In his ministry to the rural areas and small towns of North Georgia and Southeast Tennessee, Corey Pelton has practiced learning about local culture–the beautiful parts, the long-held beliefs, and the attitudes that make ministry difficult. As he’s listened to and learned from the locals, his heart is to enter the culture respectfully while also desiring that people would grow in an understanding of the grace of the gospel.
Corey & Holly Pelton
Corey says, “These towns are like a gospel desert with remnants of Christianity. Pastors meet for prayer in coffee shops, and country Christian music plays in the grocery stores, but when it comes to landing sermons on Jesus, that’s rare. There’s not a PCA church close by, so when Holly and I moved here, we started visiting churches in the area to hear what people are hearing. Jesus is preached, and the basics of the gospel are shared from the pulpits, but the fullness of the gospel is absent.”
Corey has met people who’ve made a profession of faith but still strive to cover up their sin with good works. He says, “Jesus, rightly applied, is the basis of our total Christian life, or in Tim Keller’s words, ‘The gospel is not just the ABCs but the A to Z of the Christian life.’ That teaching is not very prevalent here, but many people don’t know what to hunger for. They think that they have enough and don’t know what spiritual growth could look like.”
However, Corey is also thankful for the existing churches, and he is building connections with other ministers. He attends the monthly Mountaintown Baptist Association meetings when he can. “I’m building relationships with the predominantly Baptist culture to come alongside and be a help as I can.”
In his blog post, “Thank God for These Baptist Churches,” Corey writes, “I say that I believe God has been at work long before I got here, but there are times that I backslide into the arrogant trap of thinking I’m a sort of rural savior…These small white and brick buildings dotting the landscape are filled with pastors and people trying the best way they know how to learn about Jesus. And I certainly don’t see any Presbyterian churches. The Baptists have been risk takers, pioneers, and willing to pastor for a pittance. Many are multi-vocational, preaching and pastoring simply because they love Jesus.”
In the rural areas between Ellijay, GA, Blue Ridge, GA, and Copperhill, TN, (the three towns that Corey frequents), there’s one seven-mile stretch of road in particular that has seven churches, all about the same size, and mostly Baptist. Cultural influences play a part in why there are so many small, rural churches.
Corey says, “Many little churches dotting these communities started because of a split. They’re family oriented. Some have yearly reunions where people come back to decorate the graves. One lady attends a church that is currently without a pastor, but she says she will always go there. There tends to be a pretty strong loyalty–if you haven’t been disenfranchised or shamed out of the church.”
Of disenfranchisement and dechurching, Corey says, “If you struggle with addiction, have a child out of wedlock, etc. you might be disenfranchised with the church. Drinking is a big deal around here. If you drink alcohol, you’re on the outside.” He recalls one pastor who was fired from a church simply because he ate lunch with a man who was drinking a beer.
After making a profession of faith, many Christians still feel the need to perform outwardly. “Around here, wearing certain clothes, reading the King James Bible only, not drinking–these become the measure of your Christianity rather than growing in depth of who Christ is for you and how much you need Him.”
Corey has seen the prevalence of an isolation mentality that perceives culture and the world as evil. “There’s no pushing out into the culture. Instead, the mentality is, ‘If you want to come to us to get saved, we’ll be there.’ They favor street preaching and handing out tapes over relationship building with non-Christians.”
Corey sees a distinction between town churches and “mountain churches.” The town churches tend to be larger, with full choirs, Sunday School classes, children's programs, and more resources, while the rural mountain churches tend to be much smaller with fierce loyalty and long-held beliefs. These churches range from Pentecostal to Missionary Baptist to Independent Fundamentalist. Even within one denomination, theological teachings may differ.
Will Davis and his family
Corey says town churches tend to be more willing to explore new music, while mountain churches stick with what they know. For example, Will Davis (a young pastor Corey has come alongside) attempted to introduce “Rock of Ages” to his church. Several ladies disapproved of the song because of lines like: Nothing in my hand I bring/simply to the cross I cling/naked, come to thee for dress/helpless, look to thee for grace. “They disliked the idea that we have nothing to bring, because their theology says, ‘I’m a good person. I’m not dead in my sin.’”
Family loyalty and family names play a significant part in Corey’s area. He says, “I think that’s one of the beauties of a small town–names mean something. I’m starting to hear names that have been here for decades. Even though there’s brokenness in families, there’s still a tight community. Family names make it easier to get to know people. For example, a waitress at one of the places I frequent has the last name that’s on a nearby bridge, so I asked her about it and learned that the bridge is named after her uncle who died in the line of duty.”
With transplants moving into small towns and rural areas, many locals want to hold onto their tradition and family history. There is a beauty in this, but it also creates difficulties. Corey is carefully building trust, desiring to come alongside what God is already doing. “This means keeping my mouth shut a lot. I remember my Reformed University Fellowship campus minister sitting with me and listening. I know I said a lot of stupid things, but he knew that God was at work in me. Another pastor later in my life was the same way. He didn’t correct me or make me feel less than.”
In his relationship with Will, Corey practices listening and stepping back. He says, “Will is growing tremendously in his ability to teach. He’s had to step back from his culture and see what’s good, what’s not good, and how the gospel can change that. When he asks for advice, I might give some, but I want to let God do His work. It’s the same with the culture at large. I’m here to listen and learn.”
Corey has seen that people are beginning to trust him. “A waitress at a breakfast place I frequent is a single mom, and her mother died three years ago. I know her name, she knows mine, and she says hello every time. A couple months ago, the restaurant was busy, and her childcare fell through. She asked if I would sit with her five-year-old daughter until her grandmother got there.”
To help build connections like this, Corey intentionally visits places where the locals go. He explains, “There are definitely places that locals avoid. In Blue Ridge for example, they don’t generally go downtown where the nicer shops and restaurants are. They go to the places that were there before tourism expanded.”
Entering into the culture even extends to clothes. Corey says, “I’ve been careful about what I wear. I try not to be pretentious because people don’t dress up for each other around here. Tourists stick out like a sore thumb.”
Like family names and long-standing loyalties, there is both beauty and difficulty in the importance of heritage. Corey says, “There’s a conformity to small towns. It would be hard to be from here but have a different opinion about politics, gun ownership, dog ownership, sexuality, and more because of that tight-knit conformity.”
Corey concludes, “Learning to listen causes us to love people more. If I come in with a savior mentality, I’m not learning about people or learning to love them. Tourists who come in as consumers on vacation often act entitled. When the local breakfast place is packed, consumers are grumpy and demanding, but if you’ve been here and you know the servers, it changes your attitude and heart.”