In early 2009, my wife and I moved from Los Angeles (population 3.8 million) to plant One Harbor Church in my hometown of Morehead City, North Carolina—a small town of around 9,000 people. Convinced that urban ministry in places like L.A. was big and important, I had low expectations for our small-town church plant.

To my surprise, our little church experienced amazing growth. On our second Sunday, a drug addict was saved on his way to kill himself, and he began bringing people to church week after week. Inundated with people, we struggled to find a facility that could hold them or leaders who could lead them. We moved into an abandoned gas station, then a restaurant, then an old theater, before finally going multisite simply to accommodate growth.

I had to beef up my leadership skills and learn how to lead something larger than 30 folks in a living room. So I started reading books for church planters, but they all seemed to be doing ministry in large, urban contexts. Before long, I learned rural ministry comes with three major challenges.

1. You’re doing ministry in a fishbowl.

In a small town you’re extremely visible, which has its ups and downs. Growing up I remember our pastor saying, “If you’re gonna do any sinning, don’t do it in this town unless you want people to find out.” When you pastor in a big city, you rarely run into people you know. But a small town can feel like a fish bowl where everyone knows everyone—and thinks they know everything about you.

This can serve as an excellent means of accountability, but it can also make ministry hard. You simply must acknowledge it and make the most of it. There are a few ways to navigate through the fish bowl.

First, know that ministry is not limited to Sunday. People will see you around town and recognize you. Almost every date night for the last seven years has included someone coming up to my wife and me, seeking counsel. I eventually learned to reply with a smile, “If I stop my date to help you, I’ll be the one who needs counseling.” You are seen as someone who can help, and people will not feel shy about approaching you.

Second, don’t do or say anything you wouldn’t want everyone to know. There’s a strong likelihood people around you at a restaurant or sporting event know who you are or have visited your church. People in your small town are probably either cynical or curious about you as a pastor, and small towns house strong rumor mills. If you lose your temper or say something inappropriate, a version of the events will spread like wildfire before dark.

Third, do things in public you want people to see. You can turn the small-town fish bowl into a positive factor. I want people to see I’m a “regular” person, since so many small-town pastors are put on pedestals. I try to go out of my way to be present in meaningful ways when the town is celebrating or mourning. I want them to know I’m not living in a church office between Sunday mornings. By God’s grace, I think word has gotten around that I’m an approachable, “real” person.  

2. You must understand what is behind the question, ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’

Most large cities are cultural melting pots. In a small town, however, it often seems everyone is local. If you’re an outsider, locals may go of their way to remind you of that. I recently heard about an older person who greeted one of our future church planters with, “You’re a dingbatter!” A dingbatter is a term for someone not from here. It can be said in jest, or it can be said with hostility, as it was by this man.

If you’re not a native, you can’t successfully reach the area without winning over the locals. But this isn’t as impossible as it may feel. Work hard to understand the context Jesus has sovereignly put you in. Spend time with people in the community who don’t attend your church. Settle in for the long journey of becoming a good missionary. Ask tons of questions. What do they love? What do they celebrate? What do they mourn? What do they worship? Look for ways to become “all things” to them so that “some might be saved” (1 Cor. 9:22).

3. You’re fishing in a smaller pond.

In a big city, you will quickly find a number of people who agree with your style of ministry. Even a poor missionary can gather a decent crowd who agrees with him and is willing to travel to be part of the church.

This is not the case for those who plant in a small town. There may not be many just waiting for you to start your dream church. The smaller the context, the smaller the margin for error. If you utterly misread the culture of a small town, you may not reach anyone. Worse, you may only attract people who’ve been kicked out of all the other churches.

Much work must be done to ensure people understand who you are and what you are doing. These lessons are important for all church planters, but they are far more evident in small towns where your presence is more obvious and the context is much more up close and personal. Don’t waste the opportunity.