Converge Great Lakes executive director of Church Planting
Point Magazine // January 2021
Rural America has long represented the heart of America. And why not? It is an open land of opportunity. Hard-working men and women with down-to-earth values make up tight-knit communities in America’s Heartland. It has much to be admired.
But men and women who heed the call to ministry in these areas often fall off the radar and bear the burden of ministry alone. While the rural population in America shrinks, its need for a thriving and vibrant church community is as critical in those communities as in any part of the world.
Seventeen percent of the U.S. population — approximately 51 million people — live in rural areas. Though the population is increasingly racially diverse, most individual communities remain racially homogenous. And due to mortality rates and emigration, roughly 50% of rural counties’ populations are decreasing.
Across the country, spiritual vibrancy also is declining in too many of these communities. Based on 2010 U.S. Religion Census data, high percentages of religiously “unclaimed” individuals — the number of people in a community who do not attend church — live in rural counties.
From counties in Arizona and Kentucky to Montana and Florida, the data demonstrates emptiness in churches across rural communities. And there is an urgent need to reach those who are religiously unclaimed for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The significant population migration to cities has further exacerbated rural America’s challenges. The decreasing rural population has left these communities with weakened support systems and under-resourced. Social service concerns abound in rural America. Issues such as poverty, education, the opioid epidemic and mental health present more difficult challenges and support gaps in rural communities than their urban counterparts.
Having planted churches in both rural context and urban contexts, I can tell you there are similarities. The drug crisis, unemployment and apathy exist in both areas.
However, in the urban setting, it’s easy to become invisible. In a small-town context, everybody knows your business. It’s much more difficult to hide from — or in — your community.
In obedience to fulfilling the Great Commission, churches and individuals become senders through prayer, service and financial resourcing. Churches are establishing a discipleship pipeline to raise up church planters, pastors and missionaries.
I grew up in a town of 1500 in central Wisconsin. The entire county population was just 25,000. The nearest midsize town was 35 to 45 minutes away. That was where we would go when we needed to visit the shopping malls, chain restaurants or other larger city amenities. Rural living just doesn’t provide you with many options.
My 86-year-old mother passed away last year. I graduated from high school with her ICU nurse. I also went to high school with the funeral director.
Being able to interact and reconnect on a personal level with people I had a history with was incredible. There was an acceptance and respect that I would imagine people in larger urban settings don’t always experience. The ICU nurse even attended my mother’s funeral.
In the rural context you can develop real connections and friendship that last. People actually know you by name.
Research shows it takes 5 to 7 years before a ministry is effective and accepted in a community, (Thomas Frank Bartlett’s Temple Baptist Seminary doctoral dissertation, Multisite church planting in a rural community). I found that to be true when we planted a church in a community of 5000 people. It helped that I worked part time with the police department to teach drug awareness in the elementary school. It gave me instant credibility.
Over time we built trust and made lasting connections during the 11 years we were in that community. We discovered that we had to go slow with our approach and not view people as projects or have an agenda. We had to be authentic.
When you join an established community, you need to enter at the community’s pace. In other words, if you come in thinking that you’re going to move ministry quickly, that attitude will be detrimental to your rural community’s success and fruitfulness.
Go slow and get to know people first. Show them they matter to you and they matter to God.
Filling a void
Rural ministry, like most things, has its negative and positive aspects. I’ve learned many of each through the years.
It takes longer to build trust and credibility in a rural community. No one knows you yet. Because people view a newcomer as an outsider, it is much more difficult to earn the right to speak into the community.
So, how do you move from an outsider to a valued community member? Find out what the community needs and attempt to fill that void.
In my community, there was strong denominational loyalty. Family traditions took priority, even when it pertained to our new church. One visitor told me that he loved our church but couldn’t become a member — or even a regular attender — because of family ties and pressure from his denominational tribe.
Another challenge we faced was the reality that we didn’t have our own building. Many viewed us as a cult because we met in a high school auditorium. People told us they would visit when we had a building.
For others, though, meeting in a school was a welcome relief. They didn’t want to attend a “churchy” facility.
Making a community impact
On the flip side there were many positive aspects of planting in a smaller context. For one, news travels really fast. Having a strategic online presence is key to communicating with the people you are trying to reach. We used the typical media outlets, but we weren’t in the community long before people we’d meet for the first time would tell us they already knew about us and the church.
Another positive aspect of rural church planting is the potential to impact your community and beyond. We wanted to be the church and serve our community. Because we had a strong network of small groups, it was easy for our leaders to invite neighbors to attend. We invited the entire community to attend special church services. And having good relationships with other community religious leaders and joining the local ministerial association helped, too.
When you are intentional about planting a new gospel-centered church in rural America, you can be a big fish in a small pond. When we planted in a rural community and began reaching a lot of people with the gospel, people would often refer to us in that way: A big fish in a small pond. Other churches how we were innovating and began to copy some of our programing methods.
If you are considering planting a church in a rural context, pray for wisdom to know where God is calling you. It’s also essential to have connections in your community. Connect with the city manager; school administrators; police, fire and emergency management directors; medical center leadership; and civic organizations such as the Optimist, Rotary and Lions clubs, etc.
Co-vocational or bi-vocational ministry is a great way to support your ministry and make community contacts. I encourage young people to go to vocational/technical education institutions and learn a trade.
You can become an electrician, barber or tradesperson. I was a police officer in another community before planting, then was hired by our local police department. I worked for the police department and pastored a church for eight years.
Renewed attention on rural communities
For many, the next great mission field is an exotic country or remote village. But for many others, it may be the rural heartland of the United States. The declining spiritual climate and social conditions of rural communities call for renewed attention from the local church. Since COVID-19 hit America in 2020 and social unrest turned major cities upside down, there is a new trend of moving to small communities to raise a family in a safe environment.
All who take seriously the Great Commission can play a part in reaching people in the most remote areas of rural America. For some, it will mean deciding to follow God’s call by personally moving to a rural community and planting a new life-giving church in the area. For others, it could be “sending” others to plant a church or minister in a rural community through financial resourcing and prayer. And there are still others who feel called to join and support efforts at an existing rural church.
The future is unknown, but the truth is many new churches need to be started to keep pace with the nation’s population growth. We cannot ignore the great mission field in rural America.