People are moving to urban centers. I understand that. Urban centers generally have significant cultural, social, and political influence. After more than 25 years in a rural area I really get that.
Yet…. Pastoring a the same rural church in southwestern Oregon for more than 25 years gives me a perspective I want to share. First, our denomination (Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board) has chosen to invest most of its time, energy, and resources into urban church planting. Understanding that people are migrating to urban centers means we should be paying attention to urban centers.
Second, having lived in a southwestern rural Oregon county that is much more conservative politically and socially than the metro areas of Portland, Salem, and Eugene my family and I feel the urban thumb every-time we buy gasoline. Part of the gas tax funds Portland’s metro transit system (which in 30 years of living in Oregon I have never used). Urban areas impact our vote for President and state offices and policy initiatives. Many in our county voted for Trump in the last presidential election knowing that Oregon’s 7 electoral delegates would vote for Hillary Clinton. We voted against legalizing recreational marijuana knowing that the urban areas would likely override our votes – and now recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon.
Third, opinion makers are centered in urban areas. Reaching them with the gospel requires churches in urban areas. New churches being planted in urban areas are certainly impacting cultural centers in those communities. I am elated when church plants are successful.
Now to my challenge: Opinion makers also live in rural areas. Our county commissioners have had significant opportunities to influence legislation supporting the idea that timber is a renewable resource (believe it or not at the federal and state level there have been those who believe that trees are non-renewable). I had a (very) small role a few legislative cycles in shaping policy for the delivery of services to children and families in Oregon. I was privileged to serve as the president of the Northwest Baptist Convention between 2011-2013 (as a rural pastor of a normal sized church). I hope I was able to provide a positive and hopeful model of leadership in that time.
As I see it the challenge is simple: how do we provide a voice for those who serve and live in rural areas? Our denomination has typically been served by those whose pastoral experience may have included a rural pastorate during seminary days, but most of those serving in significant denominational leadership were shaped more by their urban contexts than by their seminary churches. I know younger leaders are being asked for their opinions in a variety of forums and I value their opinions. I believe that those of us God has called to less-celebrated, less populated areas also have opinions and ideas that matter.
Remember, rural does matter!