y most accounts, Appalachia ain’t what it used to be.
Once considered a cultural anomaly, marked by poverty, social backwardness and
illiteracy, on mission volunteers are discovering a different side to
Appalachia as they take a look from within.
Appalachia plays host to millions of tourists every
year who walk its trails and drink in the rugged beauty of its lush,
hilly terrain. Among the visitors being
welcomed into the close-knit ranks of mountain people are hundreds of Southern
Baptist volunteers from all over America who are making their way into
Appalachia’s rural hills and urban centers to share Jesus Christ.
They come at the invitation of the Appalachian
Regional Ministry (ARM), a consortium of 10 states and 11 state conventions
(Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South
Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia) that develops and publicizes
projects to entice volunteers to penetrate Appalachia with the gospel.
For—while Appalachia may not be the impoverished social wilderness outsiders
have pictured it—the label of spiritual neediness still fits a little too well,
according to many who minister there.
Among problems Appalachia has in common with more
prosperous regions is spiritual apathy, or in some areas, a hardness that the
5,258 Southern Baptist churches in the region, representing more than a million
resident members, are now trying to address. Their plan is to reach Appalachia,
the mission field, with the gospel, working from the outside in.
understand Appalachia, one must look at its geography. So called because of its
range of mountains trailing through the eastern United States, the region’s
geography initially shaped the characteristics that stereotype Appalachia to
this day. In the past, especially when roads were poor, the mountains isolated
the communities they sheltered, creating scattered pockets of people who were
cut off from the rest of civilization—health care, job and educational
But times have changed, roads are improving, and
the Appalachia of folklore and legend—clannish, impoverished and
backward—simply does not exist to the extent that has so often been portrayed.
Instead, it is a region marked by great diversity.
For starters, Appalachia is not just rural but
includes large urban centers like the city of Pittsburgh. While its blue-collar
industries such as coal mining and timber provide a vital economic base, many
international corporations also call the region home.
Yet evidences of stereotypical Appalachia have not
disappeared either, turning it into a region where more than hills lean against
each other in stunning contrast. For example, poverty may reside alongside
great wealth. A tarpaper shack might take residence beside a $300,000 home.
Illiteracy is flanked by education. Fine institutions of learning compete for
headlines with high rates of illiteracy. And whether the people are rich or
poor, educated or illiterate, they share one important spiritual need.
"Both kinds of folks are lost," says Jere Phillips,
executive director of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists, which
Meanwhile, the mountains still segregate,
dispersing populations, and complicating the free and easy spread of the
The spiritual needsAlthough
people everywhere have basic needs in common, because of its geography and the
way it shaped the culture, Appalachia remains something of a spiritual frontier
and pioneer area with unique spiritual needs. In 1998 the unchurched population
in the ARM area was estimated to be 11.7 million of 18 million people.
Prevalent religious tradition creates its own
problems, according to Mike York, church planter strategist who ministers in
the coal fields. While many Appalachians are proud of their religious heritage,
"there seems to be a real void of people having a personal relationship with
Jesus Christ." Prevailing biblical illiteracy further compounds these problems,
according to York, who says mountaineers are prone to take a single verse of
scripture and apply it so literally they miss its fuller meaning. He identifies
sound Bible teaching and preaching as one of the great needs where he
On his community’s west side in Charleston, West
Virginia, a place where "rural Appalachia meets inner city," missionary Norman
Cannada identifies hopelessness, perhaps a product of generational poverty, as
an influencing factor. "You can see it in their eyes," says Cannada of the too
often obvious despair.
An attitude of materialism is pervasive, whether it
shows itself in wealth or poverty. The poor are just as likely to be proud and
possessive about what they own as the wealthy. It simply confirms that
selfishness knows no class distinction.
Indigenous pastors are scarce, as are financial resources,
so many churches struggle. "Church growth is not real phenomenal in this area,"
says York. And where the need for new churches is evident, mustering the
resources for a new church start can be a great challenge.
"The hard part is finding people who’ll roll up
their sleeves and meet those needs," adds York. He says he prays that God will
raise up indigenous pastors or send long-term volunteers and church planters
who will "come in and plant their lives in and among the people in Appalachia."
Meanwhile … "How are we doing it right now? Lots of volunteers!" They will help
York follow up on the 50 professions of faith made through the evangelistic
efforts of other volunteers this past summer. "These are precious souls. What
am I going to do? They’re scattered. We don’t have a church for them," York
said. In some cases, the nearest church is 15 to 30 miles away on narrow,
winding, hairpin roads.
"Those kinds of areas will never make a big
splash," Phillips says, "but they’ve got people who need Christ just as
desperately as the people in the Upper East Side of New York City." Unless they
utilize volunteers as a resource, Southern Baptists may be making few inroads
into Appalachia with the gospel because the resources available within the
region are insufficient to meet the needs.
"There’s not enough money to hire enough ministers
to reach Appalachia," explains Phillips, "so we need the on mission
ARM takes aimARM was formed
two and a half years ago to mobilize volunteerism in Appalachia. ARM works with
local missionaries, churches, associations and state conventions in cooperation
with the North American Mission Board and Woman’s Missionary Union. As
opportunities for volunteers are developed, they are submitted to ARM, which in turn publicizes the hundreds of
projects. ARM publishes a directory of volunteer projects that is distributed
through WMU or wherever opportunities to promote volunteer missions arise.
As a result, Southern Baptists have responded in
record numbers, according to Phillips. For example, last year West Virginia
alone hosted 5,000 volunteers from out of state, two-thirds of them from South
Carolina, which partners with the state.
"People do want to volunteer in Appalachia," York
Out of 252 mission projects requested the first
year, at least 57 were accomplished, according to Phillips. More than a
thousand on mission volunteers, including 36 mission teams, donated
their time and efforts one summer to help urban church planter Cannada with his
projects ranging from church construction and repair to backyard Bible clubs.
Volunteers have taken up short-term residence in Appalachia to conduct
revivals, crusades and sports camps; host gospel sings, block parties or booths
at local festivals; remodel homes; distribute Bibles; and share Christ door to
Volunteers assist Cannada in "servant evangelism,"
performing simple acts of kindness in the name of Jesus. Volunteers may go into
a laundromat and offer to wash someone’s clothes for free, bag groceries or
The experience for volunteers is often a
transforming one, according to Cannada. "We continue to get people who say
they’re getting a new vision for ministry. It helps their commitment to their
own church. They realize, ‘This is something we can do at home.’" Thanks to the
on mission volunteer efforts, more people have heard the gospel and
accepted Christ. Churches exist today that probably otherwise
would not have come into being. Church buildings have been erected or, in some
cases, refurbished. Homes belonging to the elderly or underprivileged have been
remodeled through the work of volunteers. As visiting volunteers worship in
local churches, they encourage the pastors and congregations with their
presence. And volunteers are doing important preliminary work in areas targeted
for church plants.
"When good Bible teaching is offered, people are
receptive to it," York reports. That makes him hopeful about the progression of
"Revival can come to Appalachia," York promises,
"but the principle of sowing and watering and waiting for God to give the
increase is what’s got to take place." And in Appalachia, at least for now,
volunteers are needed to help with every part of that equation.
Kima Jude is a writer and photographer living
in Tucson, Arizona, and was raised in West Virginia.
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