By David Dummitt
The U.S. Department of Agriculture quantifies rural areas as the 14 percent of the U.S. population that lives on 72 percent of the land. That 14 percent sounds deceptively small, but in reality it’s 46 million people . . . real people with real lives, real joys, real problems . . . and a real need for the gospel.
It’s fanciful to think rural areas are saturated with picturesque, steeple-laden churches where everyone in town gathers for potlucks, prayers, and tight-knit biblical community—Mayberry, if you will. But the realities of modern, rural America are more sinister than such stereotypes.
More and more people are moving to urban areas, which has decreased rural populations. Rural communities are experiencing slow economic development, lagging education and health care, opioid epidemics, high suicide rates, and more; and all of those things are having devastating effects on households. Rural areas are not gospel-saturated—the need for Jesus is real.
When Jesus commanded we go into all the nations, he used the word ethnos, which means “a people group joined by practicing similar customs or common culture.” Jesus wasn’t referring only to countries, but also to smaller pockets of subcultures found in unique and individual communities. So, while more and more people are moving from rural areas to cities, the church needs to double down on sending people into the rural field to plant life-giving, mission-focused, people-loving churches.
Church planting in rural areas has unique challenges and unquestionable opportunities. Here are three factors rural church planters need in order to be healthy and effective:
It is not good for church planters to be alone, and isolation is one of the biggest obstacles rural church planters face. The statistic at the start of this article—15 percent of the people living on 72 percent of the land—means there is a lot of wide-open space between people and places in rural America. That kind of isolation can be difficult to cope with, which is why it is critical that rural church planters build a support network of some kind. (See Rick Lowry’s article on “Pastoral Networking.”)
Shannon O’Dell wrote in Transforming Church in Rural America,
For centuries, the rural church has been isolated and insulated from the greater Body of Christ by the sheer realities of geography. Those days are gone. There’s absolutely no reason that we cannot be networking together as leaders—those who are resisting the urge to settle—by sharing resources, encouragement, wisdom, and vision. We do not have to do it alone anymore; together we can do so much more and do it so much better.
Rural church planting needs to occur in community, and it’s advantageous for church planters to tackle isolation head-on. Multisite models can work well in rural settings to facilitate connection with other pastors and church leaders, provide access to resources, and be part of something that’s larger than themselves. Church-planting networks like Stadia or NewThing make use of modern technology to help church planters fend off struggles with isolation by providing encouragement, support, shared resourcing, training, and more.
Calling an area “rural” casts a wide net. Ed Stetzer wrote in Christianity Today,
Knowing that a place is rural does not mean you know its heart or its needs; it simply means you know its broadest classification. Stopping there would be like hearing someone’s name, then assuming you know them intimately without asking any further questions.
We know the culture of San Francisco, New York, Nashville, Atlanta, and other big cities are distinct from one another. In the same way, rural communities have their own unique cultures, customs, and heritage. We can’t approach rural church planting with formulaic, one-size-fits-all methods. We must take the time to get to know the people and their history, learn their needs, and then build accordingly.
Rural church planting also requires contextualizing success. A church planter in a small community isn’t going to measure success by the number of people attending, but by the number and percentage of people engaged in authentic, biblical community. A healthy rural church will look at metrics that measure influence, such as the percentage of the area’s population that goes to the church, or the return on investment of an outreach event.
It’s unlikely that rural churches will be big churches. But if people are being transformed by the gospel and walking with God and applying what they’re learning at church in the community, that’s a win.
Church planting—urban, suburban, and rural—requires grit and a long-term commitment. A church planter heading to a rural community needs to have stickability. In small towns where everybody knows everybody, or at least knows of them, it takes time to be grafted in as a trusted member of the community. A successful small-town church planter has the heart of a missionary and the mental fortitude to say, “I’m staying.”
Planting a healthy church in a rural community requires digging in and loving a few people for a long time.
Rural America needs life-giving, mission-focused churches. The hope of the gospel in these spaces is highly relevant and deeply needed. As we strive to obey Jesus’ command to go into all the nations, let us pursue opportunities to go and send planters into these wide-open spaces.
David Dummitt is the lead pastor and planter of 2|42 Community Church in Michigan, one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country. He is also on the lead team of NewThing, a catalyst for reproducing churches worldwide.