That was the first response I heard from someone learning of the Acts 29 Rural Collective, whose focus is churches planting rural churches. Like most other people, they assumed effective church-planting strategies should only (or at least primarily) focus on metropolitan areas.
Sure enough, this was the response I received when I told people I wanted to plant a church in a small town. Instead, I was encouraged to head to the city where there would be more to do, more opportunities, more people to reach. For all but a few I spoke with, small-town ministry was not just an afterthought; it was never a thought.
Few ministries prioritize church-planting efforts to easily forgotten places. The assumption is that those living outside large cities have already been reached with the gospel, and that small towns are idyllic locales free from the brokenness that ravages cities.
Small towns are seeing churches close and divide when they need to be witnessing churches planted and multiplying.
The needs of rural communities, however, mirror those of big cities. Both populations experience crushing poverty (16.6 percent in rural communities versus 17.2 percent in large cities), racism (vestiges of the KKK and redlining remained part of “small-town America” long after the Civil Rights Act), and the need for better community development.
While Acts 29 helps churches plant churches in cities, they also understand the spiritual plight of small towns, forgotten places, rural communities, and secluded villages. Should we plant churches in major cities? Yes, but not at the expense of small communities, since small towns and rural communities are under-gospeled.
Plight of Small Towns
It’s a radical misunderstanding of rural America’s missiological landscape to assume that cities are in need and small towns are not. Ample opportunities exist for tangible ministry coupled with gospel proclamation. But we aren’t planting enough gospel-centered churches to preach the gospel and meet needs as a physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s renewing work.
Every year I’ve served in small towns of North Carolina, I’ve learned of a church in my denomination (Southern Baptist) closing. And when I look outside of my own tradition to other denominations, the numbers jump exponentially. The rate of decline is devastating. In South Carolina, my denomination witnessed a 130,000-person decline in church membership from 2012 to 2017.
The North American Mission Board issued a SEND Institute report demonstrating that small towns and rural areas are far from being reached with the gospel. A recent study conducted by Pew Research shows that even though rural America’s population is growing, their counties are some of the least churched places in the United States. Small towns are seeing churches close and divide when they need to be witnessing churches planted and multiplying.
Biblical Ethic for Small-Town Ministry
The Bible itself provides examples of aiming our efforts at rural communities. First, Jesus was from Nazareth. What do we know about it? Not much, except that it was full of goats (along with other livestock) and likely marked by crushing poverty. It was a forgettable place where few wanted to live. Which is why Nathanael famously asked, “What good can come from Nazareth?” (John 1:43–46).
We wrongly limit the power of God to the places we prioritize.
Yet, the sovereign God of heaven chose an easily forgotten place for the Messiah to be raised. Like Nathanael, we wrongly limit the power of God to the places we prioritize. And if we’re honest, those typically are the places we want to live, work, and play.
Second, much of Jesus’s ministry occurred in small towns. Reading through the Gospel accounts, we see that Jesus wasn’t spending his life in the major city centers (although he did minister in Jerusalem). Instead, his regular rhythm was engaging people in poor villages and small communities. The Scriptures are clear: Jesus loves unlovable and easily forgotten places because the gospel is good news for unlovable and easily forgotten people.
Need for Small-Town Church Planting
I know the cry of sociologists, anthropologists, and missiologists is “Go to the city. The world is rapidly urbanizing. The future is the city.” To which I would reply: ever since the birth of the Roman Empire, people have predicted the demise of the village, the end of rural living, the annexing of small communities.
Nearly two millennia since the end of the Roman Empire, urbanization has continued, but small towns remain. And the people in small towns need the gospel just as desperately as city folk do.
Yes, let’s take the good news that Jesus saves sinners to the epicenters of modern-day culture. But let’s not forsake our neighbors in rural communities. Jesus prioritized bringing gospel grace to people in small towns—and we should, too.