I got out. That’s how it felt looking back at my rural hometown after I moved to Texas and then California. It was a weird way of thinking, because growing up I never imagined leaving. But once I was gone, especially after I settled in Southern California, I was able to see clearly the brokenness and hopelessness much of small-town America knows as normal. Like the Clampetts from The Beverly Hillbillies, I had made it to California, the land of movie stars and small-batch coffee shops—and I never wanted to go back.
I wanted to be a church planter and a missionary—only, not to my hometown. I seriously considered everything from church planting in Huntington Beach to rural South Africa or Mongolia.
But a trip home changed everything.
Home After All
In spring 2008, my Southern California wife, two of our closest friends, and I traveled back to North Carolina to help with a youth conference. That trip messed up all my plans.
I ran into friends who had stayed behind. I was faced with how time had stood still for so many of them. The life I enjoyed, the gospel I had come to love, the understanding of the beauty and power of the local church—none of it had reached them. Many of my high-school peers seemed to be in a race to see who could reach hell fastest.
Since I left in 1999, the opioid epidemic has hit small towns with full force. Heroin and meth are becoming increasingly popular ways to deal with the hopelessness many in small-town America feel. Suicide was the route some of my friends have taken.
On this trip, God broke my heart and my wife’s too. On the plane back to California, I read from Mark 6 and saw Jesus confronted by a desperate crowd who were “like sheep without a shepherd.” His response was not to run back to the boat and abandon them. Instead he “had compassion on them . . . and began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
Within months I moved back to my hometown and started a church plant in a living room with a few childhood friends. It grew as people began to hear the gospel and live it out. People wept, telling me they never knew Jesus loved them just because he loved them. Our second week, a notorious drug addict was saved on the way to commit suicide. He’s now a community-group leader. The stories continued to pile up, as did attendance each Sunday.
I Was Sent Home
Despite all these signs of God’s grace, I secretly spent the first year-and-a-half feeling mixed emotions. Have I been benched by God? I mean, if I were any good at church planting or preaching, why would God want to send me to such a remote place? I wondered if I had wasted all those years learning about missions and dreaming of being a missionary. What was the point if I was merely to return home?
One day it hit me: I didn’t come home; I was sent home to be a missionary and to trust God to start an indigenous-people movement here. I was embarrassed at how I had viewed this calling, how I had longed for the city ministry all my friends were doing, for believing city ministry was what really matters to God.
Small-town ministry isn’t a stepping-stone; it’s a destination.
I don’t think I’m the only one Jesus wants to send back home. I think indigenous missionaries are best for small towns. You can parachute into a place, but it’s hard and takes considerable time to learn the context and earn trust. But if you’re “from here,” you start off knowing the people and the place. You speak the language. You understand the brokenness.
My dad went to prison, and my brother has been a drug addict and dealer for as long as I can remember and is now in rehab for the first time. I grew up with poverty. We had cars sitting on bricks in the front yard. There were times we didn’t know where the next meal was coming from, and I vividly remember getting my friend’s old clothes for Christmas.
I am from here, and this brokenness is not just their brokenness; it’s mine, too. I understand the pains and the scars because I share them. The more I came to see this, the more I realized why God did not send me elsewhere.
Freedom for (Small-Town) Captives
In Mark 5, Jesus shows up in a rural area where people farm pigs, and he runs into a broken man. The man is possessed by demons, he’s into self-mutilation, he’s unfixable by human efforts, and he’s a nuisance to society. If the people had their way, he’d just end his life. But Jesus does what no fallen human could: he sets the demoniac free.
And freedom cost 2,000 pigs—a lot of bacon. So the town collectively decides that the cost is too steep and that no one else seems to need Jesus, so “they begged Jesus to depart from their region.” That’s one of the saddest verses in the Bible, but it’s followed by two of the most confusing:
As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:18–19)
This guy wants to go with Jesus! Isn’t this what Jesus wants? Not when it means running away from people we know, who know us, and who desperately need to know him.
“Go home to your friends and tell them.” This was the call of Jesus on my life. That word “friends” means “your very own people.” I was to go home and tell my people what Jesus has done for me. I was to tell them how he can set you free, too; how he can do what no one else can; how he is the hope for brokenness and captivity; that no other remedy will do.
This is what I’ve spent the last eight-and-a-half years doing. It’s what I hope to do until I die. Small-town ministry isn’t a stepping-stone; it’s a destination. I want to die telling my people about this Lord of mercy and grace.
Will God Send You Home?
What about you? Isaiah 61 paints a picture of the poor, the brokenhearted, the captive, and those who mourn but who have heard and believed the gospel. And having believed it, they have run back into the brokenness to “rebuild the ancient ruins . . . [and] repair the ruined cities, the devastation of many generations.”
Small-town America in 2018 is devastated. Drugs, poverty, human trafficking, suicide, and self-righteous moralism dominate the landscape. Such towns need missionaries—lots of them. And I’m convinced the best missionaries are those who’ve “gotten out,” who’ve been set free, and are sent back to tell fellow beggars where to find bread.
Is God calling you to “go home”? If so, say yes, and watch him work in a way he alone can.
- Finding Our Place: Our Family’s Long Quest for Calling and Home (Hannah Anderson)
- Remember the Rural: Does Modern Church Planting Overemphasize the City? (Michael Kruger)
- Ministry in Small Towns: Worth a Lifetime Investment (Stephen Witmer)
- Going Small with a Big Gospel in New England (Stephen Witmer)
- 3 Challenges of Small-Town Ministry (Donnie Griggs)
America’s Epidemic: How Opioid Addicts Find Help in the Church (Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra)