Redeeming Rural

This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can click here for the original link.

A couple weeks ago the Laxton house couldn’t agree on a movie for family movie night, so my wife clicks on Hoosiers. Now, a movie as old as Hoosiers certainly raised my children’s eyebrows—and even complaints—since they weren’t born in the century that churned the movie. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the storyline of the 50-year old Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) who moves to rural Hickory, IN to coach the Hickory Huskers. Through a battled journey, Dale victoriously leads the Huskers to the echelon of Indiana High School basketball—the State Championship.

Underneath the grand storyline (main plot) is a subplot. And this subplot has stuck with me as I continue to think, dream, and plan for rural ministry through the Rural Matters Instituteat the Billy Graham Center. What’s the subplot you ask? Redeeming Rural

In this post, I want to outline three redeeming (wrongs made right) elements seen in the subplot and exhort the church today to enact a similar redeeming quality in their mentality, ministry, and mission to rural areas. 

Redeeming the Rural Mentality

Early in the movie, Myra, a teacher at Hickory High, engages Norman Dale describing the rural-nessof Hickory. She vociferously notes that Hickory doesn’t appear on most state maps and that the only thing that comes through Hickory is a train. She goes on to explain that people—especially 50-year-old men—don’t move to Hickory for good reasons. 

I think Myra’s understanding of Hickory has been (and to some degree continues to be) a realistic understanding of many today—even those in the church. For decades the church has promoted ministry and mission in the urban (and suburbia) areas, as these centers continue to experience upticks in population. 

When figure heads of evangelicalism call young leaders to give their lives in strategic areas like cities, and when large denominations have church planting initiatives that focus their resources and efforts on cities, it’s no wonder why there has been a vacuum of leadership, resources, and ministry-aid for rural areas. And if someone does move in or stay rooted in rural areas to do ministry, they probably face the Myra’s of the world thinking they had no better opportunity or offer elsewhere. 

It’s important for the church to reverse engineer such a negative mindset towards rural areas. Rural places do not need to be seen as places of inopportunity but prime locations for opportunities. The problem Hickory faced and that many rural areas today face is that fewer are willing to mine and leverage the potentiality of resources of small towns to [figuratively speaking] “put” them on the map. 

Jesus had to overcome the stigma of what comes out of small towns. Nathanael, prior to following Jesus, is quoted as saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The church must redeem the mentality towards rural areas by seeing them as places of great potential.

Redeeming Rural Ministry

Hoosiers depicts a great deal of brokenness—a town inhospitable to outsiders, a teenager who had suffered great loss, a town drunk living in shame and isolation, and a failed basketball coach in need of a second chance. Who knew rural towns had so many problems? [When I think of small towns, my mind typically goes to Mayberry—a quaint little town with very little problems.] 

The reality is, rural areas aren’t immune to the depravity of humanity. Whether it’s an area with a sparse population of 26 or a small town of 26,000 every single person is in great need of redemption. Every area, regardless of how small has wrongs that need to be made right. 

Residing in rural communities are cold hearts of pride and racism that need to be melted. There are tears of grief being shed that need a shoulder to rest. There are frustrated addicts that need faithful advocates. There fractured marriages in need of healing counsel. There are orphans that need a family. There is the unemployed searching for meaningful employment. There are failures in life longing for dealers of hope. There are prisoners in need of visitors. And there are searchers for purpose in need of people of direction. 

In order to redeem rural ministry, the church must focus on the needs of people rather than the number of people in the area. 

Redeeming Rural Mission

When thinking and discussing rural, almost everybody wants to focus on size. For many, size dictates importance. That’s exactly what some thought about Hickory, IN. This concept of the importance of size has creeped into the church’s understanding and impetus of mission, which has deterred many away from focusing on and going to rural areas.   

Today, more than ever, there is a need to redeem rural mission. To do so we must understand a few things. 

First, the size of the place has no bearings on the scope of God’s mission. God has called the church to go into all the world! A Christ-centered mission will have a church moving for and towards the whole world regardless of location.

Second, the purity of God’s mission isn’t the call to scale or multiply, but to faithfully make disciples.

Redeeming rural mission will require the church to decommercialize God’s mission. Instead of going where we will get the biggest bang for our gospel-buck, we will go where the Spirit prompts. 

Third, the size of the place does not affect the size of the impact. In fact, mission to rural areas has the potential of seeing greater community impact. If you did a cannon-ball in the middle of Lake Michigan, few will see and experience the impact; if you did a cannon-ball in a swimming pool, everyone around (and in) the pool sees and experiences the impact. Rural areas are the swimming pools the church can do gospel cannon-balls that can be felt and experienced by many in the community. 

In closing, after overcoming the less than 21st—Century cinematic affects, the Laxton children sat through the entire movie. They were captivated by the overall storyline of defeat, struggle, redemption, and celebration that captivated their imagination, spoke to their hearts, and inspired their lives. 

While my kids were into the overall drama of the movie, my mind raced to how basketball transformed a small rural town in Indiana. And to know that the church has something so much greater than basketball! 

My prayer is that the church will not neglect its responsibility to take the gospel into the rural areas of the world. To do so will require the church to redeem rural by seeing such areas as places for opportunity, people in need of ministry, and platforms for mission. As the church does this, there will be a glorious subplot of the gospel redeeming rural communities for the glory of God and the good of the world! 

Catch Me if You Can: The Creation, Goal, Destruction and Deliverance of Counterfeit gods

Tim Keller in his work, Counterfeit gods, along with Kyle Idleman in his latest work, gods at War, engage in the topic of idolatry. Idols are in essence counterfeit gods that take the preeminent place of the Triune God revealed in Holy Scripture. As I was thinking about this whole idea of idolatry, particular the counterfeit nature of idols or gods, I remembers the movie, Catch Me if You Can. Maybe you recall the movie— starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio—which was based upon the biographical sketch of Frank Abagnale, a teenage con artist who posed as a Pan America pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana parish prosecutor. He primarily made his money by forging fake checks. In this movie, we see that counterfeits are created by the created, are created for a selfish purpose, they lead to destruction, and they can be overcome. I believe the plot line of this movie presents some similarities for people in understanding the nature, purpose, and consequences of counterfeit gods, as well as how they can be overcome—or at least how one can be delivered from their dominating grip.

First, counterfeit gods are by nature created by the created. In other words, those who have been created create them. A Jeep commercial’s slogan highlights this when it quotes, “The things we make, make us.” Thus, the nature of counterfeit gods is that they are created by man—whether they be a philosophy, religion, product, game, a political system or party, a sexual experience, a monetary system, drugs, substances, etc.—in which they become man’s fixation to the point man preeminently worships the created rather than the Creator.

Second, what is the purpose of counterfeit gods? Essentially counterfeit gods are created to satisfy an individual. The seduction and temptation of the serpent to Eve expresses that the offering of counterfeit gods lies at the false promise they can do something the Creator cannot; or they provide something that the Creator for some reason has hid from the created. In the end, counterfeit gods are created to offer meaning, or an escape from something, or an avenue by which we can crave our desire(s). Frank Abagnale accentuates this point. The movie paints him as a troubled teenager that used counterfeiting as a way to run away from a dysfunctional divorced family. In addition, it satisfied his desire to be important, to live a life of luxury—something his father had, then lost. Eventually counterfeiting and falsifying his vocation became his vocation—his meaning to life.

Thus, counterfeit gods become our fixation in order to help bring meaning in our life, escape something in our life, numb a pain present in our life, or satisfy an insatiable desire in our life. However, as seen in the movie, as well as in real life, counterfeit gods have a shelf life. In other words they are like pain medicine—the affects are only temporary. Just as Abagnale had to continue to forge fake checks, so too people who run to counterfeit gods for meaning, an escape, a numbing, or a fix will continue to return to them over and over and over. Sometimes, people may think that a particular counterfeit god becomes defective and thus turns to another counterfeit god, only to find it too is defective. Thus they continue this cyclical lifestyle—always trying new counterfeits, but never finding true meaning, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

Because counterfeit gods carry a shelf life, they consume and control our life; many times leading to self-destructive behavior that hurts the individual as well as those around them. Catch Me if You Can reveals the destructive nature of Abagnale’s counterfeiting escapade. His actions hurt businesses, abused relationships, and left him lonely, unfulfilled, and guilty. The counterfeit gods of power, sex, money, substances, self-absorbed religions, philosophies, and ideologies leaves one in a self-destructive vulnerable position in which they potentially can cause grave harm to themselves and others (see the history of self-centered civilizations). Because the use, implementation, and worship of counterfeit gods are selfish and are thus consumed by and for the individual, counterfeit gods inevitable raise the individual to the place of God. And when fallen, sinful, depraved humanity sits in the place of the holy divine, consuming the created for personal enjoyment, satisfaction, and fulfillment, nothing good can result for the betterment, or common good of others (see King David and his sin with Bathsheba).

Last, while I have described the nature, purpose, and destruction of counterfeit gods, which is certainly negative, there is, nevertheless, hope. Deliverance and redemption from a life of counterfeiting and consuming counterfeit gods is available. For Frank Abagnale deliverance and redemption became available when he owned up to the sin and destructiveness of his actions, behavior, and even his lifestyle. After Frank gives himself up, he is sentenced to 12 years in prison. While in prison, Abagnale aids Carl, the FBI agent, by pointing out how one of the checks Carl is carrying is counterfeit. Long story short, Carl works for the release of Abagnale so he can help the FBI in the counterfeit division. The ending credits of the movie reveal that Frank has been happily married for 26 years, has three sons, lives in the Midwest, is still good friends with Carl, has caught some of the world’s most elusive money forgers, and earns millions of dollars each year because of his work creating unforgeable checks. Talk about deliverance and redemption!

When it comes to the elusive career of humanity in forging counterfeit gods that overpromise and under-deliver, and which cause great destruction in our life as well as those around us, there is one who promises deliverance and redemption. There is one who works for our deliverance and release of the counterfeit prison. Jesus, the conquering and liberating King of Glory has come to take all of the destruction of the counterfeit gods of our life and of this world on himself, burying them; in addition he takes upon himself all our sin and brokenness which has resulted from our counterfeit lifestyle, delivering and redeeming us to be used for his mission in the world—the proclamation and demonstration of his redemptive and restorative kingdom.

Our lives have been created by the Triune God with the purpose of relating to him in an intimate vibrant relationship, and reflecting his glory throughout the entire created world by embodying his characteristics and attributes, which happen as a result of him being the center of our life. Since we have been created by God and for God, man is most satisfied and fulfilled in life when God is the center. As John Piper accentuates, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Counterfeit gods, which are created by man, for man’s self-centered use, take the place of the Triune God of the universe and results in nothing good for self, for others, and especially God’s glory and purpose in the world. We must ask God to give us discernment in locating the counterfeit gods in our life, as well as his power to deliver and redeem us from the destructive, guilty, and lonely grip that counterfeit gods have on our lives. So while counterfeit gods may taunt the phrase, “catch me if you can,” God responds with the cross and declares, “Not only will I catch you, I will bury you and replace you with my supremacy, my glory, my mercy, my grace, and my redemptive, transformative, unconditional love.” Have we allowed God to catch, bury, deliver, redeem, and replace the counterfeit gods of our life?