While I was in seminary, I attended a church-planting conference put on by Acts 29. One of my main takeaways was the strategic importance of planting urban churches and reaching big cities with the gospel. This all resonated with me. Ministry is about going where the people are, and increasingly, people are in the cities.
As I continued my studies, I started to make plans to plant a church in Vancouver, British Columbia (population 2 million), where I was attending seminary. I could see the massive need for gospel witness in that city, and I reasoned there was no point in moving elsewhere.
In God’s providence, I moved to rural Ohio.
There and Back Again
God opened the door for me to pastor a small country church in the town of Sulphur Springs (population 194). I served four years there before being called to another church Waverly, New York (population 4,444). Though still a small town, this community had a different vibe to it. The neighboring town even had a Walmart.
After about three years, my wife and I sensed God was calling us elsewhere. Having cut our teeth on small-town, small-church ministry, we thought it was maybe time to make the jump to urban ministry. Perhaps not as big as Vancouver, but at least a city we had actually heard of before.
To make a long story short, we were called to serve in Snow Shoe, Pennsylvania (population 765).
Snow Shoe is an old coal-mining town situated on a mountain just off I-80 in central Pennsylvania. When we first moved to Snow Shoe, there wasn’t much housing inventory to choose from, so we rented until a suitable house came on the market. During this time, many people in the church made it clear they wanted us right in Snow Shoe and not “down the mountain” or in some neighboring community. It was evident this was a tight-knit community where relations run deep.
I’ll never forget the first big snow that first winter. It was around 6 a.m., still dark out, and I was just waking up. To my great surprise, I noticed someone plowing our driveway. Turns out it was our next-door neighbor, John. In the three years since, we’ve never once had to plow our driveway. Even the time after John had surgery, he still found someone else to plow our driveway. Crazy, but that kind of benevolence isn’t uncommon in Snow Shoe.
One of the things I love about our town is there are no backyard fences. Granted, there aren’t many streets, and there is lots of space, but it’s great not to be confined in a way that most city-dwellers are. In all reality, kids don’t spent time outside playing like they used to, and that’s unfortunate. My wife and I try to get the kids outside as much as possible and our yard (along with the neighbors’) gives them plenty of safe space in which to explore and have fun.
Another surprise for us were the rattlesnakes. We were warned many times about them, and the one time I did spot one, I kept my distance. But I’ll never forget when our church hosted a “wild game night.” There were all kinds of delicacies like turtle, venison, elk, bear, beaver, wild turkey, and more. But my personal favorite was rattlesnake. “Tastes like chicken,” we were told. (Sure enough, it did!)
Small Community, Big Accountability
As we became more visible in those early months, I realized that people in the community (who didn’t attend our church) knew me before I knew them. I wondered how, since we’d just moved. Evidently, word got around that there was a new pastor in town.
I soon discovered that our local grocery store, Halls, was a great place to meet people. Halls is also a hardware store, our only bank, our only “chain” anything (Subway), and our local library (the bookmobile comes once a week). It’s rare for me to go to Halls and not meet a member from our church or an acquaintance from the community.
This reminds me that living a godly life matters for the pastor (1 Pet. 5:2–4). I don’t want the headline on the community Facebook page to read, “Pastor flips out on cashier!” As much as I crave anonymity and invisibility, it’s not going to happen in a small town, and that’s a good thing. Every visit to Halls is a ministry opportunity. You never know who you might bump into, and this has given me several opportunities for gospel conversations. And I thank the Lord for it.
Many Gospel Opportunities
Many more stories could be told about what makes ministry in Snow Shoe both unique and rewarding. But the greatest blessing is being able to minister the Word of God week in and week out. Three, and sometimes four times a week, I have the privilege of preaching and teaching God’s Word. Just like anywhere (both urban and rural), there is much gospel illiteracy, but God has given me a platform to bring his light to a people searching for answers.
Ministry is ministry, no matter where you go. At the heart of it all is this: People need the Lord.
One example is our annual “Light the Night” community event, which kicks off the Christmas season. Our first year I was privileged to give a 10-minute message before they lit the big tree and Santa showed up. I did my best to give a clear presentation of the gospel to this large crowd, most of whom were unchurched. To my surprise, after it was all finished, the organizer said, “See you next year, pastor.” I was expecting a “one and done” kind of thing, but that was not the case.
I’ve come to realize that ministry is ministry, no matter where you go. Just like any town or church, there are many challenges, but at the heart of it all is this: People need the Lord. Snow Shoe is a small town, but there are still many unregenerate people. Much work remains.
If the Lord calls you to pastor a small-town church, expect to be blessed. Expect to be blessed in surprising ways, and don’t see it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Oh there will be challenges, no doubt, but preach the Word, love the people, and believe in the power of the gospel to change lives.