Although I grew up in Kansas I’d never traveled much within it beyond where the Interstates go. In the past few months I’ve made up for lost time. I’ve delved into the largest salt mine in America, far below Hutchinson. I’ve scaled the Flint Hills outside of Neodesha. And just this past week I happened upon the geographical center of Kansas near Bushton. Talking with the folks in this area I’ve also realized how difficult it is to find out when you are officially crossing over into western Kansas. Apparently, it can be anywhere as far east as Topeka and as west as Hays. At least in South Dakota we had the Missouri River to mark such things.
For this big-city guy, rural churches are oddly my comfort zone. In a world full of ever-increasing activity and change, the people who proudly populate small towns on the prairie are the stayers of the world. And I admire them.
They’ve moved once, maybe twice in their lives. They’ve ranched and farmed on the same acreage for decades, sometimes since childhood. They can tell you where everyone lives in town and especially where everyone used to live.
This isn’t just flyover country, it’s often drive-through country. But God’s people are here too. And so is a surprising mission field. Besides the lifers in every town, cheap available housing has recently drawn all sorts of newcomers to small towns. They might be in hiding from whatever ails them in life, but God has a way of finding us no matter where we run. Just ask Jonah.
While I get to share my family’s story about being shaped to be sent abroad, I love to listen to the small-town saints talk about their experience as stayers. Sometimes they apologize as if staying married to the same person, staying content in the same home, and staying active in the same vocation for decades is some small feat. It’s not. It’s a great gift.
I’ve been reading through 1 Corinthians recently, where Paul has reminded me to love the church at all times, even when it’s not at its best. He also responds to various questions from the church that are as old as Pentecost. Ones we still struggle answering today.
One question the church asked Paul concerned spiritual gifts. Some Corinthian Christians were convinced that certain gifts were better than others, especially flashy and showy ones like miracle-working and speaking in tongues. Here’s how Paul addresses the topic:
Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
– 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
It’s easy to think God has gifted other people in his church more than he’s gifted us. We marvel at those who are willing to travel cross-culturally or selflessly serve their communities in intense ways through foster care, prison visitation, or social work. And thanks be to God that he gifts such people.
But Paul’s point still stands. The same God, the same Spirit, is at work in all sorts of ways through all sorts of giftings. The same Spirit that has called our family to go to Brazil has called many more families to stay in their communities and proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom to their neighbors, both old and new ones.
Last Sunday night I stepped inside the most beautiful NAB church facility I’d ever seen. And I’ve seen dozens this past year. It was built in the 1930s, designed by the pastor himself and constructed by the members. It took less than a year to complete and required no debt. The pastor tells me the church currently has no budget and never has had one in the past. God’s always met their financial needs.
The church family has shrunk over the years. The sanctuary designed to hold over 200 people regularly hosts 40 or so on a Sunday morning. Last Sunday evening I had the pleasure of meeting with about 12 saints in the basement.
Sometimes the decline of an area and a church within it can rob people’s joy. Strong winters on top of that can do the trick too. But that church basement last Sunday was one of the more joyful places I’ve entered. I talked. I laughed. I listened. I was refreshed. Ninety minutes flew by.
While rural churches are often full of aging people, their faith is still a gift. One person in his nineties said he’d see me in Canada for the Triennial. He hasn’t missed one since 1949. That same morning a man at a sister church said to me with an envelope in hand, “I’m 85, so I don’t know how long I can support you in Brazil before I die, but I’ll support you until then.” I can only hope I’ll follow their example were God to grant me long life.
That’s the gift of staying.
As my wife likes to say, “we can’t go unless many of you stay to send us.”
It’s hard to stay joyful when main street looks deserted and the church building seems mostly empty on a Sunday. But the Spirit is still at work wherever Christ is magnified. Or, as Paul says above, whenever someone says, “Jesus is Lord.”
If you are saying Jesus is Lord, it doesn’t matter if only a handful of people are saying it with you. The Spirit is there. It’s stayed all this time. And there’s a gift in staying.
There’s a gift in sending too, but that’s a story for another time.