Why Plant Churches in Rural America?
When my wife and I realized that our time in Greenville was over and that it was time to move back to Central Pennsylvania, we had hopes to help some of the rural, small-town churches that were seeking pastoral leadership in an itinerant (maybe permanent) basis. We recognized the difficulty that many rural churches face in finding theologically-educated men that are willing to move to rural areas and pastor in areas where there is little to no acclaim, no renown, and what most would consider few incentives. My hope was to help these churches until they were able to find full-time pastoral leadership and then to pursue church planting in a Central Pennsylvanian city with a large college population. However, the longer we spent in rural, Central Pennsylvania the more our hearts ached and yearned to proclaim the Gospel, disciple people, and share life with those that we encountered. So much so, that we started having conversations with people about the need in this particular area for a Bible-teaching/preaching, Gospel-oriented, disciple-making church that intentionally reached families for Christ--a church that fought against nominal Christianity and politicalized Christianity and simply proclaimed and taught the whole counsel of God.
I still had one issue and that issue was summed up with one sentence, "why does a town in rural Pennsylvania need another church?" And I kept holding onto that sentence to explain my hesitancy to jump into church planting, despite knowing that this area needed a new church, that we have unique experience that can help reach this area, and despite my wife's constant reminder that I had always spoken of church planting prior to 2015. Now here are the issues with holding onto that sentence, (1) it took denying a sense of calling in order for me to think that way, (2) it assumed that the churches in the area were good Bible-believing and Bible-teaching churches that were effectively reaching the people, and (3) it was completely based on fear. To utilize the fact that this is a rural area as justification to not plant a church forced me to believe that I couldn't possibly be called to plant a church. Because I couldn't possibly believe I could plant a church, I rationalized and made the assumption that the local churches were good Bible-believing and Bible-teaching churches that effectively reach the area (which is not a good assumption to make). All of which was built on my fears of failure, inadequacy, and a fear of man.
What convinced me to reconsider planting in a rural area was the realization that I was being motivated by fear, that I've been blessed with experience that makes me uniquely qualified to plant in a rural town, and that other godly believers confirmed that I possess spiritual gifts that could work to plant a growing church. Once I made these realizations, I reassessed and began to saturate the idea of church planting with prayer. What I've come to realize, however, is that many people don't understand the need of a new church in Central Pennsylvania or understand the need of a new church in a rural area at all. I've developed a response to those types of concerns, though there are plenty of other reasons as to why church planting in rural America is important.
Statistical and Scriptural Reasons for
Planting in Rural America
Typically when someone considers church planting, they usually have major metropolitan cities in mind--New York City, Seattle, Hong Kong, etc. And the reasoning is that as they continue to reach more people the amount of people increases exponentially as additional people are reached. Essentially, the reasoning is a "best bang for the buck" reason--as in, if I plant in New York City, I have a greater opportunity to reach more people and there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to reach as many people as possible through urban church planting. However, it does neglect a large amount of people, particularly people who may never enter into an urban center and make their lives in a rural setting. According to the US Census of 2010, almost 60 million people live in rural America (19% of the total population). According to The Center for Rural PA, 3.4 million residents of Pennsylvania live in rural areas (26% of the total population). In Pennsylvania, the number of rural residents is actually increasing (by 175,000 people in 2017 alone). In the two counties that we primarily serve (Centre and Clearfield), the total population is 241,640 with 60-82% of the population living in rural municipalities within the counties. In other words, there are a significant amount of people that live in non-urban areas within our counties.
Another statistic that might alarm some of you is this: within 15 miles of our home there are multiple churches, but I can count on one hand the number of churches within 15 miles that are actively preaching the truth. The majority of churches in this area teach and preach from a liberal perspective or are Catholic or Eastern Orthodox in nature--the number of good, Bible-believing, conservative evangelical churches are few. "The harvest is truly plentiful, but the laborers are few" (Matthew 9:37, my emphasis).
Now here's the primary reason that rural church planting is important. One of the very first verses that most children learn is found in John 3:16, "for God so loved the world."If we only ever focus on urban areas for church planting, we neglect those that God loves in suburban and rural areas--all 60 million of those rural Americans. There is a significant need to reach all people, even those that live in what I would call "the middle of nowhere." And it is a type of ministry that will receive no applause or recognition, but it is a necessary ministry of people who commit to living faithfully amongst the hundreds and maybe thousands within a smaller community. Another primary passage of Scripture that helped to convince me to pursue church planting is Romans 10:14, "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" While the need is great in urban areas, there are significantly more qualified pastors headed to urban centers than rural America. Someone needs to go to rural America so that "they" can hear, believe, and call on him.
You might ask, "Why don't you plant in one of the urban areas then? And the people in the urban centers can then spread to the suburban and rural areas."
And this is a valid question, particularly if you're thinking in terms of the "biggest bang for your buck." It seems that if we were to plant in one of the two cities in our region that people would then go from those two cities into the rural areas to preach and teach the truth. The issue is that both of those cities do have many good churches and both of those cities have many good church plants, but they have their own flocks to be concerned about in the cities and the distance to travel is far to great for them to be effective in their churches as well as the rural churches. What ends up happening (and this is unintentional) is that the cities keep getting influxes of new pastors wanting to reach the cities and the college students and the rural area (at least in this area) is neglected. It is as if the two areas--rural and urban are in completely different worlds with different cultures, different ways of life, and different people. Despite living within an hour of each other, they might as well be speaking different languages.
So, why plant churches in rural America? Because even though the population is much lower than in an urban center and even though everyone is separated by much larger distances and the population density is tremendously lower, each person here still needs to hear the Word of God. As individual souls, they still need to make the decision to repent of their sins, believe, and follow Jesus Christ; and they cannot do this if they do not hear the truth being preached consistently, lovingly, and faithfully. Why do ministry in rural America? Because people are worth living in what might be considered the "middle of nowhere," in the hopes that a few might come to know Jesus Christ.