A little over seven years ago, God moved me, my wife, my fourteen-year-old daughter and our two cats from Southern California to Northern Ohio. I was on staff at a large church at the time, and it seemed like God was opening a ministry door for us in a place I had traveled through many times and enjoyed immensely as a tourist — if there is such a thing as an Ohio tourist. Now, before I go any further, let me answer some questions that just popped into your head.
- Yes, I am a horrible father for moving my daughter across the country at the fragile age of fourteen.
- Yes, the culture shock was and is a real thing.
- No, we didn’t actually move to Ohio to plant a church.
As to my third point: before and after my move to Ohio, God had always placed me in the company of church planters. I don’t know if they were drawn to me because of my numerous entrepreneurial endeavors, but the comment I got repeatedly from some of them was “I know you’re going to plant a church someday” after which I usually replied, “Never let me hear you utter those words again.” Call me crazy, but I thought these dudes were crazy for wanting to do something I thought was crazier than anything I had ever attempted. What I didn’t know at the time was that God was planting a seed in me through these brothers that was going to come to fruition in the not-so-distant future.
My move to small-town Ohio did not initially go well. We found ourselves on staff at another large church that turned out to be the opposite of what one might call a “fit”. Without going into all the gory details, at some point we knew our time there was coming to an end, and tired of being harassed by my church plant friends (who can tend to be like that, you know), we asked God to create a desire in us to plant if that’s what He had planned for us all along.
As we began to pray for that desire, I read, among many other books, Center Church by Tim Keller. I mean, God bless Time Keller, am I right? We all know there’s nothing more sexy or daring than storming the gates of Manhattan with a Crossway ESV in one hand and a white paper on social justice in the other, but God had not exactly dropped that vision for urban planting into my thick head quite yet. He also hadn’t exactly warmed my heart for small towns, either, but He had placed me in one that was lacking what I called an overt gospel presence. Believe it or not, it was Center Church that got me thinking about all the opportunities and practices that existed for planting churches in small towns.
So that’s what we did. The California kids planted a church in Ashland, Ohio and three years later, we planted another one in Wooster Ohio, which should not be pronounced like rooster unless you want to experience an untimely death in a small town. Like all humble endeavors, we’ve learned a lot and are learning more. More than anything, the opportunities that have risen from our small town plants were largely unseen at first, but have slowly revealed themselves over time. Here’s some that I hope might inspire you whether you’ve considered planting in a small town or not.
- Gospel Presence: Small towns are littered with mainline denominations, many of whom have abandoned the gospel and have become a shadow of what they used to be. If you could visit some of these churches, you’d be greeted by scant numbers of kind hearted parishioners who are hanging on by a thread in an old building that has become a museum of former glories. A gospel-centered church plant has the opportunity to serve as a light house in a town of churches that have drifted out to sea.
- Stand Out: Even when small towns try to initiate a revitalization, most don’t experience a lot of new things, much less new churches. A gospel-centered church has the opportunity to “pop” in a small town, by virtue of simply being there, which will naturally garner a lot of talk and attention. In other words, no marketing required.
- Spaces: A lot of small towns have experienced economic downturns, which means many of them have plentiful opportunities for permanent gathering spaces. This is what we found in our town, and not only that, the city welcomed us in with open arms as they were thrilled to see us take an old furniture warehouse and revitalize it. Cheap, too.
- Revitalization Movements: Our town is going through a revitalization movement in the downtown where a committee has been formed to help pave the way for new growth. For us, it’s created a lot of opportunities for us to be take part in something restorative and show our town that we care about the things they care about, too.
- Cost of Living: Let me cut to the chase here: small towns can offer cheap living. Our town was listed as the fourth cheapest town in the NATION to live in a couple of years ago. What this means is that you don’t need a Willow Creek sized budget to get established and provide for your family when you lay down roots.
- No Hostility: Small towns are typically churched cultures, or at least used to be at one time. What this means is that people aren’t necessarily hostile to churches, and in our case, many were happy to have something “positive” and “new” come into town. It also means people will be indifferent to you, too, which has its challenges, but at the very least means you’ll likely have an opportunity to walk through a door without resistance on the other side.
- Not Transient: Small towns are not transient cultures, by and large. Sure, some serve as bedroom communities for commuters, but most become very rooted. Small town boys and girls who “took the midnight train going anywhere” often return when it’s time to settle down and raise their families. What this means is that you have opportunities to invest in a congregation that’s not going anywhere. Yes, there are other socio-economic reasons why people don’t/can’t leave small towns too, which also accounts for the kind of limited diversity you’ll have, too.
- Good Transfer Growth: See the article I wrote HERE. Gospel-centered plants in small towns give spiritually starving people the opportunity to finally be fed. This doesn’t mean you become a burglar, it means that God may transfer someone from an unhealthy congregation to your healthy one. This is a good thing.
- Change Agent: Because you’re in a place that sees slow or little change, God can use your church plant as an opportunity to be a change agent in the culture. Small things can feel like big things in a small town when a gospel church reaches into the community with love and care.
- Social Media: Social media goes a long way in a small town. Because everybody sees everything, having a social media presence won’t turn into white noise and wallpaper, because you may be the only church who engages in it. Don’t miss this one.
Those are a few things that we’ve seen since planting two churches in two small towns, about twenty minutes a part. Yes, there are nuances, and every small town is not alike, but I hope to encourage you to have eyes to look beyond the perimeter of your city, and see what opportunities God might provide in a town where people, and the gospel, may have been forgotten.