Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, writing in the Wall Street Journal, suggest that rural America has become the “new inner city.” Adamy and Overberg report that in key measures of socioeconomic well-being, rural areas rank at the bottom of major U.S. population groupings. The growing epidemic of opioid addiction, in particular, makes life bleaker. What’s more, the populations in most small towns continue to decline. As a result, many churches are shutting their doors. In 1998, 43 percent of congregations in America were in rural areas. By 2012, that percentage had decreased to 32 percent. In the same period, the percent of congregants in rural areas dropped from 23 percent to 15 percent.
A number of PCA pastors are responding to the needs of small towns. In 2012, Jeph Guinan planted Cornerstone PCA in Calera, Alabama, a blue-collar town of 10,000 south of Birmingham, where he lived while attending seminary. “Much of Jesus’ ministry took place in small towns and villages,” he says. “Wherever there’s the curse, there needs to be the Gospel, and the curse is very much present in small towns.”
Just as Guinan was planting Cornerstone, Rick Hutchinson arrived in Springville, a community of 4,000 northeast of Birmingham, to plant Christ Community Church, a daughter of Community PCA in nearby Moody. “I have a heart for reaching people who have grown up in the church but have gaps in their knowledge of God beyond the basics,” Hutchinson says. “I found the need for that in a small town.” He calculates that 20 million Americans live in areas with a core population of 10,000 or less. Small-town America, then, viewed in aggregate, is bigger than 70 percent of the countries in the world.
In contrast to Guinan and Hutchinson, Tim Herrera never considered planting a church in Owensville, Missouri — at least not for the first six years he lived there. During his last semester at Covenant Seminary, a class requirement brought him to a session meeting at New Port Church in Washington, Missouri. “One of the items on the docket was planting a daughter church,” he says, “and one of the potential sites was Owensville.” The next year he began gathering the core group for Redeeming Grace Fellowship.
During his internship, Jeremy Coyer sensed God calling him to a rural pastorate. And though he never thought of himself as a church planter, Hillcrest PCA in Volant, Pennsylvania, approached him about starting their daughter church in a cluster of small towns to their north. “I’m more a shepherd than an entrepreneur,” Coyer says, “but there was strong support from the mother church and Ascension Presbytery.” Christ Covenant, the church he planted in Seneca, Pennsylvania, particularized in late 2015.
Though each of these situations is unique, they face common challenges. Small towns are never “financial hubs,” Coyer points out. And numerical growth is limited. That brings financial challenges, which often require the church planter to be bi-vocational. Hutchinson, Guinan, and Herrera have all spent time working outside the church. “I struggle with feeling that I’m not giving all I need to give,” Hutchinson says.
But with limited time and money, planters must think strategically. Hutchinson, a former software engineer, applies a core premise of agile software development: While dreaming about what can be, deliver in small, incremental steps. “We can’t focus on five things at one time,” Hutchinson says. “We need to focus on the one thing that best serves the community.”
Guinan agrees. “You need to figure out what you can do well and keep it simple. It’s a more organic than programmatic approach to ministry.”
Another common challenge is relationships. People tend to stay in small towns because of lifelong friends and family, which means long-time residents don’t need new friends. That makes it hard to create small groups and build community. Small-town pastors must find alternative ways to develop relationships, even for themselves. Hutchinson, for example, developed friendships by getting involved in the youth soccer program. Coyer and his wife have made it a point to strike up casual conversations while waiting for their kids at the YMCA or while shopping in the local grocery store.
Church planting in small towns is a long-term process. “These are not areas for someone with a short-term view of growth,” Coyer advises.
Herrera agrees. “You have to think, ‘This is going to be my home, it’s where I’ll serve long term.’ [We’re planting] a church that will be here for generations.’”
For more information about church planting, visit pcamna.org/church-planting/church-planting-ministries-2/.