Pastoring in the Forgotten Places

Pastoring in the Forgotten Places

We must view the small places with both realism and gospel hope


Tony Merida: Welcome to Churches Planting Churches, a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host, Tony Merida.

Misconceptions about the small forgotten places of the world abound in our day. On the one hand, rural communities can be seen as idyllic, utopian communities where life moves slowly and people are friendly.

On the other hand, they can be viewed as places where people are uneducated, stuck in the past, and thus, not worthy of much attention. Such notions are often unfounded and unhelpful. Further, as Christians, we can and must view the small places of the world with both realism and gospel hope. Small towns across the globe are broken because they are filled—even if sparsely—with sinners like you and me.

In light of that reality, what the small forgotten places of the world needs are healthy churches. And that’s why we care about planting churches in rural communities across the world. But this is no easy task. What will it take to see healthy churches planted in rural communities? What are some of the unique challenges involved? How can churches get involved in this crucial work? To discuss these things and more, I’m excited to have David Pinckney with me on the podcast today.

David is the co-director of the Rural Collective in Acts 29. He’s also an area lead for Acts 29 in northern New England. He serves as pastor of River of Grace Church in Concord, New Hampshire. He also serves on the Small Town Summits team at The Gospel Coalition. David is married to Sharon, and they have five children.

Merida: David, welcome to the podcast.

David Pinckney: Great to be with you here, Tony.

Merida: So, David and I, right now, are recording this in the great state of West Virginia. We are at . . . what do we call these? Rural Collective summits?

Pinckney: Yes, summits. Yeah.

Merida: Yeah. And we do these where? All over?

Pinckney: This is number two. We have just started these. It’s a new launch. We can talk a little bit about it, but yeah, this is number two. We did one last week in Oregon.

Merida: Wow. So we’re going from Oregon to West Virginia. And this one, I love the title, is called “The Gospel In The Hollers.” And you had to practice that word, didn’t you?

Pinckney: I did. We don’t have hollers in New Hampshire.

Merida: What do you have?

Pinckney: Oh, man, we have ski slopes and the Boston Red Sox, and . . .

Merida: Before we get into the Rural Collective and some of the work that you’re doing helping to oversee around the world, just tell us a little bit about yourself, how you came to faith in Christ, a bit about your family.

Pinckney: Tony, my dad moved to New Hampshire in 1965 to start pastoring a church. I was 2 years old, he was 44. And grew up in small town, New Hampshire, came to Jesus as a young lad. And I can still remember the day, the immense weight of sin in my life just overwhelmed me, and I knew my dad could help me get Jesus on the inside, that was my goal.

So, I’ve been tracking with Jesus, you know, as a broken guy, but as someone who has no other hope other than Jesus, since I was just a young guy. And went off to college to follow Jesus, but I honestly, didn’t like the church. And so, but it was second year into college, where, as an RA in a dorm, the guys . . . it was a Christian college, and the guys kept saying, “You make a good pastor, you make a good pastor.”

I said, “Okay, Jesus, if that’s what you want me to do, I’m down that track.”

Merida: Yeah. So, you said your dad’s a pastor.

Pinckney: My dad, well, he passed away back in 2011. Yeah, he passed. I grew up . . . I’m a PK.

Merida: Small-town pastor?

Pinckney: Yep, yep. All my formative years, my only church experience have been in small churches.

Merida: Yeah. So, talk to us about those church experiences. Walk us through to where you are now.

Pinckney: Well, the first church I call the wonder years, because I was a young little guy, and this church was the most wonderful family. And I’m convinced . . . I’m convinced to kind of steal the title of Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village—It takes a church to raise a kid, and I just flourished as a young guy in that environment.

Dad, then, I was about nine years old when he moved to . . . took a staff position on at church for about two years. It was a church of about 200, which in New Hampshire, was huge. And that was . . . sort of started to take me towards, not Jesus, but the church. And then, dad ended up at the last church he was in, which I ended up following him. I just came out of college, and he was 65, and he decided to retire one summer, and I’d been preaching for him.

He’d been paying me under the table to preach. I was planning to go to seminary, and the church had me preaching for six months. I was 23. And dad says, “I’m done.” And the little Baptist Church, 50 people voted me in. I mean, what kind of damage can you do to that, right? So . . .

Merida: So, two questions for that. One, what does “paying you under the table” mean?

Pinckney: He gave me 100 bucks a week to do the sermon.

Merida: He gave you cash before you left?

Pinckney: Yeah. I mean, I was working full time. I’d just got engaged, I had finished college, and dad was tired of preaching, and it was a good ramp up.

Merida: Yeah. So you had some issues with the church? How and why did your view of the church change? Or do you still hate it?

Pinckney: No, man, I repent. I mean, as I would say, “It’s Jesus’ babe.” It’s his love, and I’ve come to adore it. I think my disdain for it early on was because of, I think, bad practice in the church. You know, I loved the people in the church, but then on Wednesdays, they would have these business meetings and fight like . . . it was just awful. It just didn’t collate in my head as far as . . . like, how is this? So I just thought it was a failed system, Jesus had plan B.

Merida: Yeah.

Pinckney: And he doesn’t.

Merida: Well, if anybody loves the church, it’s my man right here, David Pinckney. And he’s been at it for a while, in ministry now for . . .

Pinckney: Thirty-two years.

Merida: Thirty-two years. Wow. So, let’s talk a little bit about the work you’re doing in Acts 29 and talk about doing rural ministry. Let’s just start with how do you pronounce rural? Rule? In West Virginia, it’s one syllable.

Pinckney: Yes. It’s rural. Rural. It’s really . . . it’s kind of roles, but rural is how you say it. But, you know, just say small, Tony, small ministry.

Merida: Small ministry. Was there ever a discussion about having a different title other than rural?

Pinckney: Oh, I can’t go to that. Yes, there was, and Rural Collective won.

Merida: It won?

Pinckney: Yeah.

Merida: Yeah. Okay, well praise the Lord. What was it like being a son of a pastor in a small town?

Pinckney: Again, I think my dad was my hero. He was called to ministry when he was about 40, went off to college at that same time.

I was born when he was at Houghton College. And my dad loved the town. He worked in the town, he helped roof people’s houses. He just did stuff. And so, I saw him as this model man who loved the church and loved the town. And again, I experienced, in that small setting, a dad who loved his people and loved his town.

What transpired after that was we ended up in a church where the . . . again, I think the politic of the church was poisoned by structure, and some of that joy got stifled in dad and the effectiveness of evangelism was clearly stifled.

I like to ask the question, “Are you excited or embarrassed to bring somebody to your church?” And I would have been embarrassed to bring someone to our church. The people were kind of loving, but there was clearly not this healthy, vibrant . . . yeah, we’re broken, but there ought to be this just real healthy, vibrant body that ought to express itself in the way it also does its work on sort of the administrative side.

Merida: Now, I’m sure those negative experiences helped you think about the church, how to shape the church, structure the church. Did you learn from those experiences? I imagine you did.

Pinckney: Well, yeah. In fact, one of the things we did early on was, over time, transition the church from being a pastor-led church to an elder-led church, and that took time. It actually went smoother than you could imagine in a small, old Baptist church in New England. So, it took probably about four years for the transition, but that was pivotal. And the second was changing the philosophy that the church was here for people not in it.

And so that becoming servants to the community, that created, actually, greater controversy. We lost, like . . . in the course of, like, two years, lost five key families in that little village church because we went from being what I would consider “ingrown” to “outward focused.”

Merida: Yeah, I think that’s . . . it’s an important note to make as we talk about structure and elders, is that it’s not only for the shepherding of the flock, the good of those who are there, though it is, for sure, like, we want to structure in such a way that we’re caring for our people well, but it’s also for the advancement of the mission, right? And often, it’s structure that is stifling the forward progress of the gospel.

Pinckney: Right, right. Yeah. Yeah. I love to use the word-picture . . .

Unfortunately, the American Evangelical Church has taken on sort of this shape and thinking of a cruise ship where everything is about the comfort of the ride to those on board who are heading to paradise when, in reality, with a lot of the same structures and purposes, we’re really supposed to be a Coast Guard Cutter, which exists for those who are dying and need to be brought on board and made into crew members.

And so, there’s a lot of similarities, but the purpose is different.

Merida: Yeah, yeah. I’ve been on a few cruises, and there’s no mission happening on a cruise, right? It’s all about you, man. It is all about . . . we won’t go there.

Hey, so we’re at this Rural Collective Summit. Tell us a little bit about the Rural Collective, how is the Collective seeking to facilitate and catalyze church planting in small communities around the world?

Pinckney: Yeah. So, Acts 29 saw one of the desperate needs we needed to focus on was that church planting needs to happen not just in metropolitan, urban hipster suburban places, but in small places that are forgotten and isolated.

And so, thank God that the leadership of Acts 29 saw fit to launch what became labeled the Rural Collective. And our goal is just to help churches plant more rural churches, so that’s our goal.

Merida: Hold it right there. Can you define rural? Like, how do you . . .?

Pinckney: Sure. Great. Great question. Actually, that’s the question we get asked the most. And we use emotive terms, like small, forgotten, and isolated, because even the . . . like, the federal government can’t even agree on what’s rural. They often say, “Well, whatever is not urban.” But that’s just not correct. And you can use a technical term called LPP, lesser populated places, but what’s that number, right?

Like, who determines what’s rural? So, we just use those terms, small, isolated, forgotten, and that helps us. And then we ask people, then, to self-identify, and I think that’s really helpful. If you feel like you’re rural, then you’re rural, unless you’re living in, like, downtown Chicago, and you’re just . . .

Merida: It’s pretty obvious.

Pinckney: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re high or something . . .

Merida: That’s very helpful. I like those terms a lot, small, isolated, forgotten, you feel that way.

Pinckney: Yeah.

Merida: Very emotive. So, guys listening to this podcast who may have an interest in church planting, they want support, they want to be part of a brotherhood, you would encourage them to . . .

Pinckney: Absolutely, absolutely.

Merida: . . . get engaged. Right now in Acts 29, how many churches do we have, roughly, off top of your head, who fit this category?

Pickney: Well, if we ask them to self-identify it, that’d be an interesting number.

If we just take the number of Acts 29 churches in population bases of 10,000 or less, we have 34.

Merida: Wow.

Pinckney: It’s stunning.

Merida: So, only 34 out of . . . what do we have now? 700 plus. Yeah.

David Pinckney: So 5%?

Merida: Yeah, wow.

Pinckney: Yeah.

Merida: I’m sure it’d be higher, but probably not a ton higher if they did self-identify.

Pinckney: Right. Well, even my church in Concord. So, most of our people live in rural communities, but we gather in Concord, which is a city of 40,000. So, New Hampshire is a rural state, so that that number doesn’t . . . we would actually identify on that scale of not being in the 10,000 or less, but we are reaching rural people.

Merida: Got you. Yeah.

Pinckney: Yeah.

Merida: All right. So, I cut you off there. What’s the Rural Collective seeking to do in church planting? And I think we just sort of hit it in the digression. But I know you just went to Africa.

Pinckney: Yeah.

Merida: And tell us about your time with our brother, Robert, and what the collaborative looks like over there.

Pinckney: So, Robert Manda is an amazing brother. He’s co-director with me in the Rural Collective. And we have two goals. One is to work in the sort of African, Asia, Latin America areas to create models and methods to promote rural planting.

And the other, then, is to do the same in Western settings. Robert pastors in New Life Church or New Hope Church . . . in New Life Church in Lilongwe. Now, Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, and it would be classified as a city, but it’s not a city. It’s like the largest rural village you’ve been to.

And he has like 500 people in the church, four cars in the parking lot, everybody pretty much walks. Half the people are barefoot. This is rural. And he also has a Pastor Institute for training. There, he has 10 residents in, and he has them for a year, does pastoral theology training in the morning, agricultural training in the afternoon with the goal of supporting them for the first year back in their village.

And so, Robert is trying to propagate rural planters in not just a nation, but a region that desperately needs rural planters. And then, we hope that that model he has can be transferred to other regions of Africa. Africa is 54 countries. I mean, first time there, I’m just overwhelmed. Kenya has 44 tribes, so there’s just an immense amount of work.

This leads me to quote a friend of mine, Stephen Witmer, who’s on The Gospel Coalition with me in New England. And he talks about their church-planting strategies being 100-year strategy. I just think that helps you relax a little bit, and go, “Okay, we got some time here.”

Merida: Yeah, yeah, now, that’s good. What a model for training too. We’re going to do expository preaching in the morning and farming in afternoon.

Pinckney: Absolutely.

That leads to one of the major challenges we have is resourcing rural planting, whether it’s the West or non-West settings, it’s going to be very difficult to raise funds. So, one of my goals is to make bi-vocational pastoring honorable again, that it’s not just a transition to full-time. If God leads you that way, that’s great, but bi-vocational is going to often be the long-term strategy for rural planting.

Merida: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. So, talk a little bit about some of the challenges. We’ve mentioned some in terms of vocations, you know, supporting oneself, etc. What would be some other challenges as those perhaps who are listening who are not in a small town, maybe didn’t grow up in a small town, like, help us to identify with the challenges in these small-town pastors.

Pinckney: Yeah. So first of all, almost half the world’s population live in what would be rural or non-urban places. And even though there’s this continual move towards urbanization . . . actually, a missionary in Africa, Mozambique, said this, it’s really the “ruralization” of urban centers.

And we just need to value people wherever they are. And people living in small places matter, and so, one of the challenges is just to value that. We’ve been listening to City-to-City stuff, and that’s all good and God glorious, and that needs to happen, but the reality is, is that if God calls you to a town of 3,000, and you’re a bi-vocational contractor, and that’s going to be your calling in life, and you have a church of 40, and people come to Jesus, you know, that’s honorable.

Merida: Absolutely.

Pinckney: Yeah. And so, one of the challenges is just saying that.

And the other is to create a context of support. So, one of our goals . . . we have this rural summit here in West Virginia, we’ve got one in rural Wisconsin and rural Northern Ireland in the fall, hopefully, one in rural Oklahoma. But one of the goals is actually create a community of guys who support one another.

And so, part of the Summit is to bring together guys and say, “Hey, we’re in this together.” And it’s just a . . . I’m really excited that this model came out of small-town summits in New England. And when you have a small-town summit, a conference, just for rural guys in Vermont and have 85 guys show up, and they’re looking at each other and go, “I didn’t know there are this many, you know, rural pastors who love Jesus in Vermont.”

So, that’s one of our goals. And then, another goal, and this is sort of a challenge, is to sort of create support teams and identify rural leaders who have, in their bandwidth of leadership capacity, the ability to shepherd and lead regional rural support structures.

Merida: One of the things that I’ve always been encouraged by with small-town pastors, and we’re in the room right now with one of them—our man Paul Boekell—is that you can be in a small town but have a global reach. And I think one of the benefits of being part of A29 is that we know Robert, you know, like, he’s not just a name, and the guys you’re mentioning in Northern Ireland or Scotland.

It’s really cool to be in our small town, you know, working hard, knowing the people, frequenting the same restaurants and gas stations but also have these relationships around the world. That’s really special.

Pinckney: And as much as the challenge of being a global network . . . just spent time with Eddie Zandela, who is a planter with Acts 29 outside of New York City, and Cliffside Park, New Jersey.

A Spanish-speaking congregation, I was part of his assessment team. He is not rural at all, but he’s Guatemalan. And he has a passion to see the gospel go to villages in Guatemala. And so, we can link him up with the Guatemala guys. And we’ve got rural churches being planted in Guatemala. And so, now, we have a guy who has a heart to see this connection and this global network benefit his home country.

Merida: Absolutely.

Pinckney: Yeah.

Merida: What are some of the misconceptions people have about small-town ministry?

Pinckney: Well, obviously one, it’s not important, but think about it: If Jesus died for people in that village, and they come to Jesus . . . and it keeps me saying it, I count baptisms not because I report to anybody and nobody cares, really, but because it reminds us that our little church of 80 people is seeing people come to Jesus on a regular basis. And so, the misconception is, is that it’s not important.

The misconception is that it’s struggling. I meet rural guys who are happy, they’ve got a good elder team. They’ve got a good way of providing for their family. They’re rejoicing in the gospel, and they’ve come to peace with . . . their calling isn’t to have “a platform.”

So, the misconception is, if you go to a small place, you’re going to be miserable. I mean, some people may, but you could actually be a very joyful small-town pastor.

Merida: Yeah. And then I think another misconception, would you agree, in certain places, is that if you’re in a small town, there’s no money there. But in a place, say, like England, a lot of small towns are wealthy.

Pinckney: Yeah, that’s one of the misconceptions, that’s right. Yeah.

Merida: Not all small towns are the same, in other words.

Pinckney: Right, right, yeah. Like, in the UK and Australia. And actually, I was just visiting a small-town pastor in Suffield, Connecticut, a town of 15,000, no evangelical witness, planting a church. They’re very wealthy, very wealthy. And so, it’s, yeah, that is a misconception, that rural is not always poor, although it frequently can be, it can often be wealthy, and that becomes even a greater challenge in some regard.

Merida: Absolutely.

Pinckney: Yeah.

Merida: Absolutely. One of the distinguishing marks of small towns is their sense of community, whether that’s just perceived or real. Is this an advantage to ministry in these places, these little tight-knit communities? Or do you think that makes it harder? I suppose it depends, in some ways, on each situation.

Pinckney: It’s harder if you’re a hypocrite because you can’t get away with it as easy. It’s actually better because the community is genuine. I live in this town of 2,200. I serve as the chairman of the cemetery committee. I have lost friends very . . . My wife and I are part of a book club in our little town, for 10 years, and we talk Jesus with these friends who are neighbors.

So, the benefit is, if you can live honestly in front of them and love on them long term, it’s very good living.

Merida: What is the cemetery . . . I said seminary, maybe that was . . . What does that committee like?

Pinckney: Our little town of 2,200 have 21 cemeteries. Our town was established in the 1700s. So, the cemetery committee, trustees, are given a job of making sure maintenance is done, making sure people are buried in the right place, making sure people don’t dig up their relatives, which, in our little town, happens. A guy in a drunken state wanted to dig up his ex-wife, and he brought in a backhoe during the night.

So, it’s got some interesting . . . you know, interesting dynamics to it. It was just one of the ways I wanted to serve the town, not to be the chairperson. In fact, I . . .

Merida: So, you’re the chairperson?

Pinckney: I am the chairperson. I’m learning a lot about the . . . yeah, again, we have all sorts of jokes about the “grave nature” of our role, but, yeah.

Merida: So, in addition to the Rural Collective . . . Collaborative . . . Collective, yeah, well, I always get the two mixed up.

Pinckney: Yeah, I get it.

Merida: You’re the chairman of the cemetery committee and a pastor. When do you sleep, Dave?

Pinckney: The older you get, the less sleep you need.

Merida: Oh, really?

Pinckney: Yeah, 55, you know, I’m down to six hours a night.

Merida: How many times do you get up to go to the bathroom, though?

Pinckney: Man, at least once. Yeah, yeah, it’s genuine. Yeah, this body is changing.

Merida: Last question. So, if guys in larger cities, urban areas, they want to get involved in what we’re doing here with the small-town ministry, if they have a particular heart for it, where can they start? What counsel would you give them? And then, perhaps what kind of caution, if any, would you give to them?

Pinckney: Yeah, so, I think there’s a number of good models out there. Frontline Church in Oklahoma City had set up a residency. And one of the guys they took in for two years basically paid a full-time salary for Tim Kimberely who’s going back to rural Iowa to plant.

This is a megachurch, Frontline in Oklahoma City, and so, that became a model. City churches, regardless of what size, can have a huge impact by partnering overseas. A hundred dollars of support in Africa goes so far, goes so far. And if you develop a relationship and take people to the same country, same group, same . . . we’ve got a number of Acts 29 churches . . . I think of Advance Community Church outside of Pittsburgh. They’ve been going to Dominican Republic for, like, five or six years. We had our first Acts 29 Conference down there, assessed our first rural pastor down there. And all because this one church of 150 people kept going back, and going back, and going back.

So, as far as warnings, or, you know . . . I would say, don’t think you’re going to change the world quickly. Again, think of the long game. And if Jesus comes back next week, it’s no loss. But, you know, if you think you’re going to be doing a lot in three or five years, rural is agriculture and agriculture is just a picture of time, it just takes time for things to grow.

Merida: Yeah, yeah. That’s good. That’s good. So how can listeners keep up with the work you’re doing with Acts 29 in this work?

Pinckney: Yeah, I mean, the best way to connect with us is through the Acts 29 web page, the rural part there. We’re trying to promote these summits. And we urge not just rural churches to come, but anybody from any size church to be immersed in the idea that maybe . . . and here . . . maybe a closing thought for me would be, maybe some professionals in your church that have a high capacity and are highly devoted and mature, maybe they need to go home to their village, their town they grew up in, and plant a church while they’re entrepreneurial, bi-vocational. And, you know, I just think a lot of larger churches need to challenge some people that may be going home is what God wants you to do.

Merida: Now, these summits, if somebody wants to host a summit, how does that work?

Pinckney: Contact us. Yeah, we would love to talk with you. We’re trying to make these locally sourced. Our goal isn’t coming with, like, big-name speakers. Our goal is to come in with primarily Acts 29 guys from that area, that state, that region. The one in Wisconsin, you know, coming in with guys, I’ll be there, but I’m not . . . I’m just emceeing it. I’m not doing any of the major speaking.

I’m there to help talk with guys who are considering planting, but yeah. So, if you’re interested, give us a call or connect with us through Acts 29 web page, and we will be happy to talk with you about a summit.

Merida: David Pinckney, cemetery chairman, Rural Collective director, pastor, husband, dad. Thanks, brother for being on the podcast with me.

Pinckney: Don’t mention it.

Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

Misconceptions about the small, forgotten places of the world abound today. On the one hand, rural communities can be seen as idyllic, utopian communities where life moves slowly and people are friendly. On the other, they can be viewed as places where people are uneducated, “stuck in the past,” and not worthy of much attention.

Such notions are unfounded and unhelpful. We can and must view the small places of the world with both realism and also gospel hope. Small towns across the globe are broken because they are filled, even if sparsely, with sinners like you and me. And these small, forgotten places need healthy churches.

That’s why we care about planting churches in rural communities across the world. But this is no easy task. What will it take to see healthy churches planted in rural communities? What are the unique challenges involved?

To discuss these things and more, I’m excited to have David Pinckney with me on the podcast today.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.