In the Quiet of the Country
Reflections on the power of the country churchBy Ken Garfield
These are challenging times for rural America. Many young people are moving to cities in search of opportunity. Sadly, many family farms are closing because there is no “next generation” to run them.
The future is equally daunting for rural churches, indeed for churches in all corners of our country: Church membership has declined 20 percent since 1999, according to the analytics firm Gallup. Nearly half of all Americans are unchurched.
I’m aware of all that, having covered religion for The Charlotte Observer for a dozen years. But the moment Rev. Darren Johnson began singing “I’ll Fly Away” at my mother-in-law’s funeral is the moment those dire trends faded away.
As he sang “some glad morning when this life is o’er,” I turned to see the comforting smile on my wife’s face. Then and there I understood the sacred power of the country church. It’s not the size of the church that matters, it’s the sweetness. God lives in the farms and fields, preachers and congregations doing His work, one soul at a time.
For 18 years, Rev. Johnson has pastored Hebron Baptist Church, located beside a cornfield in the farm-rich county of Iredell. He once sang bass in a gospel group, Proclaim, which explains why he sometimes sings in the church choir, and at funerals. The northern Iredell community is served by EnergyUnited. The church was founded in 1897, its wooden arbor still used for tent meetings, a testament to its heritage. Rev. Johnson, 55, son of a preacher, grew up six miles from the church. He knows the reality: Membership since he arrived has declined by 200 or so, due to the lack of residential growth in that part of the county. The average age of the congregation is over 60. The church’s long-standing motto — “In the quiet of the country” — may not be an enticement in these days of churchgoers drawn to bells and whistles and fancy gyms.
Like rural churches everywhere, Hebron is trying to grow by expanding programs for young families with children, and looking for creative ways to reach out to neighbors. Church members, for example, handed out 800 free barbecue chicken plates in the nearby community of Harmony. Connecting with a younger generation (or two) and with your neighbors is key, Rev. Johnson says.
“These ministries provide opportunities for fellowship, Bible study and discipleship for kids and young people, while giving parents an opportunity to be disciples as well,” he explains.
Despite all that it faces as a rural church, there is a vibrancy to Hebron, and a grace to its pastor. Our family felt it in our time of need.
Personal pastoral care
When Parkinson’s disease put my wife’s brother, Bristol, in a wheelchair, the Hebron Baptist men built a ramp at his home. Rev. Johnson visited Bristol even after he could barely communicate. He figures he spends more than half his time offering pastoral care in homes, nursing homes and funeral homes. Powerful sermons are important. But to me, a pastor who sits at a bedside or leads a prayer before surgery is doing the most important part of God’s work here on earth. When Bristol passed away at age 70, Rev. Johnson shared this promise from the Book of Romans, that even in our grief, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. My wife, Sharon, chose those verses to honor her brother. Rev. Johnson was privileged to be the messenger.
As my mother-in-law, Marie, spent the last years of her life at home, the last months in a recliner, she was comforted by visits from Rev. Johnson and members of her Hebron family. Children came to sing carols at Christmas. Fruit baskets brightened her day. The weekly bulletin sent the old-fashioned way — by snail mail — helped fill the long days. Marie’s caregiver, Phyllis, had the church drop off tiny crosses for Marie to place in plastic baggies with an encouraging note: “When your fingers touch the cross inside the quilt, be mindful of God’s love and grace for you.”
Eight months after Bristol’s passing, we gathered in the same funeral home parlor to say good-bye to Marie. She was 97. Once more, Rev. Johnson was there to console us, this time with a solo rendition of the hymn whose power never wanes. As he sang of a land where joy will never end, I felt called to share this reflection.
Sowing seeds of change
The troubles plaguing rural churches are well-known, and efforts to turn the tide are crucial. The Duke Endowment (dukeendowment.org) encourages rural churches to embrace new initiatives such as holding summer literacy programs for children. Another focus for many rural churches is encouraging clergy to take better care of themselves through exercise and proper diet — crucial for often overworked solo pastors. The Charlotte-based private foundation also awarded a $415,000 grant to launch Seeds of Change. The mission is to challenge rural churches to think outside the box — to open up their campus and buildings in creative ways.
In Goldston in eastern North Carolina, population 350, Goldston United Methodist Church planted a community garden, its bounty free to all. Members even hosted Tomato Sandwich Suppers (salt, pepper and mayonnaise included).
“Gardening,” says Goldston UMC’s Rev. Lucas Nelson, “is one of the greatest signs of hope. Planting seeds.”
Our family felt it in a tender embrace, a note of encouragement, and a visit from members of a church that is flourishing in all the ways that matter most. We heard it in the voice of a country pastor singing about some glad morning.
About the AuthorKen Garfield is a Charlotte-based freelance writer/editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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