Multiple voices have articulated a burden for this area, and they are no longer distant and inaudible. Many of these leaders grew up in rural areas and have answered God’s call to return and minister there.
In his book, Transforming Church in Rural America: Breaking All the Rurals, Shannon O’Dell writes,
For centuries, the rural church has been isolated and insulated from the greater Body of Christ by the sheer realities of geography. Those days are gone. There’s absolutely no reason that we cannot be networking together as leaders — those who are resisting the urge to settle — by sharing resources, encouragement, wisdom, and vision. We do not have to do it alone anymore; together we can do so much more and do it so much better.
O’Dell pastors a church in Bergman, Arkansas, population 407. His church is now the hub of a rural church network spanning 13 facilities throughout Arkansas and Texas, with another campus in Russia.
Pastor Jon Sanders is another church planter and pastor who’s waving the flag for rural ministry and church planting. In April 2009, he and his family left Peoria, Illinois, to launch a ministry in Flandreau, South Dakota. That year, Jon received a call from God to reproduce life-giving churches in rural communities across South Dakota, the Midwest and the world. Utilizing Facebook Live, The Rescue Church now meets in five communities and has started an online training course, Small Town, Big Church, to help support and equip other rural pastors.
Bryan Jarrett, lead pastor at Northplace Church (Assemblies of God) near Dallas, is a voice of influence and encouragement for the rural church. At the first annual Rural Matters Conference last September, he challenged leaders and pastors representing more than 16 denominations and networks to change how they think and talk about rural churches.
Jarrett has seen firsthand the impact life-giving churches can have in rural areas. That is why Northplace Church launched the Water Tower Network in 2012. This ministry helps support and train rural leaders and pastors. Jarrett sees clearly the challenges, but also the astronomical potential, in rural communities and is determined to reach the forgotten fields of North America.
Organizations like OneHope and the Assemblies of God, and the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, have begun to call together rural church planters and leaders. One major struggle of the rural church-planting movement is that most of the known and celebrated resources and authors are coming out of cities and urban contexts from the past 100 years of urban focus.
Mainstream church-planting resources are often unhelpful, and rural church-planting strategies are markedly different from strategies for any other context.
However, with more than 48 million people in rural America, there is an emerging and encouraging movement to plant churches in rural areas. Specialized resources for rural church planters are being developed. In April 2017, the Billy Graham Center launched the Rural Matters Institute. This organization is providing the support, training and community for those working in non-urban contexts, in partnership with other faith-based organizations.
Since 2003, Convoy of Hope’s Rural Compassion has been partnering with community leaders, organizations and churches to provide training and resources to help meet needs in rural places.
“I’m consistently awestruck by the depth of poverty we see in rural American towns,” says Steve Donaldson, senior director of Rural Compassion. “I’m equally inspired by the determination and grassroots solutions in those same towns.”
In smaller communities that lack essential resources, the local church has the opportunity to be the Church in a way that is highly relevant and deeply needed. Christians belong in the space of need and desperation because we carry a message of hope that is vitally needed in those contexts.
The rural environment provides a space to add an increasing impact with a much smaller footprint. In the city, even churches that are growing can struggle to feel relevant amidst a crowded field.
In rural areas, when a life-giving church is planted, everyone knows, and many are impacted by even small opportunities for service and assistance. A growing church in a shrinking town will not stay a secret for long. And its work may even help a community find life again.
It’s time to set aside misconceptions and embrace the facts — no matter how hard they may be to hear. The Holy Spirit is directing our hearts to the divine purpose of engaging in this opportunity for rural ministry. We must trust God for His harvest, believing He will turn the tide on darkness. Statistics point to pain and struggle, but we know of a story that will wipe away all tears.
We can’t just cognitively know these communities. We must love them as Jesus does. We must see the challenges and seek to meet them, as Jesus saw our desperate need and met us where we were. We must acknowledge the pain and walk with people through it, as Jesus identified with our pain. We must be willing to put down roots and make ourselves part of the community, just as Jesus became one of us.
To deliver the message of Jesus, we must go. We must be and live as sent ones.
It won’t be easy. But now is the time.
How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.