Planting churches in rural places around the globe is essential. For if the knowledge of the glory of God is to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14), then every hamlet and village must contain a gospel gathering of worshiping witnesses.
Consider, for example, one picturesque town of 4,800 residents near where I live. Like a third of over two hundred towns in New Hampshire, it has no evangelical church. Though small, this town matters to the mission of God. That’s why in the fall of 2018, a small missional community from my church started meeting there every Sunday night. They gather in a public building to eat together, to worship Jesus, and to love their community by serving its unique needs.
Cities matter too, of course, and their strategic importance has been proven and promoted over the last several decades. But planting rural churches is no less important. Rural life is a reality for billions of people—people who are of immense value to Jesus and his plans. Consider these three reasons gospel work in the less populated places is worth our time.
1. Small Beginnings, Big Impact
The birthplace of Jesus is an example of how God can spark great works out of small places. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic. 5:2 ESV). Countless big works of God find their roots in geographically small beginnings.
“Rural life is a reality for billions of people.”
There is no doubt that the global population is urbanizing. But rural life will never go away completely. Besides, the trend toward where people are moving overlooks where they are coming from. What would it look like if many of these future urban dwellers found the joy of Jesus in country churches and went into their new cities prepared by rural congregations for gospel mission? Significant urban evangelism could happen because cities are populated by passionate “country Christians.”
2. Small Numbers, Big Celebration
Leaving the ninety-nine to find the one fits with the pattern of rural ministry. For while the theme of the three parables of Luke 15 is the value of the “lost” to God, two of the stories focus on the small number of one. To be sure, it would be a stretch to apply this directly to rural ministry and church planting. However, there is no doubt that one lost person in a village who is safely brought into the Father’s house is worth celebrating in heaven.
Furthermore, the amount of time that Jesus spent in the lesser-populated places of Israel should cause us to take notice. The woman at the well, the demoniac among the tombs, and the recruitment of fishermen to be his first disciples all took place in the context of rural ministry. And then there is Matthew 9:35, which explicitly mentions Jesus’s desire to take the gospel everywhere that people are. “Jesus continued going around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness” (ESV).
Kingdom work can’t only be a numbers game, therefore. It’s good to strategize how we can reach more with the gospel. But there always ought to be a genuine celebration of reaching small numbers in small places.
3. Small Size, Great Praise
The church of the West today often seems mesmerized by bigness. Yet God is neither impressed with nor opposed to big platforms and large seating capacities. As the creator of all things, big and small, he delights in all that is good. When it comes to great big churches or tiny village gatherings, “He will bless those who fear the Lord, both the small and the great” (Ps. 115:13 ESV). So it pleases him to bless burgeoning suburban churches as well as the gathering of two or three in his name. We must, therefore, never overlook the small by focusing on the big or the great.
I think heaven will surprise us all. Small deeds will be celebrated much more than they were on earth, where they often receive little recognition. Indeed, the small will join the great to shout praises with an equal voice. As John wrote, “Praise our God, all his servants, and the ones who fear him, both small and great” (Rev. 19:5 CSB)!
Coming Full Circle
About thirty-five years ago, a rural New Hampshire pastor helped a soon-to-be-married couple understand the gospel. They professed faith, were baptized, and began a journey of following Jesus. They lived in that town I mentioned above, where the wife became an elementary teacher. She has remained in that school all this time, and as a couple, they have loved their neighbors faithfully for over three decades. Today, they are part of that small group seeking to plant a church in the community, and all of this is thanks to the faithfulness of Christians in rural places.
“Rural church planting matters because people live in these places, and people matter to God.”
At the end of the day, rural church planting matters because people live in these places, and people matter to God. So for those who get the Spirit’s nod to reach people in small places, please know that this is a big deal with heaven’s attention and affection. The good news is for both the city and the country, the urban and the rural, the great and the small.
David Pinckney is a second generation New Hampshire pastor who has been at it for over thirty years. He’s the founding pastor of River of Grace Church in Concord, and he also serves as co-director of the Acts 29 Network’s Rural Collective. He is passionate about seeing pastors in small settings thrive in God’s big grace. David and his wife, Sharon, have four sons and one daughter who all are walking with Jesus.