Divergence and Vitality: Evangelism as Community Development

Every once in a while, I read a book that I think every pastor should read. This review is about one of them. Reclaiming Rural offers a remarkably hopeful and grounded approach to church leadership. Rejecting simplistic narratives of vitality and decline, Allen Stanton provides a deeply Wesleyan approach to evangelism, mission, and community development, resonant with my own perspective. “The church is a vital anchor institution in rural communities,” he writes (xi). Yet, the importance of this book reaches far beyond whatever we define as “rural.” Its wisdom also applies to Christian leaders in urban, suburban, and exurban areas—in all of their divergence.

Allen T. Stanton, Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations (Rowman & Littlefield 2021).

Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations is an exercise in sparking our theological imaginations about the potential of rural and other small membership churches. In chapter one, Stanton expresses frustration about popular narratives depicting the rural community as either an “agrarian paradise” or a site of “rural decay.” Neither Wendell Berry nor J. D. Vance depict the “rural community” accurately. Rather, “there is no such thing as a stereotypical rural community” (16). Instead of offering a grand narrative about the virtues of rural life or its poverty, backwardness, and inevitable decline, Stanton observes that rural communities are all of that—and more. Each rural community exhibits the shortcomings and the potential of humanity, and church leaders need to be attentive to both. Effective congregational leadership is a contextual, not idealized, task: “we are tasked with serving the communities in which our churches are found” (16). For pastors, the true rural community is the one you are serving.

Stanton leverages his contextually based perspective on rural communities to engage the discourse of “congregational vitality” in chapter two. He correctly critiques common metrics of vitality, such as those utilized in The United Methodist Church, as biased against small membership churches. (Consistent with my own critique of vital congregations discourse.) This bias supports a measuring tool that stifles the imagination, causing congregations and their leaders to believe that a small membership church is inherently flawed or incapable of vital ministry. These convergent metrics, based on common denominators and imposed top-down, are accompanied by standardized techniques that do not fit the particularities of many rural congregations. Instead, Stanton observes that rural communities are divergent, “incredibly complex places.” He argues, “The ideal of vitality must be measured differently in these places, reflecting the divergence of both rural places and the culture at large” (31). To do so, he recognizes that rural church vitality is more appropriately viewed through three indicators: a clear theological identity grounded in a sense of congregational vocation; a commitment to community, informed by data and narrative; and good stewardship, attentive to all of their resources and assets.

The heart of this book is about reclaiming evangelism in contextually appropriate ways as a central practice of the church. In chapter three, Stanton builds on the work of William Abraham and Laceye Warner to offer a holistic view of evangelism. Evangelism should not be equated with church growth or social witness or reduced to “proclamation, recruitment, and marketing” (49). Rather, evangelism focuses on participating in the Kingdom of God already at hand in our communities. Stanton brings a Wesleyan theological lens to Asset Based Community Development, discussing prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace to interpret various aspects of the task. (For a parallel in missional theology, see my chapter in The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism.) He describes a process in which a congregation can partner with other community members and institutions to become “agents of reconciliation, hope, and transformation” (64). Thus, he sees “evangelism and community development as two facets of the same work” (64)—when the congregation understands that work in light of the Kingdom of God.

Implementing this process of evangelism in an actual congregation can be challenging. Chapter four addresses several tensions that arise when leading a church in a process of community and economic development. Should the congregation concentrate its efforts on charity or justice? Both, he argues, though acts of charity might helpfully precede justice advocacy work as the congregation develops a shared vision for its ministry. (I imply the same in Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom.) How shall the congregation engage in community development: “being with” or “doing for” others? Incarnational Kingdom work involves both kinds of relationships. And finally, what about the divide between theory and practice? Congregations need both. Pastors must engage congregants in both theological reflection and social action in order to transform communities. Grounded theologically in the Kingdom of God, each of these tensions ceases to be a barrier to ministry and instead becomes a catalyst to vitality.

Stanton provides several vignettes of evangelism as community development in chapter five. These pictures of “reclaiming rural” serve to illustrate the practice of evangelism and inspire readers to imagine their own vital ministries. In the concluding chapter, the author suggests ways that denominational structures can promote rural vitality: recruiting pastors to rural communities, reshaping the narrative of vitality, exploring new models for ministry, and creating accountability. I especially appreciate his lifting up bivocational ministry as a viable model of leadership for rural congregations. Small membership congregations and the pastors who serve them will need much more judicatory support and new narratives of vitality in order to reach their full potential.

I find Stanton’s vision for rural congregational leadership compelling. For rural congregations to thrive, they must imagine a future beyond a naïve nostalgia for an “agrarian paradise” (an image that promotes stasis) and beyond a cynical judgment of “rural decay” (an image that promotes hopelessness). Congregational leaders can help provide new narratives and new images, focusing on what God has done, is doing, and promises to do. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Attention to relationships within the particularities of divergence is the key to Stanton’s approach and the basis for hope in transforming church and society. These relationships must begin interpersonally, from the ground up; there is no shortcutting the hard work of ministry and community leadership. However, I wonder if the work of justice will necessarily emerge from such a model or whether this justice too-long-delayed will perpetuate current injustices. Nevertheless, the implications of Stanton’s community development model provide hope. If congregations have any role to play in healing the political polarization currently ripping apart the fabric of US society (the church included), church leaders in all contexts (rural and otherwise) must move beyond simplistic narratives, identify their own theological footing, and engage in community partnerships. In the words of Walter Rauschenbusch, “The Kingdom is always but coming.”