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The Hidden Glory of the Unglamorous Little Places

I watched little house after old barn after cornfield go by out my raindrop-covered car window. We were traveling home for just the last three days of spring break. The first six had been filled by a transformative experience we call ICO PRM–an Inner Community Outreach trip with the Project on Rural Ministry (PRM).* I would arrive home in a few hours, and each time I was asked about the trip, I would respond with the same testimony: “I think it changed my life, and I didn’t even know my life needed changing.”

Looking through that car window, I saw with new eyes. This was no insignificant part of the country lined with shabby houses. What I had always dismissed as apparently dull landscapes were in fact home to image bearers of God–image bearers desperately in need of the transforming hope of Jesus Christ, my God who left the glorious riches of heaven to be born in a dingy manger. Here were people in need, just as I was, and still am. People, communities, children, broken parents, and lonely widowers who God died to save. And now it was sinking in–What if God had something different planned for me than to live in the ivy covered brick cottages on my Pinterest account? What if God would call me to a horribly unglamorous townhouse in a zip code no one had ever heard of?

A Change in Perspective

I can trace my perspective shift back to Nate Kiesel, the pastor of Mosaic Church in Jeannette, Pennsylvania. We had the privilege to hear from him as we served at his church for a couple of days on ICO PRM, 2021. He shared with inspiring honesty how God had rescued him out of addiction and jail to become an ordained pastor in the PCA. After that, he was appointed to start a church plant in a depressed town, once the glass capital of the world, now a food desert weighed down with racial injustice and trauma.

He responded with decisive willingness not just to work there, but to move his young family into the worst part of town. To be with those hurting people, and to become one of them. It was incarnational ministry. To say my mind and heart were moved would be an understatement. (For more on Pastor Nate and Mosaic Church, check out this video.)

Discovering a the Hidden Glory of Unglamorous Places

Shaw (far right) with PRM-ICO in Jeannette, PA, in 2021.
Shaw (front left) with CRM-ICO in Jeannette, PA, in 2024.

As I continued to serve on ICO PRM over the years, and meanwhile worked on class projects with PRM pastors, I have seen it over and over again. It’s easy to miss at first. It is a hidden, mysterious glory: to serve as the light of Christ in a small, hard, unglamorous place, because in reality Christ deeply loves those people, and He is ever faithful.

I’ve seen this glory amidst the long spiritual shadows of the mining town of Powhatan Point, Ohio, where Pastor Coker bakes communion bread for his congregants with his own hands, and leads youth programs in that addiction-worn, abuse-ridden community. I’ve seen it in the sparks of hope which manifest as laughter and the sincere questions of eight-year-olds at Mosaic’s after-school program, despite leadership being overworked and worn down. It’s in the room as these pastors step into dismal nursing homes to share from Scripture and uplift elderly hearts through hymns. I was enlivened to hear of His glory shining through the bi-weekly “Revive” club at Marion high school, where local pastors take turns leading sixty to seventy students in a message from Scripture and small group discussions. Against a background of disheartening gray, there is light. There is movement. God is working in and through the rural pastors and churches, even in spite of their weaknesses.

The Courage to Go Small

Shaw lending a hand in basement demo. on CRM-ICO 2024.

How sobering it has been to witness the challenges of small, rural communities on these week-long trips. It leaves me marveling that God sustains these pastors to serve year in and year out. What a special grace He gives them, not only to serve relentlessly in spiritually dry areas, but to press on in spite of rejection from those who try to disqualify them. And yet, despite the real trials, I long that God would send more workers into this harvest, because there is so much glory yet to be revealed to and through these communities.

I know there is hidden beauty in each run down landscape, and that Jesus is going to draw it out in full restoration one day. But I wonder, are we courageous enough to go and see it for ourselves? Willing to participate as God’s hands in the task of drawing it out? Ready to support the long term ministers on the frontlines in our local communities?

Catching a Kingdom Vision

Of course, faithful engagement with God’s work in the world takes a different shape for all of us. As for my PRM-inspired life change, I never imagined God would use Pastor Nate’s teaching on relocation and incarnational ministry as a means of compelling me to devote my life to God in long-term, international missions work. We all have our own frontiers, from North Africa, to New Castle, to our own living rooms, and Heaven knows there is a lot of work to do.

Praise be to God that this restorative gospel work does not depend on us. That’s a weight no pastor or lay-girl can carry. On our spring break trip this year, leadership at each church independently told us “It’s God’s church.” Pastor Nate shared with even more powerful precision: “It’s not your thing and it’s not about you.” This is God’s thing, it’s about Him, and He will receive all the glory, even as he graciously calls and sustains us to minister to the unglamorous, secretly glorious communities He loves.

*The Project on Rural Ministry (PRM) was a five-year, Lilly-funded initiative designed to help pastors in rural and rust belt communities thrive. In 2024 the PRM transitioned into a permanent Center for Rural Ministry (CRM). Find out more about the vision and work of the CRM at ruralministry.org.

Grace Anne Shaw is a social work and biblical studies double major at Grove City College. When she’s not in Grove City, she works with her family on their 115 year old fruit orchard in Southern York county, enjoying a rich experience of the rural Pennsylvanian context. After graduation in May, she plans to get her Masters in Social Work while building relationship with her local church, working towards her goal of doing creative access mission work in North Africa.