By David Dummitt
Last month I had the opportunity to speak with Eric Metcalf in Chicago about the unique opportunities and challenges of urban church planting. But across America, millions of people live outside of metropolitan areas, and so I wanted to explore similar questions from a rural perspective. As I considered who could speak candidly and with authority on the subject of rural church planting, Jerry Harris, senior pastor of The Crossing, a multisite church located in three states across the Midwest, immediately came to mind.
Jerry, how do you measure the health and success of a rural church plant? Is it the same as in a suburban or urban context?
A healthy rural church is looking at metrics that measure influence, things like the percentage of the population of your area that goes to your church, or the ROI [return on investment] of an outreach event. A few general goals of a healthy rural church are: aiming for 10 percent influence, and at least 50 percent of people involved in some sort of a discipleship environment, whether that is service-based, Bible-study-based . . . any environment where a person is becoming more transparent in relationship with other people.
Why is rural church planting critical to missional movement?
A rural area—be it micropolitan, a small town, a village, or no town at all—can generally be defined as an area of less than 50,000 people. While lots of people are moving to cities, millions of people live in rural areas all across America, and they need the gospel too!
What is a critical trait of a successful rural church planter?
Christians looking to plant churches must have the heart of a missionary, because it’s like serving in a developing country. Here’s what I mean: If you live in a rural area, you don’t get to go to Target or Chipotle, have a night on the town, go to the theater, or see your favorite band. You’re not going to have those amenities. Salary and the number of bells and whistles that exist in an area can’t really be considerations. We need mission-minded leaders with a strong willingness to let go of creature comforts for a bigger purpose.
What are the unique challenges of rural church planting compared with urban and suburban planting?
I am convinced the biggest obstacle that rural church planters face is isolation. A lot of times church planters in a metropolitan area have access to other churches, even churches of the same denomination. They are in proximity to other like-minded leaders, and they can build tighter relationships that help fight isolation. Conversely, rural churches are spaced out, and that isolation can be difficult.
Rural church planting needs to happen in community. I believe that The Crossing has seen tremendous growth because we combat ministry isolation head-on. The multisite model works well in rural settings because church planters can be connected to other pastors and church leaders, have access to resources, and be part of something that’s larger than themselves. One of the biggest reasons The Crossing doesn’t spin off independent campuses is the tremendous value of relationships. In our context, there’s enough space for autonomy (our campuses are often more than 60 miles away from each other, separated by two-lane roads), but they are close enough to connect on a regular basis, bounce ideas off of each other, manage budgets together, etc.
Rural church planting can pose some big challenges, but what are some of the unique opportunities?
Hands down, the key opportunity is the potential of a church to actually shape a community. The opportunity for influence is way higher in a rural area than in urban or suburban areas. We recently looked into the impact The Crossing has had in our areas, and we are the largest church in all 10 of the communities where we have campuses. While our communities don’t have large populations, an average of 7.8 percent of people who live in those communities attend our church. To put that into perspective, churches in metropolitan areas with attendances of more than 20,000 are impacting less than 1 percent of the total population.
Another great thing about ministry in rural environments is that you can take mainstream ideas from urban areas, introduce them in your church, and they’ll be cutting-edge. For example, the idea of multisite has been done a lot in urban areas, but in rural areas it is rarely seen. In a rural area, you can impact a much wider region.
Additionally, relationships in urban churches are generally stronger and have greater longevity than relationships in larger, more urban churches. In rural environments, people know one another in a variety of contexts: church, school, and work. The opportunity for genuine, long-lasting relationships is greater.
I am thankful to have had the opportunity to connect with Jerry to learn more about Jesus’ mission in rural areas. Gospel-centered, mission-driven churches are needed across America, and I am grateful for leaders like him who are faithfully leading the charge to plant healthy churches in the less populated parts of our nation.
David Dummitt is the lead pastor and planter of 2|42 Community Church, one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country. He is also on the lead team of NewThing Network, a catalyst for reproducing churches worldwide.