My family and I returned Tuesday from a quick visit to Kansas. We visited Hannah’s parents, and I took some time to connect with Western District staff and pastors. I even had my long overdue “interview” with the conference leadership team (Yes, I passed! I’m now officially a Western District Conference pastor). But our primary reason for being there was to celebrate with our friend and colleague, Alan Stucky at his installation and Licensing for ministry at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Harper, Kansas.
One thing in particular struck us while in Harper – we’re not rural folks anymore! What one young adult called a “ghost town” seemed obvious enough to us: boarded businesses, empty homes, ancient hospital, shrinking churches. Once a bustling Midwestern town with strong industry, Harper finds itself all but left behind by the industrial powers that be. Once bragging over 5000 in population, Harper is now sagging to 1500. My pastor friend quickly detected upon moving one deep felt need: the youth. Last year 56 students dropped out of HS, this out of only 250 to begin with, a staggering 22.4%.
But where you would expect to find depression and sadness, we experienced only excitement and energy. Our friends feel right at home in Harper, find the congregation a good fit for them, and the right place to be in ministry. Likewise, the young adult SS class we sat in on were all genuinely excited to be ‘back home’ in a small town, and connected their various occupations (teacher, nurse, farmer) with God’s attempt to fix what was broken in their corner of the world. The worship itself was filled with energy, and a clear sense that God was working to bring pastor and congregation together at this particular time to meet these particular concerns.
Where we saw barrenness and boredom, they saw opportunity and God’s leading. They were reading their location, and trying to be faithful in response. Darrel Guder in his book Missional Church says, “Located always in particular places the church inevitably sits between the gospel and a specific cultural context. Therefore the church’s leadership seeks to express the gospel in ways that speak to the realities of their socio-cultural setting. Missional leaders must understand their context and interpret that context to the church so that a faithful and relevant witness emerges.” This was precisely the core of the energy and excitement we witnessed in Harper. They understood their context and were working faithfully to express the gospel to that setting.
The issues Houston presents us with our much different than in rural settings. But I pray that we too would find the courage to locate ourselves in this particular place and to work for the good of our specific cultural context. A small town with perhaps very little in common with Houston, Harper and the PVMC have very much to teach us. Like them, this is the place we’re chosen to be in mission. May it be so.