December 4, 2020

The Gospel for Appalachia III: Four Christian Responses

People with answers for Appalachia arouse considerable suspicion from those who know the region well. A multi-millionaire standing at a microphone, explaining how his money and ideas will turn the tide, may get his picture in the paper, but I assure you the applause is less than adoring. Experience has taught Appalachians and those who know them that these hills bury idealists right beside the feudists of old.

I don’t want to even come close to such shallow egoism. I have no answers. I do have some conclusions and suggestions based on my own experiences and observations, and I offer them with every possible exception and difficulty noted. Four of them particularly excite me, and perhaps may stir your thinking and prayers as well.

The culture of Appalachia needs the Gospel. The people of Appalachia need the Gospel. The social problems, family concerns and needs of children all call for the Gospel. This must be my starting and ending point. Economic development, educational reform and victory in the war on drugs will all improve the quality of life in Appalachia, but none of these problems can be successfully addressed in ways that will penetrate deeply into this culture without the kinds of changes that only the Gospel can bring about.

It has been a phenomenon in Appalachia that experts, businessmen, educators, social engineers and politicians have, again and again, offered solutions that truly should have worked. The reasons they have not worked reveal the truth of the scripture that says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Money, buildings and programs have been provided year after year, yet the intractable nature of the culture has endured, both for good and ill. In Appalachia, a way of life and a way of thinking about life been embraced repeatedly, while efforts to change both have been rejected just as often.

Conscious of this, I offer four responses for my Christian readers.

1. Christians must choose to come to Appalachia and live the rest of their lives. The traditional solution in Appalachia has been to persuade the next generation to leave for a better life. I suggest that Christians must reverse this trend. They must come to these counties and communities; they must come and stay.

Appalachia is a mission field where no one has to learn a language or get a visa. The cost of housing and the cost of living are the lowest in the country. Appalachia gets its share of short-term missionaries. They are appreciated, but what are needed are Christians bringing their families, their skills and their gifts into this region to stay.

Outsiders will not find immediate acceptance in this culture, but it is far more open and welcoming than it is often given credit for. When a person offers what this culture needs, few stop to ask if you were born in the holler.

Acceptance in Appalachia will not come easily. But the call of the missionary is incarnation, not the easy road of immediate acceptance. To bring our children and our livelihoods to these mountains and stay will necessitate the voice of Jesus calling, drawing and empowering generations of missionary minded Christians.

It is interesting how accepting the Appalachians have been to the hundreds of middle eastern, mostly Muslim, doctors who have come to live and work here in the past two decades. I know many of these good people, and each time I see them, I think of how the calling of Christians to come here and serve is so much the same. There are needs everywhere, and to the one with a basin and a towel, there are always persons in need of refreshment who do not ask your last name or your family history.

Come on over and help us. But consider coming and staying.

2. If any area of the country ever needed hundreds of privately run, privately administered community schools, it is Appalachia. While I respect and appreciate the wonderful people in this culture who labor in public schools, and while I am a supporter of public education in general, Appalachia needs an infusion of private education that can be designed and implemented with the special challenges of Appalachian culture in mind.

Such schools need teachers that are equipped especially for an Appalachian mission. They need to be accountable for producing graduates from that culture, who can go back into that culture as positive contributors to the community. Such schools should be smaller, community based, privately accountable, inclusive, challenging, culturally savvy and responsive to change. They should call forth the gifts of educational innovators who want to demonstrate what can work elsewhere. They should provide private investors a way to change a culture in a way that truly makes a difference.

Yes…I would be happy to see Sam Walton High here in Clay County. Absolutely. But I would also like to see innovative Christian schools that produce excellence in education, and do not simply exist as a cultural protest movement. That means co-curricular excellence (sports) as well as educational excellence. It means technological and vocational excellence, and not just Bible verses. Catholic schools have failed in these mountains, but evangelicals have known some success. Why not a concentrated effort to bring Christian, private education to Appalachia under the sponsorship of churches and individuals?

Is this possible? It is a dream, but it is a dream that could truly make a difference. If such schools would appear in Appalachia, and STAY through the tough times, lives and communities would change.

3. Innovative, “New monastic” communities- and the ministries they sustain- need to become common in Appalachia. Because I work at one of these ministries, it is relatively easy for me to see how such a community works in Appalachia, and how it makes a contribution. If a mission and a lifestyle are embraced, a community of Christians can do what the Irish monks and the American frontier missionaries did: impact a culture toward Christ through servant ministries.

Our OBI community has been centered around education for 107 years. Yet we are invested in our community in many other ways: a clothing ministry, donated food, sports, the farm, etc. It is easy to look at out community and see how similar ministries could be dedicated to addressing other needs: medical care, care of the elderly, adult education, ministry to at-risk teens, women’s shelters, preschool education, justice issues, legal assistance, practical helping ministries, literacy, job training, etc.

Such communities can only exist if there is a combination of sponsorship, support and personal sacrifice. They would be part of an embracing of a new and different vision of “living church” by Christians looking to express their own calling to serve in the name of Jesus some way other than by attending the programs of another large church. I pray that out of a generation that stands at expensive worship event after worship event, there are hundreds of those who are willing to come and “live the life,” in a practical way.

Appalachia is not the suburbs. There are few of the “perks” of urban life. Life can be hard and inconvenient. Still, this region is perfectly suited for missionary communities to take root and flourish in the midst of immense spiritual, physical and social needs. Among the hundreds of thousands who conceive of ministry in terms of suburban churches, there surely most be some who could hear a different, more demanding call.

Appalachia is full of “the least of these.” They are the kinds of people that Jesus himself embraced and loved. If evangelicals embrace the megachurch illusion, they will become a church of the suburbs and of middle class American values; a religious fetish community tailored around the technology and toys of the mega-church movement. Mission through “new monastic communities” in Appalachia would give these same Christians lives of Jesus-filled significance.

Come over and help us. Come and stay and MINISTER like Jesus did. Become a community of witness, work and prayer here in the mountains.

4. Appalachia needs thousands of new churches. Small churches, centered on the Gospel, and not on the validation of the culture and its idols.

Appalachia has hundreds of churches. You cannot drive through our counties without seeing them. But if you were to go in, you would make a discovery. Many of them are without a trace of the Biblical Gospel. It is not heard, it is not known. There is no hope for Appalachia without new churches.

I would beg the healthy churches in Appalachia to make it a priority to call, support and equip a church planter with the priority mission of starting a church every 3 years. I would ask the same of churches anywhere with a vision for church planting. Do we need another church in the suburbs when Appalachia is dying for the Gospel?

This will not be easy. Church planting in this culture is like church-planting in a closed and resistant culture, but it can be done. What is critical is that Appalachia be flooded with innovative missionary church planters who love and understand the Gospel. It is the Gospel that is so desperately needed, and it is the Gospel that is vanishing from the land.

Appalachia is full of moralism and spiritual confusion. It is full of enthusiasm for the Ten Commandments and the war on drugs. But churches that teach and emphasize the Gospel of Jesus, who came from heaven to save us, and to give us our salvation, are far too rare. In a sea of confusion, the lighthouse beams of the Gospel can cut through the fog of religious enthusiasm, moralism and legalism.

Nothing is more critically needed. Nothing will be more difficult in this illiterate and post literate culture. This is not a place where the next Mars Hill Church is likely to take root. The approaches of urban church planting do not fit in Appalachia’s traditionalism and tribalism.

The mountains are a place where the form of the church in its culture may be surprising and uncomfortable for some (including myself) to consider. The cultural expression of the church in Appalachia is not going to conform to the expectations of suburbia or academia. But this is irrelevant to the need for churches that understand, preach, teach and minister from the Gospel as their foundation.

The door is wide open for new churches. The road will be hard, but if the culture is every going to change, the salt, light and leaven of the Gospel must come through thousands of new churches, living out new and non-traditional forms. These are churches that must be about discovering a new way to be God’s people in a culture enamored with what it means to be “old-fashioned,” but where “old-fashioned” often means an absence of the Gospel.

I have been in Appalachia for 14 years. It is the ancestral home of my family (Lee Co.) There is an Appalachian imprint on much of my soul after these years. I am beginning to understand where I live, and beginning to feel the overwhelming pessimism that all who care for these hills will feel as we contemplate its problems.

In Christ alone to I sense hope. It is not a hope that church programs, money spent, politicians elected or programs implemented will make any difference. It is the hope that the Gospel of Jesus can bring people to Appalachia with a mindset like Jesus himself, and that they will tenaciously and sacrificially come here to minister in imitation of Christ. Perhaps not in my own day, or even in my children’s lifetime, but in the future, I believe the land that has lain in darkness will see a great light, as the Gospel breaks over the hills of Appalachia in ways yet undreamed of.


  1. I live in the southern tier of New York State.
    I grew up here, went to college here, and now
    work here.(Geographically, some would consider
    this the extreme north border of Appalachia.)

    While there are some more urban areas in this part of
    the state, it’s largely rural. Your descriptions
    of a lot of the culture resonate with me, because I’ve
    observed many of the same things over my 35 years of
    existence. They may not be as extreme at what’s in
    eastern KY, but there are a lot of similarities.
    (My sister-in-law and her family lived in Paintsville
    for several years. We became quite familiar with the
    area, so I’m speaking from experience.)

    You don’t have to travel far outside the populated
    areas in the southern tier of NY to see that it’s
    Appalachia. A lot of young people leave here “for
    a better life” somewhere else.

    I made a comittment to the Lord that I would stay
    around here the rest of my life if that’s what he
    wanted. (I spent a considerable amount of time
    making peace with this lately.) I agree with you
    that a lot of the things being called out by
    suburban,white, upper-middle-class, megachurches
    do not easily translate out here, or reflect us.

  2. Brian Pendell says

    So what use would Appalachia have for a software engineer/OR analyst?

    I ask because I’ve been wanting to go on the mission field — anytime/anywhere — as a tentmaker for, oh, fourteen years or so. The problem is my chosen (or should I say called?) profession pretty much makes me a creature of big cities.

    That’s not sarcasm or anything related, BTW. It’s a serious question.


    Brian P.

  3. Appalachia suffers from many of the problems common to closed societies: lack of opportunity, economic turmoil, isolation, social pathologies that get replicated generation after generation. The number one reason for this is the lack of any kind of outside influence. With no people ever going out or new people coming in, there is never a chance for the society to grow out of the social and moral pathologies that continue to hold it down. Thus, the alternative you mentioned in number one is of utmost importance.

  4. My father-in-law started his career in ministry as a “home missionary” in Eastern Tennessee (my husband was born in Elizabethton – I don’t think that’s too far from you).

    When he first started, there were still many “moonshiners” and he told stories about a couple of close calls he had until he was recognized as “the preacher”.

  5. I may be one of the ones who goes. These last three entries have tugged on my heart. As one studying to be a minster of the Gospel, I’ve been praying to be shown a place to serve. For now I’m just studying Greek and taking Bible classes, but this area will be one in my prayers now, and I will see where God leads me. Thank you Michael, for sharing what means so much to you.

  6. I really wonder what can be done in the way of bringing the Gospel to Appalachia, as opposed to the ardent religion that is there now. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I began my preaching ministry in Harlan County, KY…deep in the heart of Appalachia, to say the least. I am a part of the Independent Christian Church, a very biblical, Gospel-preaching movement, but, also not very charismatic in the spiritual sense. However, I found very fast that the only type of religion that seemed to do well in eastern KY was the very fervent brand of Pentecostalism: tongue-speaking, shouting, flopping to the floor, throw the baby in the air, run around the church screaming kind of religion. Remember, folks, snake-handling is still practiced here: that is not an anecdote or stereotype, it’s a reality. The preaching, as the Monk as pointed out, is shallow but very loud and accusatory: a lot of screaming about how bad you were and how salvation is a matter of not drinking, smoking, swearing, wearing pants (for women) or wearing short sleeves (for men). I once heard a long sermon on the radio in Harlan County which quoted “Repent or perish” purt near 1,000 times with graphic descriptions of how God was going to kill you (the perish part)if you don’t start living right (the repent part). In every town there seemed to be a medium-sized Baptist church where the college professors and lawyers went, a huge (relative to the size of the town) Pentecostal church and a bunch of little Pentecostal churches where everyone else went.

    How do you bring the Gospel to a place where the folks feel like they are following Jesus and that you are not really preaching if you are not condemning everyone to hell? My aunt, a product of Applachia, looked at me scornfully when she saw me studying Hebrew and informed me smugly that her preacher didn’t have a bunch of ‘book larnin’ but was very loud. That was a slur to me and a compliment on him. I honestly started feeling that God was a wrathful, vengeful God, something I didn’t really notice until I visited South Carolina and got the view of God as a rich uncle instead. I really think the religion is harsh and the view of God is hard in Appalachia because of the severity of life: how else do you explain God when life is hard and short, poverty is all around, the very landscape is unforgiving, and despair is the only thing the future holds.

    I’m loving these articles, but I wonder how you would take the real Gospel to Appalachia when the ‘repent or perish’ (out of context) religion is so pervasive.

  7. The question on my mind is how to bring the Gospel to muslim nations. Your description of the power of deeply engrained cultural shackles resonates. The solutions you mention also seem to make sense in the context of my concerns.

  8. bookdragon says

    My mother’s father was born in WVa in Appalachia, I lived near it (SW Va) for nearly 7 years, and my uncle served as a Christian educator in Ky for a number of years before burning out.

    On education, my observation is that those who make it out and/or can confortably return with an education are the ones who join the military. That is respected there and “larnin'” that comes from a military academy or through active service is respected as no other form of education is. That’s a bit sad, but there it is. If you want kids graduating to go on for college, point them toward ROTC. (Military service is how my grandfather got out ‘honorably’ from the standpoint of his kin).

    On missions, I think it may take a critical mass of Christians from the outside settling and living there to start to make a change. St. Patrick along changed a similar culture a long time ago, but he knew the people from being a slave there for half his life. Not many of us could replicate that.

  9. This may be a dumb question, but I’ll ask it anyway.

    Is this series of essays timed to run simultaneous to the current PBS miniseries “Country Boys?”

    For the past two nights I’ve watched with fascination and a heavy heart as this excellent documentary has raised many of the same issues as your last three essays.

    I’m a seminary educated former pastor/associate pastor/youth director who spent over 20 years in vocational ministry. Currently I’m a caseworker for one of the larget housing authorities in the US. The myriad of social problems you’ve identified in Appalachia are just as rampant, if not worse, in the innercity. The city I minister in as a caseworker is 65% hispanic and the population I serve (public housing residents) is 90% hispanic. Just as OT heavy Appalachian civil religion imprisons the spirits of the people you serve, medieval style RC with a heavy emphasis on the Virgin of Guadalupe is a contributing factor to keeping the people I serve trapped in a cycle of dependency. Every culture has a culture bound idea of the gospel. The question I ask myself everyday is, from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus, are the people I serve any more culture bound than I am as a middle class white guy? Is this a question of degrees? Are we measuring the people of Appalachia or the innercity of San Antonio by the gospel of Jesus of our whitebread ideal of what it is?

    Tim Adams

  10. Michael,
    Thank you very much for this series. I too am watching the PBS Frontline series, “Country Boys.” Actually, I wasn’t going to watch it particularly, but because of your articles, I decided to and I’m glad I did. It seems Appalachia is on God’s mind this month….:)

  11. JR Olekszyk says


    Long time reader, first time writing in with a comment.

    I was prompted to write because this series of posts caught my attention after having watched parts of a documentary aired last night on PBS called “Country Boys”. It followed the lives of two high school senior boys at an alternative high school in KY.

    As I watched, I was struck with how much I live in a bubble. Not a Christian bubble, but rather an economic bubble. I live in Michigan in one of the richest counties (per capita) in America. While watching the series, I could not even comprehend how someone could be struggling with the thought of whether or not he was going to finish high school. When I graduated from my high school, in a class of 128, all attended college. College was over and done with in 4 years without even thinking twice.

    Most certianly I do live a sheltered life, nevertheless I do agree with you wholeheartedly that nothing short of the pure, mind-renewing, life-altering Gospel will bring about change to that area, or any other for that matter. Both the rich and the poor have their idols that only Christ can crush.

    If you have not read it yet, I would highly recommend “Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators” by David Chilton. It is a book that sets forth the Gospel as the only means and hope of social-economic reform.

    Yes the Gospel will be victorious.

  12. Long time, Michael, since I last talked with you. Lost you for awhile, then the link resurfaced and I’ve been reader who just hasn’t commented, for whatever reason. We may not always agree, but I certainly enjoy the site. These posts on Appalachia, if you remember, speak to me. I grew up and yet reside just south of Cincinnati, as far north as one can go in Kentucky. My wife is from Williamsburg. Over 30 years in independant Pentecost took us a few times down in the mountain area of Harlan and Cumberland. It’s a long story to speak of my own first encounter with that area. I’ll just reduce it to say, as most women do, Beth wanted to shop while down there and had noticed a small Sears in downtown Harlan. We went in, she went her way, and I wandered toward the men’s department. Drifting through that area, at one point I raised my eyes to note the entire wall of that particular large room to be covered with knives, guns, and weaponry of every description. What it immediately spoke to me was what had already been suggested by other clues: you don’t want to get into any religious/political/or any other opinionated discussion with anybody while you’re here. It was an interesting visit. The entire town “closes down” at 9:30 in the evening, but I’m sure there’s always a bar or a church somewhere having service as “usual”. The people were, indeed, friendly, but you had this feeling of being in another country………..

  13. Joe Willoughby says

    This blog entry you wrote over three years ago is proving to be amazingly timely for me now. I found it by googling the phrase, “church planting appalachia kentucky.” Having lived and pastored in London, KY 2000 – 2002, I am very familiar with the area and have stayed in touch with several people in Laurel/surrounding counties. When I began reading the four Christian responses, I was blown away by the very first one: “Christians must choose to come to Appalachia and live the rest of their lives.” A friend of mine, Steve Yeary, executive director of the Appalachian Children’s Home in Barbourville has invited me to spend this coming Easter weekend there. One of the things we will discuss is the possibility of my moving to SE Kentucky again. If I do, I will come to stay. I look forward to meeting you some day. THANK YOU for your many years of faithful service. It is very clear that you love the culture and are making a difference.