Theography of Hope

It seems to me significant that one of the distinct downturns in our churches from hope to bitterness took place almost at the precise time when the frontier of the local church came to an end, in the 80s and 90s, when the way of the American church had begun to turn more global and less local. The more relevant it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our faith, and I believe, our people, have become. For myself, I grew up in the small, local Baptist churches of the South, and I put a very high valuation on what those places gave me. And if I had not been able to periodically renew myself on those hard-edged pews and in the Vacation Bible schools of southern summers, I would be very nearly bereft. Even as I am far from those places today, the voices of Wednesday night prayer meetings or the reassurance of deacons taking up the offering are a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me. But as these small, local churches are progressively exploited or “improved,” as the beautiful distinctives of local give way to the deadening sameness of the world is flat theory, every such loss is a little death in me. In us.

I do not expect that the preservation of our small, local churches is going to cure our condition. But the mere example that we as the people of God could apply some other criteria than relevancy or exploitive considerations would be heartening to many Americans, and even those abroad. We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the local, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being local can produce. And one of the best places for us to get that is in the local, weekly gathering of the saints, where there are no satellite feeds from mother churches and the commute to worship is measured in blocks, not miles.

For all the usual evaluative purposes, the large and global churches are obviously the most important. But for deep spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe, the small, local church serves every bit as well. Perhaps, they serve even better. In my history of small, local gatherings, the rooms were full of characters – divorced bankers, cantankerous physicians, drama queen choir members, faithful janitors. Characters. I have never been able to look upon people in any other way since. I hope I learned something from praying with the same lady who taught me English, from singing with the same man who bagged our groceries, from listening to the same preacher who also tucked me in at night. A small church like that, one big enough to house the people that you meet each day, can be both lonely and grand and simple. It is as good a place as any for the experience of learning to be content in any and every circumstance. Save a piece of locality like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a couple of hundred people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value; a theography of hope.

*(letter based on Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” in The Sound of Mountain Water (1969).


  1. Our church is 4 miles away, and is still considered to be a "neighborhood" church by many. It's not though. And as hard as we all try to be in each others' lives, the commuting lifestyle does exist, and therefore, so do "church friends" and "life friends". I'm only so glad when one of my life friends chooses to attend my church.

    Lots to chew on here...

  2. John,

    Hey its big Matt Hughes, I got your blog from my mom who is now at your mom and dads church. I actually wanted your email so that we can touch base. I enjoyed reading Theography of Hope. If I understood fully what you were saying we lost our joy when we turned global and I am not sure I understand your meaning there. To me turning global means to turn to the world as our frontier to spread the gospel to. What I think has been lost is the appropriate focus of the local church. This may be what you are saying. We should focus on locally for outreach to be sure that we are not missing some low hanging fruit right next to us as well as focus on the world because that was Jesus's last command to us to "Go Ye...." There should be a Godly(God in controll of) balance of both outreach focuses. To me the danger in our focus whether in a small local church or a huge local church is focusing strictly on our selves or inward. A church more focused on building an awning so that the members don't have to get wet on a rainy day is in danger of being an inward focused church. The hope for me is the renewing of the true church that is balancing outreach properly. The only thing I can say for the inward reaching churches is that soon they will be come smaller local churches and either will have thier focus eventually renewed and restored or will wither completly away. Either way there is Hope because you see that God is in control and increases those who are faithfull to him. I look forward to hearing from you

  3. I used to be amused by church mission trips that gathered 20 people - all ready to head off to Haiti to spread the gospel - but if the sojourners were questioned it was quickly apparent that some in the group did not know the people in the neighborhoods they lived in. My own father would often "lead" these trips and he didn't know his own neighbors' names.

    These thoughts are interesting. I agree that KNOWING the "characters" made our lives rich (and I would agree that many had a profound influence on me), but I wonder if their infuence was somehow limiting? Perhaps being limited is the point?

  4. great post, John. poetic. beautiful. challenging. thank you.

  5. I would like to read more specifics regarding your thoughts about the downturn in our churches from hope to bitterness. I think I know what you are saying but I am not sure. If you have an article in your archives, it would be helpful