Josh Laxton on Redeeming Rural Areas

Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College, and a co-host of the new podcast, Living in the Land of Oz. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


A couple weeks ago the Laxton house couldn’t agree on a movie for family movie night, so my wife clicked 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, Indiana 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 Institute at 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-ness of 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 potential of resources in 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?

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 people of grief that need a shoulder to lean on. There are frustrated addicts that need faithful advocates. There are 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.

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Source: Christianity Today