A recent report by the National Center for Health Statistics reveals life expectancy in the United States – for both men and women – peaked in 2012 and has been declining ever since. The primary contributing factors are drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Substance abuse and suicide have increased at alarming rates - particularly among middle-age white Americans and those living in rural areas.
Churches full of white rural Americans were once the backbone of the Southern Baptist Convention. While our increased diversity and urbanization is positive progress, our failure to sustain effective ministry in former areas of strength is a significant loss to those communities. Hurting people self-medicate with drugs (the opioid epidemic is raging among rural/working class people) and alcohol (sales set another all-time record last year). As those have failed to relieve the pain, more and more people – particularly middle-aged men – are taking their lives.
Our culture really has no solutions for these problems. The most common approaches are legalizing more drugs, making alcohol more available, and stepping up intervention services to prevent abusers from destroying themselves – either slowly over time or tragically in a moment of self-destruction. This circular strategy is maddening – particularly for its victims.
Others call for political solutions to create better economic and social services support systems. While these might ease the problems, they don’t address the core issue. The issue is hopelessness – rooted in perceptions and realities related to lost opportunity, influence, and value. External solutions can’t solve this internal problem.
We have a solution to hopelessness – helping people find a relationship to Jesus. For that message to be delivered, we need to prioritize two strategic choices. First, we must develop, support, and champion working-class pastors who devote themselves to building healthy churches in small towns and rural areas. Second, we must celebrate small churches – and learn to grow new networks of them served by pastoral teams – to saturate small towns and rural areas with the gospel.
These new models will require appropriate applications of technology, multi-site methodologies, and shared/team leadership approaches. Just like its urban counterpart, small town/rural ministry is changing in profound ways. Let’s find new models to reach desperate people who are literally dying without hope in our country.