Church planting in small places is a new concept for me. I’ve done it for years, but somehow missed the grand opportunity and huge need that it represents.
Think of urban neighborhoods and towns of fewer than 15,000 people as small places. Add the 5 million, or so, people who live an entirely rural lifestyle and the numbers are huge. Thankfully, there is a renewed focus on urban areas in the U.S. Lets talk about the 60 to 90 million people living in small towns and rural areas. The numbers vary depending on who is measuring. It’s 60 million if you look at towns smaller than 15,000 and 90 million if you think a community becomes large if it boasts more than 25,000 people.
This represents a wonderful opportunity for the gospel. Everyone knows that the United States is currently the third largest mission field in the world. North America is the only continent where the church is shrinking while it grows everywhere else. Not everyone knows that 90 million people would represent the 13th largest country in the world if they were their own nation, or that these people are seriously underserved by the church. We need to think missionally toward rural and small-town America. They constitute nearly 25 percent of our entire population.
Rural/Small-Town America is Growing
And the opportunities are growing. Rural America lost population in the 1980s, only to reverse the process beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present. Millions of people flee mostly the suburban commuter lifestyle to live in smaller places each year. This is different from the nasty “white flight” of a generation ago. People of all socio-economic backgrounds now make the trek. They bring with them their high-tech industrial parks, brew pubs and upscale coffee shops. What’s lacking are new churches to go with the migration.
And its not just the new arrivals who need new churches. Churches across America are closing their doors. Older churches are dying faster than newer ones and the mainline denominations shrink the fastest. The unique combination of older mainline congregations that were once foundational to small communities is going away and going that way faster than churches in the suburbs. We need to replace the dying churches by planting new congregations. But replacement alone won’t touch the opportunity or the need. The 13th largest mission field in the world awaits us. The same logic holds for most urban neighborhoods.
This is Significant
In the 1970s more than 90 percent of Americans called themselves Christian of one stripe or another. Today, according to Pew Research, that number has fallen to just 71 percent.
In the early 70s, 53 percent said they attend church at least once each month. In the early 2010s that number has fallen to 43 percent. Of those who say they attend on a regular basis, the 1970s tally was 38 percent. Today it has fallen to 28 percent. We are losing ground.
When you consider that these numbers are magnified in smaller communities you realize there is a massive mission field that is white unto harvest and awaiting our attention.
Seeing the Culture Through A Different Lens
I spent most of my years pastoring suburban churches. The last congregation was on the edge of an urban area of Honolulu. Things were different there. We had to plant “homegroups” in food courts and coffee shops because of unavailable parking near urban apartments. I came to realize that I unintentionally saw the world through an “us-them” paradigm. We in the suburbs got things right while urban dwellers didn’t quite get it. I simply didn’t understand the differences in needs and opportunities. Now I understand that the same is true of my understanding of rural/small-town America. This has been a good wakeup for me. Question: “Are you thinking about ‘us’ or thinking about getting the gospel to ‘them?’” Do you think “Come to my church?” or “How can we get the gospel into every corner of our land?”
A Question for You
I recently discovered something which Jesus said that I had overlooked, “Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38, NIV). In referencing villages, he said, “That is why I have come.” I get it that he’s not only interested in the villages, but I have not been interested in them at all. Question: “Do you believe small towns are central to God’s plan for the church?”
You can hear a longer audio version of this by clicking here.