An intriguing trend is emerging among progressive Christian voices and their connection to small town life in America. While some of these voices may be a part of the mainline, liberal ideology commonly referred to as progressive Christianity, others are just as likely to be labeled evangelical. Some identify themselves with the political left, some with the Right, and some with Moderates. However, what unite them are their emphases on the virtues of simplicity and small town community as they speak to what faith in the Mid-21st Century could look like. Their paths to these small towns are as diverse as their political labels, but they share faith-inspired perspectives on environmental, pro-life, and social justice issues. While their views qualify as progressive by their call for renewal, one could rightly argue that the foundation of their ideology is rooted in a return to a worldview in which faith and morality transcended political labels and associations.

Wendall Berry (source: civileats.com)

As we consider authors within this group, it is worthwhile to acknowledge the important role small town wisdom and experience has played in the work of many of America’s greatest writers. Wendell Berry stands out as a leading elder statesman whose activism on behalf of local famers and in opposition to the abuses of industrialism, the military industrial complex, and other irresponsible technologies are notable. Recently, he has weighed in on social issues like gay marriage and pro-life causes, which he, like many among this group, extends both to abortion and the death penalty. Given his social conservatism, his acceptance among the academic elite stands in stark contrast to many evangelicals who share many, if not most, of his beliefs.

Political commentator and author Rod Dreher chronicled his return to the small, Louisiana town of his upbringing that was inspired by the death of his sister in his memoire The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. He is a primary contributor to The American Conservative and, among publications, author of a book whose title is bold enough to be mentioned here in full: Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or At Least the Republican Party). After having been raised Methodist, Rod converted to Roman Catholicism and, after covering the priest abuse scandals, has since converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. As with Berry, the label of evangelical doesn’t seem to fit Rod any more than that of progressive Christian, given the liberal connotations of the latter. However, the ideology from which he writes speaks to a large cross-section of the progressive Christian voices that are shaping an emerging faith landscape in America.

Perhaps the most cohesive gathering of those representing the intersection of ruralism and progressive Christian voices is the Wild Goose Festival. Inspired by its British counterpart Greenbelt, this festival includes a range of speakers, discussions, and performances ranging from those whose reach is primarily within Evangelical circles (i.e Philip Yancey, Brian MacLaren, and Derek Webb) to those most commonly reaching progressive Christian ones (i.e. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Frank Schaffer, and Indigo Girls).

Charlie Peacock (center) with The Civil Wars (source: soundonsound.com)

The aesthetic trend in Christian music is worth noting as well. David Crowder, one of the highest grossing CCM artists of the past decade, has traded in his worship band (now performing without him as The Digital Age) for a bluegrass collective. Last year, Michael Gungor clothed his Sufjan-inspired concept album Ghost Upon the Earth in old timey jangles for his live album remix Creation Liturgy. Carolina boy John Mark McMillan, whose writing of one of the most popular worship tunes of the last five years How He Loves unwittingly pulled him from the folk rock label to CCM, gets the rural aesthetic honest. He’s never lived more than a few miles from his NC home and writes with that same red clay on his boots. CCM legend Charlie Peacock (whose book At the Crossroads is a great introduction to the crisis of CCM during the 2000’s) no doubt saw this trend coming when he assembled the Grammy-winning duo The Civil Wars. Sadly, they are currently on hiatus, but their approach has inspired a trend of stripped down, folk rock male/female duos as worship leaders, best embodied by All Sons and Daughters.

And even the biggest worship music machine on the planet, Hillsong United, has leaned into this aesthetic (in addition to their mainstream, anthemic U2 stadium rock norm) with Zion Acoustic Sessions.

While it’s tempting to label this roots trend in CCM as nothing more than the replacement of U2 knockoffs with Mumford and Sons knockoffs as if they haven’t woken from their Dream of the 1890’s, I’m optimistic that something deeper is happening here. Ten years ago, this same constituency was lighting candles and setting up prayer stations for Ancient Future Worship—their reaction to the excessive progress in impersonal character of megachurch excess. Megachurches seized upon this as the key to reaching the illusive Generation X, raised on Boomer-model mega worship. And so in true megachurch style, they turned this reaction into target-marketed programming and printed the t-shirts for the now-defunct Emergent Conference. Turns out it’s hard to centralize and franchise a movement based upon uniquely localized community—it was like Walmart trying to open a mom-and-pop store connected to their big-box warehouse.

While that candle burned out long ago, the drive towards localization and partnership with community organizations—instead of competing with Christianized versions of the same—resulted in a fundamental rethink known as missional ministry. (If you’re keeping score, yes, that was an Elton John reference dropped in the middle of a description of emerging evangelical ministry.)

Beyond this lasting impact of greater localization among megachurches, there is a deeper longing for being rooted in time and place. Are there elements of, “Grandpa is cooler than dad,” in the thinking? Absolutely. But I believe the interest in this new business model that reflects the locally grown, sustainable philosophies is shaping how many companies are measuring a more complex bottom line. Perhaps the words of Wendell Berry from The Agrarian Standard best illustrated the thinking behind these progressive voices when he wrote:

Industrialism prescribes an economy that is placeless and displacing. It does not distinguish one place from another. It applies its methods and technologies indiscriminately in the American East and the American West, in the United States and in India.

While it may be naive to think that Mom and Pop could ever replace Walmart, and smaller, localized churches could dominate Christian conferences, there is something sacred about rooting for David against Goliath, about being rooted on this planet without always seeking to transcend it. With the freeing disintegration of the CCM label, perhaps artists and thinkers of faith will reclaim a more natural, sustainable relationship to their land where faith is lived out on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Wisdom so old it is progressive.

 
About The Author

Mark Aaron Humphrey

After several years in high-profile worship ministry in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Mark Aaron now chairs the Music Department at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor (umhb.edu) and is the founding director of C3: Conversations about Christianity + Culture.

8 Responses to A Little Town Shall Lead Them: American Ruralism and Progressive Christian Voices

  1. JN says:

    what is the military-industrial complex

  2. Patrick Sawyer says:

    Mark,
    Wow. Another wayy interesting article from Patrol. Man I am ignorant about a lot that is happening in Christian music circles. One question: How do you see the explosion of Christian rap over the last 10 years with its focus on the reformed faith by many of its top artists playing into your narrative? It may be a mutually exclusive discussion but thought I would ask. Best.

    • Mark Aaron Humphrey says:

      Great question, Patrick. I’m thankful to the people at Patrol for letting me share some of my work. Race and CCM is an entire article waiting to be written. If you look at how CCM formed, rejecting Motown and black artists who had been writing Christian popular music for decades (and even shared a lot of the same theological tenants), and the false narrative of racial inclusion that really came to light at Explo 1972 (the first CCM music festival that boasted “the most rainbow collection of believers ever” despite having just 3% of delegates being African American), you’ll see many of the cultural building blocks coming into place. Watch the documentary “A Band Called Death” on Netflix (which I referenced in my last article) for a big “what if” event. Without spoiling it, the first ever punk album by an American band was made by a Christian band from Detroit. The recent hip hop emphasis by Gotee Records and others seems like a simple exploration of an untapped market. But make no mistake, that market is firmly rooted within white, suburban markets. I’m yet to have a student raised in a black neighborhood who has ever heard of Lecrae. I haven’t studied any specific Reformed themes in their work, but it I should. My focus has been more on market demographics as they play out over the 50 years since the Jesus Movement. Thanks for your comment.

      • Patrick Sawyer says:

        Mark, thanks for the response. Yes, it does seem that Lecrae is more known in the white suburbs than in the black and Latino inner-cities. I teach undergrads at a state university. Most (but not all) of the students I teach who have heard of Lecrae, Trip Lee, Tedashi, etc., are white. A few years back I was in the vanguard of bringing Lecrae to Raleigh NC. At the time it was one of his largest crowds (6000) and 80% of the audience was white. I must add however that I do have some strong connection to a couple of inner-city churches where the attendance is predominately black and where Lecrae and many of the artists from Reach and CMR are well known and appreciated.
        Given that the lyrical content of many of the top artists in Christian rap is what I would define as theologically rich and often framed as “reformed”, I find its growth to be an interesting and compelling phenomenon in both the church and the hip-hop community (which certainly overlap at times).
        Thanks for the push to check into Death. I have some familiarity with them but have not seen the documentary. I will check it out. My graduate work is primarily in communication theory and education philosophy but I took some elective Masters classes that focused on both American and UK punk. My punk knowledge is no where near yours I’m sure but it does give me some street cred with a few of my students. Not many of their professors have been in a mosh pit at a Flogging Molly concert or listen to Slightly Stoopid on a regular basis (their reggae sound primarily). Thanks again for the article and the exchange. Sincere best.

  3. eroteme says:

    There is good and bad in this trend/movement. The bad is that it seems to think that there was a golden age in the past that we must go back to which is simply not true. The good is that it is an acknowledgment that fairness and community mean something and are to be cherished and valued as much as individual freedom – something which is emphasized too much in America.

    • Mark Aaron Humphrey says:

      You’re right to point out the “good old days” tendency that has been especially common among the Culture Wars crowd. The love for the “Donna Reed Show” mentality of 50’s pop culture (a high-point for the cultural influence of the Church in American society following WWII) is disturbing. From my perspective, this worship trend is more a correction of the wholesale rejection of any sense of tradition (or intellectual engagement, for that matter) during the rise of seeker sensitive reforms of the 1980’s, than an “us against them” indictment of broader culture. The mega-church houses their parents built feel plastic and disingenuous, so they are looking for something more rooted and connected to time and place. At their best, they are doing this. At their worst, they are just coming up with a new version of what the previous generation created. Ecclesiastes 1:11. I agree with your comments on the cost of over-emphasizing personal freedom, and wonder if the myopic, “self help” approach of Boomers is being challenged too.

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