Thursday, September 26, 2013

Evangelicals, Stickers, Boomers, and Small Towns

The deeper I go into academic life the more I lose touch with the passions that led me to pursue a professorial career in the first place.  After reading Jake Meador's recent essay in Christianity Today, a part of me wants to leave academia, move to a small town, and pastor a local Protestant congregation. I think I could be happy doing this.

In "Why We Need Small Towns," Meador draws upon the work of Rod Dreher, Wendell Berry, and Wallace Stegner to encourage evangelical pastors to think about pursuing vocations in small places.  It's a great piece.  Here is just a taste:

Of course, American Christians know something of the little way. The evangelical movement has always had its share of what novelist Wallace Stegner famously called "stickers." In the words of Wendell Berry, a student of Stegner's, stickers are people who "settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in." America's first great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent much of his life serving in a single small parish. Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield spent nearly his entire adult life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the university and cared for his sick wife. The late Dallas Willard taught and ministered in the same philosophy department for nearly five decades. Just recently, my pastor interviewed a dozen fellow pastors who have served in Lincoln, Nebraska, for over a decade. All of them are committed to staying at their churches indefinitely.

But, like so many Westerners, we don't always practice the virtues of the little way in our communities. Evangelicals are a people of megachurches, national conferences, city-centric thinking (which often comes with derision for small-town life), and ever-expanding religious empires, be they church-planting networks or the Twitter feeds of celebrity pastors. Consider just one example: the rise of video preaching and podcasting, and the cultlike following they have generated around certain leaders.
The point is not to demonize cities or the prominent ministries that grow out of them. God does work through these and other large endeavors. Indeed, if stickers have always been a part of American evangelicalism, so too have their more ambitious counterparts, the "boomers." In Stegner and Wendell Berry's use of the term, boomers are people driven by dreams and ambitions. They are always moving to the next project, always imagining a new idea or movement to pursue. If Ruthie Leming was a sticker, Rod Dreher is a boomer (or has been for much of his life, at least).
Boomers have a long tradition within evangelicalism as well. George Whitefield was our first celebrity preacher, traveling all over the country to lead revivals that drew hundreds to thousands of attendees. Much of 19th-century evangelicalism was marked by the spirit of revivalism, a boomer movement if ever there was one. And today's U.S. megachurches—which have exploded in number in the past few decades—certainly reflect a boomer ethos, and their bigness has its value. For example, the 6,000-person congregation has resources that my 350-person one could never dream of. It would take us years to raise a mercy fund that the megachurch could raise in one week. Impressive buildings, major missions campaigns, and citywide revivals all have their place.