FIRST-PERSON: Praise God for pastoral 'stickers'

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JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) -- Kentucky farmer-writer Wendell Berry once gave a lecture wherein he distinguished the "boomers" from the "stickers." Boomers are the restless, ambitious types who believe the path to prosperity is leaving home and embracing a world of innovation and big cities. Stickers, on the other hand, aspire to maintain their roots in the small towns and country places that nurtured them.

Berry was thinking about the future of rural farming and rural America, but his ideas cause me to think about the future of the church and pastoral ministry.

As Southern Baptists, we have our own version of pastoral boomers and stickers. The boomers leave their small-town or rural churches, are educated in college and probably seminary, and then head off to serve churches located in the suburbs or the city center. Their prayerful desire is to make a significant Gospel impact in these places of dense populations and cultural influence.

As a denomination, we love our pastoral boomers. They are the church planters going after the unreached and underserved. They pastor larger and/or regionally influential churches. They innovate strategies for church growth that influence other congregations. When boomers think of the Great Commission, they look to Matthew 28:18–20. God bless the Gospel work these boomers are doing. May their tribe increase!

While I'm grateful for pastoral boomers, over the past few years I've found myself thinking more and more about the stickers. They also normally attend college, though seminary may or may not be in the offing. Many of them are solo pastors, perhaps even bivocational. Instead of heading to more "strategic" settings, pastoral stickers invest themselves in small-town churches and rural congregations -- often close to where they were raised.

These sorts of churches rarely grow larger than a few hundred members because they aren't located in population centers. They can only become as ethnically and economically diverse as their relatively homogeneous communities. Pastoral stickers rarely get invited to speak at the big conferences, and they don't often serve in denominational leadership roles beyond their region. When they think Great Commission, their go-to verse is Acts 1:8. They want to make a Gospel impact, but their vision is mostly local; you can only do so much with limited resources.

It seems to me that Southern Baptists sometimes act as if we think the boomers matter more for the Kingdom than the stickers. I don't think we do it deliberately, and I don't think anyone means anything ill toward pastoral stickers.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt in my mind that we celebrate the boomers more than we do the stickers. Boomers baptize lots of folks. Their churches construct beautiful buildings, sometimes in multiple locations. They lead their churches to plant other churches. Their congregations send out short-term mission teams on a regular basis.

Again, to be clear, I praise God for all the ways He is using boomer pastors to make disciples here, there and everywhere. But in our rush to rightly celebrate how God is blessing the boomers, let's not forget about the stickers among us. After all, the stickers pastor the vast majority of Southern Baptist churches.

Pastoral work is always strategic Kingdom service, whether it takes place in the heart of the city, a booming suburb, a sleepy county seat community or out in the sticks. Every church needs a faithful shepherd, even when it's located in a small town with a struggling economy. Every lost person needs to be reached, even when he lives off the beaten path. Every believer needs to be discipled, even when her church can sustain few formal programs. Every pastor is laboring in one of the "hard places," every church needs to be revitalized in some way, and every community, no matter how small, needs a vibrant Gospel witness.

Praise God for the pastoral stickers among us. They are some of God's most faithful servants, even when their work is unrecognized outside of their communities. Join me in praying that God raises up a generation of pastoral boomers and stickers who faithfully shepherd Christ's people in every sort of church, in every sort of place, for the glory of God and the sake of Kingdom advance.

Nathan A. Finn serves as dean of the School of Theology and Missions and professor of Christian thought and tradition at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
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