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.
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).
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.
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.
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