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THE FORGOTTEN CHURCH: Why Rural Ministry Matters for Every Church in America

THE FORGOTTEN CHURCH: Why Rural Ministry Matters for Every Church in America

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THE FORGOTTEN CHURCH: Why Rural Ministry Matters for Every Church in America. By Glenn Daman. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018. 256 pages. $14.99.

I received a copy of The Forgotten Church in the mail in early June. It arrived unsolicited with a form letter that began with the words “Dear Church Leader,” I threw away the form letter without reading the rest of it, but I did read the book. I’m glad that I did.

A conversation with a fellow brother pastor in South Dakota revealed that he, too, received an unsolicited copy of this book in the mail. He did not read it, and that’s alright too.

Glenn Daman has written a book about the rural church. The premise (as revealed in the book’s title) is that the rural church has been neglected. In many ways I agree with Daman, but in many (significant) ways, I do not. The differences can almost all be chalked up to the differing confessions to which Glenn Daman and I belong.

Areas of Agreement

Minor Leagues: Glenn Daman has accurately explained the way pastors view rural ministry. He says, “[Many pastors] view rural ministry as the minor leagues, a place to hone their skills before moving on to the major leagues of a larger urban church” (p. 26). He’s absolutely right. When I received my call to Cresbard and Wecota, SD, the seminary placement director, anticipating keen disappointment at so small a charge, said, “You know, it often happens that a man serves in a small rural parish and after a few years of experience he gets called to a bigger parish, or even to teach at a Concordia.” Similarly, I had a classmate and friend, who, being placed near a large metropolitan area asked me, “So, how do you feel getting sent to so small a place?” I can relate to Daman’s concern about equating rural ministry with the minor leagues. I have even seen this play out at the district level. A rural congregation was going to be needing a new pastor soon, so I recommended the name of a pastor who would be good in that context to a district worker. His response was a guffaw and a sharply assertive, “He’s better than that.” My suggestion was viewed as the equivalent of recommending the LA Angels send Mike Trout to double-A.

Value: “The rural church has value because God is the one who uses the rural church to accomplish His purpose” (p. 152). I would have worded this sentence differently. I would have said, “The rural church has value because God values it.” Regardless, that’s the gist of Daman’s argument. Tapping into the common theme in Scripture, Daman says, “God is one who takes what the world regards as insignificant and uses it to accomplish His eternal purpose” (p. 152). That God values the rural church is all the justification we need to similarly value it, but it’s also true that the rural church has first article gifts to offer the rest of the church as well, and Daman explores those to great lengths.

Urban Bias: When speaking about seminary education, Daman says, “Many classes on church leadership assume the student will be serving in a multi-staff church . . . the courses are taught from an urban perspective. Rural ministry is often not even on the radar” (p. 144). This is true, but I’d be quick to add that it’s not wrong for seminaries to act this way either. Urban churches need seminarians too. My seminary experience jives with Daman’s complaint. I spent four years at the seminary, and not for a single moment before I received my call did it cross my mind that I might serve a dual-point parish. After I received my call to Cresbard and Wecota, I remember seeking out a professor (whom I knew had served in a dual-point parish) for advice. There is an unintentional urban bias in theological education.

Areas of Disagreement

Neglect? I will grant, as I did above, that there are ways the rural church is neglected by organization church bodies. Glenn Daman paints a far darker picture of neglect than I have experienced. I have no reason to doubt Daman’s observations, but my experience has been different. What’s the difference? Glenn Daman isn’t Lutheran. In fact, in his entire book (which is filled with source citations) Daman never once cites a Lutheran author, publication, or publishing house. That’s ok. But I think if Daman gave a look at the history of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, he would find a very strong rural focus and attention. Friedrich Wyneken wrote an appeal to Lutherans in Germany in 1841 which described the rural conditions and need for pastors, and Wilhelm Löhe answered the call by sending missionaries, even among the Chippewa of Michigan.

Vocabulary. Daman’s expression of biblical truths is often a bit imprecise. While citing Matthew 28:18 to highlight the importance of “making disciples” (which even rural churches must do), Daman manages to entirely avoid any reference to baptism or teaching (which Matthew 29:18–19 tells us is how disciple making is done). Instead, he opts to speak of a “personal relationship with Jesus” which is vocabulary that is NOT used in Scripture.

While speaking of the rural church as a “missional church.” Daman repeatedly uses the word “revitalize” and its cognates (p. 214). He spends a significant amount of time unpacking this concept. When he’s finally done doing so, all he’s done is describe “repentance.” If the reader replaces every instance of “revitalization” with “repentance” you get a better understanding of what needs to occur, and a biblically faithful one to boot, because “repentance” is biblical vocabulary, where “revitalize” is not.

Miscellaneous Observations

About six months ago I waxed eloquent about Brad Roth’s book God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church. Daman’s book addresses the same concerns from a different perspective. Daman’s book comes at the matter of rural ministry from a strong sociological/historical perspective, especially in the first half of the book. If you are interested in data, Daman’s got what you’re looking for. Roth’s book was far more theologically oriented. That’s not to say Daman’s book was devoid of theological reflection, it just wasn’t as constant or deep as Roth’s treatment.

Daman’s book has endnotes. I despise endnotes because they are the worst. Sometimes Daman would cite some person’s caricature of rural ministry, and after looking at the end note I’d see that the book was written in 1972 or earlier! It’s a bit disingenuous to use books from 1972 to try to paint a picture of the status of present day attitudes toward rural ministry.

Finally, this book contains one of the most egregious and mind-baffling errors ever. It’s so bad you can’t help but smile at it. It warrants being quoted in full. Daman writes, “In 1776, the land gave birth to a new nation ‘conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ with the unalienable right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ as the Gettysburg Address puts it” (p. 55).

If you’re serving in rural ministry, this book is worth your time. It’s not nearly as theologically rewarding as Brad Roth’s book, nor is it Lutheran or sacramental, but it is good on practical nuts and bolts matters. If you’re looking to save some time, the last five chapters of this book are the best five chapters with the most wisdom, especially when it comes to partnerships and insights into rural communities.

Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.

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