I like to fancy myself a rural contemplative, which is to say that I like to walk around town trying to pay attention to Jesus. I sing when I take out the trash. I recite Scripture when I hoe weeds. I liturgize when I mow the lawn.

This is my attempt at the contemplative life, a life of praising God amid the ordinary, of attending to God right where I am and in whatever I’m doing. It’s what Brother Lawrence was getting at when he talked about “the practice of the presence of God.”

Prayer is the special grace of the rural church. I’m convinced that rural ministry is contemplative ministry, rooted in constant prayer that pays attention to Jesus. Perhaps one of the most important gifts that rural pastors and leaders can offer the church is modeling a life with a contemplative heartbeat.

Jesus took the disciples to a rural place to pray, but their prayer in the countryside wasn’t a retreat. It wasn’t about finding inner peace. Their prayer was struggle. It’s like the labors of Jacob, who stayed behind, on the far side of the river, to wrestle with God (Gen. 32:24–32). It’s why the ancient desert monk Agatho said, “We need to pray till our dying breath. That is the great struggle.”

Leaders in the early monastic movement envisioned their monasteries as special houses of prayer sustaining the global church. They left the city and tucked themselves away in rocky nooks and crannies in the desert of Egypt. They didn’t head for the sticks for fear of city life. They went out into the desert not as a flight but as a vocation—to pray on behalf of the city. They had a calling, and they took it with profound seriousness. What if the rural church were to claim a special vocation to prayer like these ancient desert warriors?

In some ways, it’s simply the racket factor. Go outside at night in any biggish city and you’ll know what I mean. The heartbeat of the city is the drubbing of wheels and the passing slips of conversation and the urgent wailing of ambulances. The countryside is quiet, and quiet just happens to be why the ancient monks prized the desert.

So often, rural congregations suffer from a sense of lack, defining themselves on the basis of what they are not. They’re not big, not in an ideal spot for growth, not chock-full of the city’s creative movers and shakers. It’s time to reject this narrative of scarcity and encourage the rural church to begin to see itself as the caretaker of a different sort of abundance: space for prayer. What if we were to envision the rural church as the special house of prayer sustaining the global church?

We need prayer. We need to take seriously that prayer is the central work of the church, work that releases us for long and patient abiding in our rural communities and holds us in the presence of God.

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God's Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church
God's Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church
Herald Press (VA)
280 pp., 14.64
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