Missional Church Planting In Rural America

 The Southern Baptist Convention Church Planting Center hosted a workshop and seminar on Missional Church Planting In Rural America yesterday. Apparently it was geared as a training program for the convention’s Directors of Missions, but I was able to attend and was introduced both to some startling realities and some fascinating strategies.

Apparently the rural context has been and continues to be largely overlooked in mission’s initiatives across the nation. Dr. J.D. Payne, professor of church planting for the seminary, spoke of a rural town in northern Nebraska that had 900 people and not a single evangelical church, witness, or Christian. “Who will go and reach them,” he wondered aloud. Dr. George Garner, the main speaker for the event, talked of this reality too, stressing that there are pockets of lostness all across this supposed Christian nation where people have still never heard the gospel. He contended that reaching into these rural contexts, however, was going to have to be unique, contextually relevant, and missional.

His proposed strategy involved a transition away from typical modern church planting with its salary paid pastors, church buildings with huge overhead, and mega-church wannabes. Instead he proposed that church planters go in as bi-vocational working a trade in the community and establishing Bible studies in the contexts of biker shops, auto-mechanic shops, and farms and letting these develop into their own churches. The model was more missional in that it involved men going in as missionaries to these contexts, living and working the communities and essentially creating home churches. The reality is, Dr. Garner says, that most of these rural contexts can neither afford traditional church planting methods nor do they find them appealing. Most of these contexts already have churches, but they are dead churches. The goal needs to be planting the gospel in these communities, he contended, not planting churches. Quoting another missiologist Dr. Garner stated, “If you plant churches you get institutions, if you plant the gospel, however, you get churches.” So the goal needs to be shifted from church planting to gospel planting in rural contexts, and gospel planting from a missional methodology. The goal is to reach rural America by virtue of our missions as a lifestyle, not a career, and for the church that evolves from this approach to be both indigenous and self-sustaining long-term.

There were several points of discussion which struck me particularly:

(1) Terms like “Missional” and “Relevant” is not Metro and Micropolitan bound à It is common, especially among young planters like me, to believe that churches in rural contexts are simply out-of-the-loop, they are not relevant to the culture around us, that they are “behind the times.” This, after further reflection, seems like a poor observation. For these locales simply have a different culture, not a bad one, not a good one, not an out-dated one, but a different one. And what they need are missional churches that are contextualized for their culture.

 (2) Rural America cannot be overlooked à There are far too many people living in these contexts who have never heard the gospel and who do not have an evangelistic witness in their community for the rural places to overlooked! We must find ways to reach them and impact their communities. This needs to happen at both the academic level as pastors are trained, and through churches in both the micropolitan and metropolitan areas (see below).

(3) Bigger City Churches Must Help Reach The Rural World à One of the suggestions that came out of the discussion groups was that micropolitan and metropolitan churches can help reach these contexts by discipling rural men to become missional “pastors” in their locales. So, for example, a micropolitan church could offer simple discipleship in a nearby rural context for equipping men to serve as bi-vocational pastors in their communities. In this manner you have men who can do the work in that community, but who are also trained to read and teach the Bible, do counseling, etc.

 (4) Funding Should Not Be An Issue à The final interesting observation came as I listened to various SBC directors dialog about their lack of funding to support rural initiatives. The response from Dr. Garner was surprising. He stated, very plainly, that rural church planting did not need more funding. He pointed out that to much funding would leave these contexts in a place where they themselves could not long-term support and sustain a ministry that was financially unrealistic for their members. Furthermore, he pointed out, some communities do not respect a man who gets paid to sit in an office all day and study. They want a man who can relate to them, who knows how to work with his hands, etc. Bi-vocational work was the best solution for the future of rural church planting.

 After all this I am still not sure that my future is in rural church planting. I am pretty sure that I simply do not fit in a rural context, it is culturally foreign to me (I have enough trouble with micropolitan adjustments). But I do know that regardless of where I go and where I serve I must find a way to help reach rural America with the gospel, and I must do so in ways that are culturally relevant to them.


  1. Check out http://www.rhma.org and http://www.tactprogram.org for more startling realities and some fascinating strategies!

  2. Jake Roberts says:

    I would wonder if the good Dr has done it. The whole bi-vocational thing is harder than it looks. On paper it looks like a great idea, until you do it. I am not saying you should not do it. i think that if we could figure out how to support those missionary pastors to these small towns or that some towns begin to do a circuit the way they did in the old days where some of these churches would hire a pastor. As a pastor who has done Bi-vocational since 2009 let me tell you. it is not easy. You must definitely have a call to these people and know it is your mission because if you don’t, you will quit. I tend to quit at least once a month! ha I do wonder if these bigger churches were to invest in creating smaller churches, with the technology we have we could really have satellite churches with campus pastor who could then be bi-vocational and yet still be effective.

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