America’s rural communities were once the picture of the American dream. People spent their days working on the farm, cheered for their kids at ball games, and attended white-steepled churches on Sundays.
But in the 1990s and early 2000s small-town factories began to close. Small family farms became less profitable. Local restaurants and grocery stores began to disappear. Rural hospitals and clinics closed, taking away even more jobs. Schools remain central to social life, but budgets are tight. Churches continue to minister. But pastors often need to work a side job to support their family.
Many people leave rural areas to try and make a living somewhere else. These vacant properties are ideal hiding places for drug manufacturing. Many children have a parent in jail or are abused. In some ways, children in rural communities face more problems than children in cities. Teenagers are vulnerable to online predators promising adventure, affection, or a job.
As rural culture changes, traditional skills like hunting, fishing, and rodeo provide a sense of identity for rural youth.
U.S. Missions chaplain Joe Kissel uses rodeo to reach out to rural youth. He is a former Chi Alpha missionary who grew up competing in rodeo. Kissel realized that cowboy culture and working with animals is a great way to connect with rural youth.
Joe and his wife, Kayla, do outreach, serve as chaplain/instructor for rodeo schools and host rodeo Bible camps. With help from staff, volunteers, and their family, they help teens learn or improve rodeo skills. Campers attend evening worship services, and some accept Jesus for the first time.
In early 2018, the Kissels faced a sobering reminder of just how important it is to reach rural teens. A fourteen-year-old girl, who attended camp and accepted Christ, made the decision to end her own life.
“She seemed to have a good network around her and was attending church,” says Joe, “but somehow the enemy was able to get to her. We don’t know what else was going on that made her lose hope, but we are even more determined to keep going in ministry and take advantage of every possible opportunity to encourage these kids.”
The Kissels expect some sad moments as returning campers remember their friend. But they trust God will open doors to show His love to these kids.
In addition to rodeo chaplains, community chaplains and other U.S. missionaries are responding to rural needs. They encourage pastors, equip rural churches to serve their communities, and help them connect with local schools.
Do you want to get involved in Rodeo Bible Camp or another rural ministry? Follow “From the Arena to the Cross Rodeo Bible Camps and Ministries” on Facebook. And let them know you would like to get involved!
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