If church history has shown us anything, it’s that stories matter. From the time of the earliest followers of the Way, stories shaped the Christian community in profound ways. The most powerful story was the gospel—God in the flesh dwelt among us, died, rose again on the third day, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and would one day return in glory to redeem creation and rule as the good and righteous king.
Throughout the millennia, the church has lived in this gospel story while also passing on the stories of those who, shaped by the story of the gospel, have themselves been part of stories worth passing on.
From martyrs to missionaries and everyday saints, their stories have inspired others to step out in faith and live into the call of God in their lives. This has been true throughout church history, and it remains true today.
Just as the story of colonial missionary David Brainerd inspired an English cobbler named William Carey to commit his life to the work of mission overseas, so the story of folks like Carey, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, and Jim and Elisabeth Elliot inspired future generations to, as Carey said, “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.”
Because stories matter so much, it is significant that for decades few people (other than a novelist here and there) have cared to narrate the opportunities and realities facing pastors of small churches in small places.
For those of us who feel called to small places in America’s vast rural stretches, coming by stories that apply specifically to our experiences has been a difficult and disheartening task.
Fortunately, this is changing. People with a heart for folks in rural and small town America are beginning to take up the pen to tell of the needs—and opportunities—they are finding in the places most Christian authors and denominational bodies have until recently overlooked.
Here are a few of the recent books that I’ve found to be helpful. The books in this list are certainly not the last word. There are more stories to tell. Perhaps yours is one of them.
Anyone interested in rural ministry—especially rural church planting—would be wise to pick up Donnie Griggs’s 2016 book Small Town Jesus: Taking the Gospel Mission Seriously in Seemingly Unimportant Places. Short, sweet, and deeply informed by Griggs’s experience as someone who grew up in a small place, left for college, the city, and big church planting dreams, only to return to his small town years later to start a church, this book manages to address the prevailing emphasis on urban and suburban church planting without becoming snarky.
At the same time, Grigg’s offers a compelling rationale for planting healthy, vibrant, and contextualized church communities in small places. In his chapter “Rethinking Objections to Small Town Ministry,” Griggs addresses many of the practical concerns that come up when people talk about small town church planting (e.g., Don’t small towns have enough churches already?). The book concludes with two chapters that offer practical advice on “how to do ministry in small towns.”
From church names to outreaches and restaurant choices, Griggs offers a helpful guide to embracing the best that small towns have to offer while avoiding some “small town mindsets” that can undermine innovation and effective ministry.
As Griggs notes, “Helping people dream big dreams for their small town is one of the largest challenges any church planter or pastor will face in a small town.”
Another recent book that offers a first-hand look into the harsh realities that many families in small town and rural America face is J.D. Vance’s bestselling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Vance’s memoir gives a deeply personal account of what chronic underemployment, broken family structures, and destructive decisions (especially related to drug and alcohol abuse) look like.
For many of us living in or pastoring in rural areas or small towns, Vance’s story will seem distressingly familiar. Vance describes with unusually clarity a reality many Americans have chosen not to see. In small towns and rural villages across our country, families are breaking down and young people are turning to drugs at rates that frequently exceed those of suburban and urban areas.
The last book on my list is a work of fiction. Winn Collier’s Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small Town Church draws on the legacy of books like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Eugene Peterson’s The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation between Spiritual Friends in that it invites the reader into the heart and mind of a pastor through the medium of letters.
When Jonas McAnn agrees to accept a call to a small congregation in a small, Virginia town he chooses to embrace the people and the place with a Wendell Berry-esque sort of appreciation. As one of McAnn’s letters reads, “Particulars matter. Stories Matter. Places Matter.” These convictions lead McAnn to cultivate eyes to see the joys of small town life, from coffee groups to fishing trips, without shying away from hard issues.
Through all the ups and downs of ministry McAnn manages to take the goodness of God seriously while simultaneously not do the same thing for himself. He is not the savior of his little church or his small town; God is.
I think Collier’s McAnn gets it right. Particular people and places do matter. So do stories. In recent years, we’ve seen an encouraging uptick in the number of people who are telling the story of life and faith in small town America, but there are still a lot more stories waiting to be lived and waiting to be told. I’m hoping that more and more of us will cultivate an ability to appreciate what God is doing in small places and then take the time to join the long tradition of the church by passing on the stories we find.
Charlie Cotherman is a church planter in Oil City, Pennsylvania. Oil City was once home to the headquarters of Pennzoil and Quaker State. Charlie grew up in a small town and served on staff as a youth and associate pastor in a country church that grew to become a multisite church. He graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with his MDiv and is finishing his PhD at the University of Virginia. His passion is planting churches equipped and passionate about reaching rural America.