Country church congregations aren't what they used to be. You'll find less hellfire and damnation -- more Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pema Chodrun.
The outward appearances of rural church buildings haven’t changed all that much over the past few decades. But the beliefs, occupations and habits of the people inside those buildings have changed dramatically. Or so it seems to me. I’ve been attending country churches for the better part of 55 years, and for 30 of those years I’ve been a rural pastor.
Because my father was a minister, we moved from county to county in Kentucky as he went from pastorate to pastorate. Nearly all the congregations he served were country churches. Mainly he was a Southern Baptist, but then, as I struggled toward adulthood, he became a Pentecostal. Most of Dad’s friends were country preachers; we frequently visited their churches for revivals or they served as speakers at our revivals.
When I was in grade school, Dad temporarily left the pastorate to work as an administrator at a Baptist college. While he was employed at the college, he was called out regularly as a “supply preacher” at dozens of isolated churches.
I made these journeys with him, because the trips gave me an excuse to avoid Big B, the massive downtown Baptist church my parents had joined when Dad took his college job. Before going to services at Big B, I had to rub gel in my hair to make my flattop stand up, tug on a suit and a clip-on tie, and wrestle my feet into shiny shoes. But when Dad and I climbed into the car to strike out for a clapboard church in the deep country, I could go as my normal, disheveled, jug-eared little self. Rural people’s tastes were more to my liking.
Years later, through circumstances too convoluted to explain here, I become the leader of country churches myself. I spent 14 years as pastor of a Pentecostal church on a Kentucky side road. Later I helped merge that congregation with the church a few miles away that my dad had started after he got the left foot of fellowship from the Baptists for speaking in tongues. I worship today in a building my father helped construct with his own hands.
Bethesda Church’s sanctuary rests on a hilltop along two-lane U. S. 60 in Montgomery County, about 35 miles east of Lexington. It’s not unusual to step out the door and come face-to-face with a wild turkey wandering through the churchyard. In good weather, cattle graze on the hillside directly across the highway. When it turns cold, men hunt deer in the woods out back.
I’ve spent so much time in so many different rural churches that I’m something of a minor—and self-appointed—expert on them. What I mainly can say is that country congregations aren’t what they used to be.
At least the congregation I lead isn’t much like the ones in which I grew up. Partly that’s because I was raised as a Baptist and now am a Pentecostal. Still, as far as I can tell, Bethesda isn’t terribly different from a lot of other contemporary rural churches. Here are some comparisons between the churches of my youth and congregation I’m now part of.
Community. The rural churches I remember were organized around farming communities. The families who attended had lived nearby for generations and were interrelated by marriage. But as family farms have disappeared, so have those rural communities.
At Bethesda, no members live within hiking distance of the church property. Mainly our parishioners commute from the towns of Mount Sterling, our county seat, and Winchester, in neighboring Clark County. We worship together because we more-or-less share the same beliefs. We’re family in the sense that we’ve formed closed friendships, but few of us are actual kin.
Theology. In the services of my boyhood, people sang the Fanny Crosby hymns their grandparents had sung. The sermons were about the pressing need to be saved or the terrible Second Coming that could occur before you made it home for dinner. Every service ended with an invitational hymn such as “Just As I Am” and the preacher begging sinners to repent.
You find none of that at Bethesda. As I’ve said, Bethesda is Pentecostal rather than Baptist, and that explains some differences. But our congregation also is far less homogeneous. Members of our congregation, like many residents of the towns in which they live, are about as likely to be transplants from Oregon as natives of Kentucky.
Their religious backgrounds are equally varied. We’ve got lifelong Pentecostals, former Baptists, former Catholics, refugees from the non-instrumental Church of Christ, and people of no discernable religious heritage. Two of our deacons faithfully read Pema Chodron; one half-jokingly describes her beliefs as “Holy Roller Buddhist.”
Such people aren’t terribly receptive to legalistic doctrines or fire-and- brimstone sermons. There are no choruses of “Just As I Am.” Our music director doesn’t know any old hymns and isn’t eager to learn them. Her taste in congregational worship runs toward what I call “Lynyrd Skynyrd goes to camp meeting,” replete with drums and wailing electric guitars.
Occupations. Our congregation includes just two farmers, only one of whom farms full-time. The other works for a defense contractor and farms more as a hobby. The most common occupation at Bethesda is public schoolteacher. We have a pharmacist, a manager for a power company, several factory workers, two firefighters, a graphic designer, several office workers, a welder, a small business owner, a newspaper circulation manager, and a guy who delivers pizzas.
Gender roles. Any experienced minister will tell you that women always did most of the work that got done in any church. But it used to be that women couldn’t hold official leadership positions. They worked behind the scenes, organizing potluck dinners, teaching the children’s classes. Today, women make up the majority of our church hierarchy. The music director is a woman. So are five of our six deacons, who are elected by their fellow parishioners.
Vices. In my boyhood, the men always stood on the front porch after Sunday school smoking Camels. When they heard the piano signal the start of the worship service, they’d flip their cigarettes over the porch’s railing and amble inside. I knew of congregations that grew tobacco crops in the churchyard to raise money for a new roof or new classrooms. Today, people don’t smoke on our church grounds, and if they smoke at all they don’t advertize it. That’s not a religious thing; smoking’s a social taboo here, as elsewhere.
On the other hand, many members of Bethesda drink like uptown Episcopalians. Right-thinking rural churchgoers when I was young all claimed to be teetotalers. (I say “claimed.” An old joke: “What’s the Baptist vision of heaven?” Answer: “It’s where we can speak to each other in the liquor store.”) Several of our non-drinkers are reformed alcoholics who pass their spare time at AA meetings. (Another side note: a fair portion of our church members swear like muleskinners; that’s a shift, too.)
A sadder development is the number of our church members who have children battling crystal meth or prescription pill addictions. Drug use in Eastern Kentucky is an epidemic.
Politics. When I was a kid, nearly everybody in rural Kentucky was a Democrat. Still, these were conservative Democrats who later would defect for the Republican Party and, eventually, the Tea Party.
We’ve got a few Tea Partiers at Bethesda. But for every Tea Partier or God, guns, and Old Glory Republican, we’ve got a Barack Obama Democrat. I’ve had to ban partisan discussions in the church-house, because I don’t want to expend all my pastoral energy breaking up fistfights. We agree to disagree.
Race. Like the churches I remember, Bethesda is mainly a white congregation. Today, that’s more a matter of local demographics than bigotry. Ninety-five percent of Montgomery County’s population is white. Still, we’ve got a couple of black members, several biracial kids and one Filipina. I’m not saying we’re perfect or even particularly enlightened, but most folks in our congregation don’t seem obsessed with race. And that’s a healthy development from what I experienced in rural churches 40 years ago.
It’s tempting, and perhaps reassuring, to drive by some bucolic little church set on an isolated hillside and imagine that you’d find inside 50 or 100 humble, hymn-warbling, pious, vaguely naïve farmers. Frankly, I’ve done that myself, although I’m not convinced that real people ever were quite so two-dimensional.
A competing, and less flattering, stereotype holds that the Christians in country churches tend to be provincial, uneducated, mean-spirited, cross-burning, incestuous bumpkins.
But if you were to join the folks at any present-day rural church for a few Sundays, you’d likely discover they were as well-traveled and complicated and self-contradictory and holy and confused and profane and delightful and enlightened and irritating as any similar-sized group you’d stumble into in Austin or Portland. In fact, that might be where some of them came from.
Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church in Montgomery County, Kentucky, the author of several books, and a contributing columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.