I marveled at how much the village in northern Mexico reminded me of my own small town in West Virginia. It was my first time out of the country, and while it was definitely a culture different than my own, I couldn’t help noticing many similarities. The people seemed to know everyone they met along those dusty one-lane roads. Farmers and tradesmen working hard to provide for their families filled the community. In certain ways, it felt like home.
Redefining “Strategic Location”
It was on that short-term mission trip that I first led someone to Christ. I returned home with a zeal for the gospel I never had before. I was eventually ordained, preached all over West Virginia, and planted a church with a goal of reaching West Virginians through planting even more churches.
“Small churches in remote places around the world are congregations positioned to make a big impact.”
As I began to think about where I would plant, I worked through various demographic studies and cultural analyses. Everything I read encouraged me to plant in “strategic cities,” which usually meant areas with the highest concentrations of people.
I understand that line of reasoning, but I think the world needs churches wherever people are. And according to the World Bank Group, nearly half of the world’s population still lives in rural contexts. That is simply too large of a mission field to ignore.
Making a Big Impact in Small Places
I settled on a town named Milton with a population of around three thousand people. It’s a forty-five-minute drive from where I grew up. We’ve been privileged to see people come to faith, discipled, and deployed for ministry. We’ve also planted four new congregations and partnered with many others to saturate our region with the gospel.
Our church isn’t huge by American standards, though. And we’re okay with that. We recognize that small-town churches don’t grow as large as many of those in big cities. But by God’s grace, we have seen a massive impact in our town due to the percentage of people reached. Our average Sunday attendance is about a tenth of our town’s population. Just imagine how much one village may be impacted when more than 10 percent of its residents belong to a gospel-centered church!
In this way, small churches in remote places around the world are actually congregations positioned to make a big impact. When the church deploys missionaries to a small town in a rural area and those missionaries raise up indigenous disciple makers, entire communities may be quickly changed.
When Rural Is Ripe for the Harvest
Of course, small-town church planting certainly comes with its own set of challenges. Rural ministries often face a shortage of resources, finances, and people. Additionally, with people living so far apart, efforts to reach them can stretch ministries very thin. On top of all these, planters ministering in small towns will often be viewed as outsiders until they spend enough time to gain the people’s trust.
It’s a lot of work, and it often isn’t glamorous, but when you’re talking about people Jesus died to save, it’s always worth the effort. We see the same zeal in Epaphras, one of the pastors of the church at Colossae. He was serving in the Lycus River Valley among growing cities like Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 4:13). Yet he chose to base his ministry in the city of Colossae, a podunk town in decline.
On paper that seems like a foolish decision. But the fact that most of the commerce had left Colossae for the neighboring cities may have made the people in Colossae more desperate for a message of hope. In this way, folks in rural areas may be providentially primed for the gospel. They may be ready to hear something new that brings a word of hope and healing to a forgotten place.
Every Hamlet, Hill, and Holler
I recently attended a conference in Ukraine where I met a man who had planted a church in a rural village. He brought with him a deacon from his church and a man just released from prison. They were willing to drive sixteen hours, sleep in the car, and stretch their bank accounts to get just a few hours of ministry training. These men were passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus in their hometown.
Closer to home, my great-grandfather shared this same commitment to reaching folks in rural places. Although he only had a third-grade education, he managed to pull off one semester of Bible college. The school soon found out about his educational deficiency and had to kick him out of college. But they did exhort him to pursue great things for God in spite of his circumstances. He went on to plant churches in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. He would settle into a town, find work, preach the gospel, develop leaders, ordain men, and move somewhere else to repeat the process.
Legacies like this from the hollers of Appalachia, the mountains of Ukraine, and the fields of northern Mexico may never be adequately highlighted in this lifetime. But if you’ve been called to plant in a small town or rural context, your labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Our God is redeeming people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. That means there are a lot of rural fields ripe for the harvest.
Will Basham is the lead pastor of New Heights Church in Milton, West Virginia, where he is active in West Virginia Baptist church-planting efforts. He is also an area leader for the Acts 29 North Atlantic Network. He and his wife, Amanda, have five children. You can follow him on Twitter.