Why We Need More Churches in Small Towns

Do we really need more churches in rural America? When I first moved to the States from the UK, I remember being struck by the number of church buildings scattered across rural highways. The saying “church on every street corner” is not far from the truth in some towns.

Few people question the legitimacy of church planting in major cities. Yet more than 62 million people live in rural America. Pockets of the unchurched and dechurched are scattered throughout rural communities and small towns. And the most effective means of reaching them is church planting. We must plant churches, then, both in metropolitan America and in small-town America.

Small-town churches need a vision for planting churches. Let me share two different examples of small-town church planting that I’ve experienced.

1. An Unengaged Community

New Hope is a small community in the heart of Kentucky. It is the home of the Abbey of Gethsemane, an active monastic community. New Hope celebrates its rich Catholic heritage and natural beauty, but it is also blighted by rural poverty, drug use, and alcoholism. It has been a community without gospel witness.

Rolling Fork Baptist Church is a healthy and growing church of around 100 that gathers just 12 miles down the road in Boston, Kentucky. It is one of the oldest Baptist churches in the United States, dating back to the 1780s. A rural congregation of 100 worshipers with more than 200 years of history isn’t typically the kind of church about whose church planting efforts we hear. Rolling Fork had a vision and a heart for reaching out to New Hope. So, in partnership with other neighboring churches, Rolling Fork concluded that the most effective means of reaching New Hope would be through starting a church.

Collaborating with other Baptist churches in the county, Rolling Fork began evangelistic work in the community and, in January 2012, launched New Hope Baptist Mission. An average of 30 people now regularly attend the Sunday night worship gatherings in a place where they previously did not hear the gospel. The people of Rolling Fork have been re-energized through this faithfulness to watch the gospel advance into a dark corner of Kentucky.

2. Two Churches in One Location

The early years of Bardstown Christian Fellowship, a new church south of Louisville, were difficult. Evangelism proved an uphill struggle in an area where only one in ten people are active in church, and half are Roman Catholic. But with a persistent commitment to expositional preaching, radical ministry to one another, and bold outreach through missional community groups, the church began to gain momentum. In 2011 we grew from a small core to close to 130 in worship. As elders, we saw we’d soon outgrow our meeting space. There was no enthusiasm about pouring more money into facilities. Neither did we desire a second service. So, committed to reaching the lost through church planting, the elders were led to start a second church. What we did next is unusual. We planted a second church in the same building!

We launched Grace Fellowship Church in August of this year. We commissioned three of our elders and a number of families to start this new work on Sunday nights. Two churches, one location. We co-own the property and everything in it. This is our long-term strategy, to make the facility available as a public space in which churches can gather for worship. In God’s kindness, Grace Fellowship has already celebrated its first baptism and is connecting with people we did not reach. We’re convinced that we don’t need more church buildings, just more healthy churches. Churches in small-town America already own enough properties; we just need to be more strategic in how we’re using them.

As long as there are people in rural communities not being reached by the gospel, we need to revitalize and plant healthy gospel-centered churches there. It takes gospel partnerships and some bold new thinking to do it well.

  • http://www.TheTitusMandate.org Ted Bigelow

    Hi Matthew,

    I’m befuddled. Help me. What NT ecclesiology guided you folks to break apart your church in order to start another church in the exact same location, just meeting at night?

  • http://reformingandredeeming.blogspot.com The Accountant Theologian

    Why two churches, one location instead of two services, one church? Is there a theological disagreement or other reason to be separate churches?

  • Nell

    Do you really mean to say that there is no gospel witness if there is only a Catholic heritage?

    • Jeff Dovalovsky

      As long as we disagree on the doctrine of “Sola Fide,” we disagree about what the Gospel IS. So there may be witness to A gospel, but the roman empire also proclaimed A gospel, Mormonism and Islam each have A gospel, it’s not codified but Mammon has a gospel…

      And even if there was a protestant heritage, they might not necessarily bear witness to it.

      • Nell

        It is my understanding that one needs to accept the gospel to by saved. So, are you saying, and is the author saying, that Catholics, who continue to follow Catholicism are not saved? I am not Catholic, by the way.

        • Jeff Dovalovsky

          Apparently the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans recently got together and decided that at least part of the problem was that they were using the same words to mean different things. I haven’t studied the details of that yet, so for all I know my understanding of the RC doctrine could be incorrect, but given that the apparent misunderstanding lasted well over 400 years, I’m skeptical.

          What I do know is that the Protestants and Roman Catholics have historically believed that their gospels are different: in keeping with Galatians 1:8-9, the Roman Catholic Church anathematized the gospel which the Protestants profess, and the Protestants (in a considerably less organized and formal manner) reciprocated.

  • Pingback: Monday Morning: Links To Check Out « Brevity & Clarity()

  • Ted

    Paul condemns denominations in 1 corinthians 1:11-15. If Christians would recognize this, they would share buildings in order to fulfill John 13:35, perhaps having different worship times to allow for differences in non-salvational doctrine. The vast amount of money saved could be given to poor Christians in third world countries to fulfill Matthew 25:31-46. It would also be one less stumbling block for the unsaved, who see a dozen buildings and denominations in every town as confusing and\or childly clubbish.

    • Chaylon

      I believe denominations are necessary this side of Glory. They are regrettable, but given our fallen nature, they are unavoidable. Why?…Because men can and do come to reasonable yet theologically significant differences in their dogma. They are not spliting up solely upon who was their mentor, as in the case of 1 Cor. 1lff.

      The problem with reaching for a denominationless church is that we cannot go very deep in our teaching before bumping up against a significant difference of opinion. If we stop teaching dogmatically on that particular issue, we lessen it’s importance AND lessen the need to demonstrate and train people to believe with all their heart, sole, mind, and strength. We end up with a skin deep theology which, while better than nothing, is certainly not best. We need to encourage people to believe strongly in all the scripture says. We must demand of our members to follow their conscience as guided by the HS and scripture. To do otherwise is sin (Rom. 14:23).

      But I do agree with you that Churches who agree on essentials ought to be able to work together. My church is PCA and shares a building with a Seventh Day Adventist group. A pretty wide difference!

  • Respectabiggle

    Thanks for this. Lots of young pastors want to reach hip, educated, urban young people. Places where the parishioners live in trailers are less attractive for some reason.

  • Stuart Schwenke

    Having served in a rural area for five years, I have experienced the same opinion as the author. Though the article lacks a compelling argument for why we need more churches, the author raises the issue.

    The take away line is here. “Small-town churches need a vision for planting churches.”

    We cannot expect our urban churches to come out here and help us. They are not even doing what they should be doing. We cannot expect mission agencies to come out here and help us. We, the small-rural churches, must do the work.

    We live here. We know the people. We must have the heart for this work, or it just will not get done.

  • Sally

    Thank You, as a fellow Brit living in deepest rural Pembrokeshire, Wales, I can tell you that we are desperate for Churches that teach and preach the Gospel…And although we don’t have the amount of people living here as cities do, we still have the majority of the population totally without any faith. and any that became Christians would struggle to find any decent Churches….So I totally agree ….

  • http://donotletthisuniverseforgetyou.blogspot.com Heather Carrillo

    My family and I have begun to attend a Village Mission Church. I think the organization is only based in the US and Canada, but anyone who feels passionate about church planting in small towns should check them out.

  • Scott

    Having planted churches in the very rural ares of N. California, Nevada, and south eastern Oregon for 25 years, I am so grateful for this article. Christ-centered gospel preaching churches are far and few between in the rural areas of this country. The social gospel permeates the landscape of our rural communities and we have met many who have never heard the gospel. We need church planters raised up, trained, and supported by the churches in larger cities or communities and sent to these pasted over generations of people. Many rural areas could never afford a full-time pastor to shepherd their souls. This is a ripe mission field waiting for Christ church to rise up and bring the gospel to it with all the glorious doctrine that makes Christ His own attraction.

  • Josh Gard

    I am a pastor serving in a rural church through Village Missions. There are many towns without a gospel witness or with churches which desperately need pastors. Village Missions has been doing the work of revitalizing churches by providing pastors for over sixty years with the goal of healthy churches. Village Missions is a great opportunity for pastors to serve in areas of great spiritual need and a practical way that others can support the ministry in rural areas from their own locations. village-missions.org

  • Pingback: Why We Need More Churches in Small Towns « HE STILL SPEAKS!()

  • http://welcometodayspring.com Robert

    While in a small town and not a rural setting, this article raises a very important question to which I will add a spear point–do we ignore small population areas with the witness of a real church simply because there is no money/population in it for the normal American view of growth, pastor’s salary, and so forth?

    Proper expectations, bi-vocational pastor, partnered with a healthy denomination/mother church, some form of family-integration to keep the church simple and without extraneous programs, and you could plant a lot of churches in small towns that would be beautiful to see and beautiful to God, more importantly.

    • Matt Burris

      Having pastored in small town/rural settings for several years, I whole-heartedly agree on the need for church planting, and the necessity of church planters to be bi-vocational and willing to give up on the American (Pastoral) Dream. I would also say a church planter needs to be willing to be hated – you will be confronting a great many idols, just as you would in the city. The difference is, in a city people can easily get away from each other if they wish. Not so in rural areas. You will preach the Gospel, confront sin, hold the line on church discipline . . . and then see people you have deeply offended at the grocery store, or in the local diner, or at the little league game. It is not easy, and we need people to really understand what they are going into.

      That said, if God calls us, he will give us strength, and it is a beautiful thing to see people turn toward Jesus with their whole heart – whether that be in the city or in the country!

  • http://marcmullins.wordpress.com Marc Mullins

    I certainly give a hearty amen to this article, I live in the next town north of Bardstown right before Louisville but the difference is we have at least 3 or 4 solidly biblical and Gospel focused churches, our viscinity to Southern Seminary is a great help. I praise God that finally instead of thinking through how we can build bigger sanctuaries to the glory of our congregation, we are discussing how we can plant healthy churches where there is none to the glory of God!

    I would love to learn more about these efforts. My church where I minister at is part of the Nelson Baptist Association and I am sure we could see ways to serve together in those areas.

  • http://www.rhma.org Gary Roseboom

    Being a part of a mission organization that focuses on rural America, I appreciate the interest shown by all the comments.

    I also appreciate the references to Village Missions. However, I would not be a very loyal member of my own if I didn’t add it to the mix — RHMA (Rural Home Missionary Association)! We’ve just celebrated 70 years of “planting and strenghtening churches in small-town America.”

    And we’re not in competition with Village Missions. In fact, their director was a seminar speaker at our recent Small-Town Pastors’ Conference. There are plenty of small towns to go around (thousands without an evangelical presence).

    The fields are ripe, the workers are few . . .

  • http://www.smallchurchtools.com Terry Reed

    As a pastor in the rural delta of Arkansas I hardily agree with the author. Many churches are not reaching the masses in these locations. Small churches in rural America have a great potential to reach many for Jesus.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

  • Pingback: This Week’s Good Reads | Pastor Dave Online()

  • Pingback: Friday Random Linkness | Noel Jesse Heikkinen()