invitation is to see these places as catalyzing possibilities. The hope being that – if we are obedient to the Divine precedent – the whole world will never be the same.  

Much exploration must result if this perspective is, indeed, true. A long road awaits those willing to go on the journey. Yet, the invitation stands. Our hope is that we can reimagine the church in the wild.


Tyler Kleeberger and Michael Adam Beck have more to share on what fresh expressions of church can be in rural communities. Join their Facebook group here to learn more and be a part of the conversation with other congregational leaders around the connection!

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