To the Highways and the Hedges: Planting Churches in America's Small Communities
It had been about six weeks since our family had moved to North Georgia from Eastern North Carolina. Consequently, it had been about six weeks since I had gotten a haircut. I was officiating a wedding that weekend, and the shaggy locks atop my scalp simply weren’t going to cut it (pun intended). Down into the barber’s chair I sank, hoping that his flexibility in scheduling me on such short notice wasn’t indicative of a sinister track record with past clients.
I won’t soon forget the conversation I shared with that barber during my first adult haircut in the North Georgia mountains. Inevitably, he asked me what I did for a living. I shared with him that my wife and I intended to start a new church in the area (which sounds a lot better than, “I’m not really getting paid right now.”) The follow-up question which came from his lips cut to my heart like the cold, steely blades of the scissors he was wielding.
“Why do you think we need another church? Aren’t there enough churches around here already?”
Why Plant New Churches in the United States?
The barber’s question is a fair one. After all, isn’t the United States of America a “Christian” nation? Isn’t the slogan, “In God We Trust,” engraved on our national currency? Aren’t there plenty of church buildings dotting the landscape already? And aren’t there enough dying churches which we should first revitalize before we start planting new ones?
Do we really need new churches to be planted in the United States?
The answer to that question is an emphatic, “Yes!” Consider the following realities:
Our nation will soon be marked by one of the largest generational mission fields in history. Thom Rainer reports that of Millennials – born between 1980 and 2000 – only 15% identify as Christians. Of nearly 80 million American Millennials, at least 70 million do not believe the gospel.
It has been reported that less than 20% of Americans participate in the life of an orthodox Christian church during any given week. Combining current population growth projections with the research cited by Tim Keller in Center Church, America needs more than 3,000 orthodox churches need to be planted each year simply to maintain that current 20% “slice of the pie.”
There is evangelistic hope to be found in church planting. To cite Keller once more – while churches 10-15 years old attribute 80% or more of their growth to Christians transferring from one church to another, between one-third and two-thirds of the growth of new churches can be attributed to those who were not previously attending any worshipping body. In other words, new churches are evangelized into existence!
In short, the hopes of evangelizing our nation (and the world) rest largely in the vigorous planting of new, healthy, reproducing churches.
Where should we look to begin these church planting efforts?
The Prevailing Strategy: Plant Churches in Global Cities
“[As] cities go, the world goes.”
These words from Prof. Roger S. Greenway describe the prevailing missiology of the Western world: reach the cities, and the gospel will “trickle down” to the less-densely populated areas of the world. In his article “The Challenge of the Cities,” Greenway elaborates:
Cities are the centers of political power, economic activity, communication, scientific research, academic instruction, and moral and religious influence. Whatever happens in cities affects entire nations. When Christ’s kingdom advances in cities, the number of people worshiping and serving the true God multiplies.
Greenway concludes his article by tying a Bible-laced bow atop his packaged argument for the priority of cities in church-planting strategies.
The movement of history throughout the Bible is from the garden of Eden, where the fall occurred, to the New Jerusalem, the city that God is preparing for us. Believe it or not, all God’s children will eventually be urbanites! Life in a city lies ahead of us. It will be a city where truth and righteousness are the way of life and Christ’s name alone is honored (Rev 21:10-27).
I would like to go “on the record” as stating that the findings of Greenway’s research are rock-solid. Yes, the world is becoming increasingly urbanized: the percentage of the global population living in urban areas increased from 13% to 50% during the twentieth century. Yes, global cities such as New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Beijing, and Shanghai are uniquely positioned as hubs of the culture-shaping endeavors of fashion, commerce, art, and education. Yes, the biblical narrative of redemptive history will culminate in a city whose architect and builder is God himself (see Hebrews 11:10). These realities necessitate that urban areas receive adequate attention in both domestic and cross-cultural church planting strategies.
Yet, I also wish to gently critique the prevailing bias toward urban population centers which exists in much of Western missiology. It is one thing to acknowledge that the statements in the preceding paragraph are truthful; it is another thing entirely to imply that city centers are most important to God (or even more important to God) on the basis of those statements.
In this article, I hope to persuade my readers that America’s small-towns and ruralities are equally valid areas in which to focus church planting energies and efforts. I’ll do so by highlighting two observations:
Small Towns and Rural Areas are Poised to Grow in the Twenty-First Century
Small Towns and Rural Areas are Ripe for Evangelistic Harvest
Small Towns and Rural Areas are Poised to Grow in the Twenty-First Century
Though the twentieth century saw a dramatic rise in the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas, the final quarter of the 1900s evidences a reversal of that trend – specifically within the United States of America. The title story of the December 8, 1997 issue of Time Magazine was entitled, “Why More Americans are Fleeing to Small Towns.” The article contained this telling excerpt:
Rural America has enjoyed a new inflow of 2 million Americans this decade – that is, 2 million more people have moved from metropolitan centers to rural areas than have gone the traditional smell-town-to-big-city route. Thanks to the newcomers, 75% of the nation’s rural counties are growing again after years of decline. Some towns are even booming, with high-tech industrial parks and bustling downtowns in which refurbished storefronts boast serious restaurants and community theaters, ubiquitous brew pubs and coffee bars.
Though this particular article was published more than twenty years ago, recent headlines tell a similar story. Consider the following articles published within the last year:
“Forget the Suburbs, It’s Country or Bust” (The New York Times – December 14, 2018)
“Jobs Boom Energizing Rural Areas” (The Journal Gazette – September 10, 2018)
“Outdoor Recreation Driving Population Boom in Rural Areas” (The Pew Charitable Trust – April 19, 2018)
In his book Big Dreams in Small Places: Church Planting in Smaller Communities, Tom Nebel identifies a host of reasons which drive urban-dwellers to relocate to smaller, more secluded communities.
Remote work opportunities allow professionals to move into rural communities without disturbing their existing networks of employment.
Desirous of a slower-paced life and of a community of close friends, burned-out professionals may retreat to small towns in an effort to escape the stress of the urban “rat race.”
Folks who are of retirement age often choose to live out their final years in areas which offer their favorite outdoor recreation opportunities: golf, hiking, hunting, etc. Many rural areas boast an abundance of these recreation opportunities at prices which are affordable to retirees living on a fixed income.
The unifying theme of these opportunities is expressed in these words from Nebel: “The Rural Rebound is occurring because people believe a better life awaits them on the other side.”
Anecdotally speaking, I have met people who have moved into our community (Gilmer County, Georgia) for each of these reasons – and for others. Whether for reasons related to work, to leisure, or to the desire for meaningful community-involvement, one thing is common for them all: they moved to Gilmer County in hopes of living a better life. Though I was initially skeptical when I read that our county’s population is projected to grow by about 40% between the 2010 Census and the 2020 Census, I now whole-heartedly believe that projection will come to pass. I’m excited to think about all the other people that God is in the process of drawing to our rural community.
The words of Acts 17:26-27 reveal that this “Rural Rebound” is much more than a coincidence:
And he [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us. . .
When the Apostle Paul originally preached those verses, he was addressing a group of people from the city of Athens who worshipped countless false gods. Paul was saying that – even in those circumstances – God the Father was in control. He was at work. And through the work of the Holy Spirit, he would be victorious in drawing people to worship and follow his risen Son – Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.
The truth of Acts 17:26-27 is just as true for twenty-first century Christians living in small towns and rural areas as it was for Paul in first-century Athens. From eternity past, God has chosen people to live in communities such as mine for one solitary reason: that they might seek him. Christians and churches, then, have been placed in these communities for one solitary reason: to glorify God by proclaiming the gospel so that people will hear and respond with saving faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17).
As the world’s urban population continues to grow, God is also drawing lost people to small communities in order that he might save them. And he will save them as the gospel message is faithfully preached through a multitude of healthy local churches. Therefore, as long as there are lost people living in small towns and ruralities, and as long as God continues to draw more people to these sorts of communities, there will be a need for more churches to be planted to proclaim the gospel and make disciples in Jesus’ name.
Small Towns and Rural Areas are Ripe for Evangelistic Harvest
It’s not only the transplants to small communities that are ripe to be discipled. Many who were “born and bred” in small communities are also positioned for an evangelistic harvest. Jesus himself reveals as much in this parable from Luke 14:16-24 (ESV, emphasis added):
A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.” And another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.” And another said, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.” And the servant said, “Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.” And the master said to the servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.”
In the context of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is here speaking to an audience of Jerusalem-dwelling Pharisees: urbanites who would have been the cultural and religious elites of the first century Jewish world. In Luke 18:11-12, Jesus gives verbal expression to the self-righteous tendencies of the Pharisees: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
Partially on account of the deeds they did in God’s name, the Pharisees had mistakenly reckoned that they contributed to their right-standing with God. In their eyes, God was in their debt; he practically owed them entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Through the Parable of the Banquet in Luke 14, Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of Heaven (represented by the banquet) will not be received by those who trust in a righteousness of their own making. Instead, it will be given to those who acknowledge that they have nothing to offer God: those who, like the poor, crippled, lame, and blind people mentioned in Luke 14:13-14, make no attempt to pay for the kindness they receive from the hand of the Almighty.
The Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, preached a sermon entitled “All Things are Ready. Come” in which he explained why those living in the highways and the hedges served as a fitting metaphor for those people who acknowledge their spiritual poverty before the Lord:
Then there were then men in the highways, I suppose they were beggars; and the men in the hedges, I suppose they were hiding…but nevertheless they were told to come, and though they were highwaymen and hedge-birds even that did not prevent them from coming and finding welcome. Though outcasts, offcasts, spiritual gipsies, people that nobody cared for, yet, whatever they might be, that was not the question, they were to come because all things were ready. . . .
I think it was this very thing, which in any one of these people looked like unfitness, which was a help to them. It is a great truth that what we regard as unfitness is often our truest fitness. I want you to notice these poor, blind, and halt people. Some of those who were invited would not come because they had bought land or five yoke of oxen, but when the messenger went up to the poor man in rags and said, “Come to the Supper,” it is quite clear he would not say he had bought a field, or oxen, for he could not do it, he had not a penny to do the thing with, so he was clean delivered from that temptation. And when a man is invited to come to Christ and he says, “I do not want him, I have a righteousness of my own,” he will stay away; but when the Lord Jesus came along to me I never was tempted in that way, because I had no righteousness of my own, and could not have made one if I tried.
This parable from Luke 14 does not teach that those living outside of cities are “more holy” or “more loved by God” than those who live within the city limits. And yet there is a reason that Jesus chose “country folks” – those living among the highways and the hedges outside of the city limits – as the symbol of the spiritually poor people who would receive the Kingdom of Heaven.
Like those of humble spirit and contrite heart whom the Lord looks upon with favor (Isaiah 66:2), people in small towns and in rural communities are regularly reminded that their standing in life is ultimately not up to them. Those living in agrarian communities know that they have nothing to offer the sky that will make it yield rain for the farmer’s crops. Those living in the manufacturing hamlets of America’s Rust Belt know that they have no say as to whether or not their town’s leading employer decides to move its factory operations overseas. Those living in the nation’s forgotten areas of economic depression know that their standard of living cannot compare to that of the professional living in an affluent suburb.
From my experience, it is often these very sorts of people – people who know that they have nothing to offer – that are often most receptive to hearing about the God who offers them every spiritual blessing in heaven through Christ (Ephesians 1:3).
As the gospel is invested into receptive people such as these, the total number of disciple-makers who are prepared to proclaim the gospel is likely to multiply. Thus as a result of strategically making disciples in America’s small communities, I believe that more people, prayers, and resources will be mobilized for Kingdom service than if cities alone had been the focus of church planting and disciple-making efforts. These people, prayers, and resources can then be utilized wherever Christ is not yet named: in cities, in the country, and around the world.
The harvest is truly plentiful throughout the small communities of America. Let us join our Savior in praying for harvest-workers (Matthew 9:37-38). And as he leads, let us follow him into his fields – however big or small those fields might be, and wherever they may be located.