Though I’ve only been on the ground with my new church plant. Epiphany Station, in Thief River Falls, MN for a scant 3 1/2 months, it has been long enough to gather some initial observations of church planting in smaller communities. Since my previous plant was in a large city, many of my observations are a comparison/contrast to planting in urban centers.
- The Harvest is Ripe. People are hungry here – and I think in small communities around the country – for something exciting, genuine and new. Most people grew up going to church but many have checked out because they found it to be boring, irrelevant, hypocritical or insignificant. Many are seeking, but not finding. The fields are ready for new fresh works of God to reap a bountiful harvest of God-seekers.
- The Culture is Very Religious. The first local ministerial meeting I went to was attended by all of the local school administrators who spent the bulk of the time apologizing for the one time last year they had to schedule an event on a Sunday night. As a rule, the school district does NOT schedule any events or activities on Wednesdays or Sundays. Coming from a city where Sunday morning activities were common place, I was just blown away. The community as a whole is very religious – respecting the role of God, church and family.
- The Culture is Very Religious (Part 2). Because it is very religious, of course, there are a lot of expectations about what church is and isn’t; what it can and can’t do. There are also a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the religious status quo (see #1). It is a delicate balance trying to maintain harmony within a religious community – not needlessly offending – while at the same time trying to reach the disenfranchised and blow some of the religious misconceptions of Jesus, Christians and church out of the water.
- Space is NOT an Issue. One of the reasons there is such huge potential in these small towns is because there is no shortage of space. In addition to schools, theaters and community centers, there are handfuls of abandoned churches, retail and warehouse buildings. We purchased a gas station and warehouse right downtown on the main drag for $92,000 (+ about $20K in renovations). Where else can you get 3,500 sq ft for $110K? Of course there are always potential zoning issues, but in a religious community that desires vitality, those can always be overcome.
- It’s the 80’s all Over Again. In the 1980’s it seemed all you had to do was start anything new with contemporary music and casual clothes in growing communities and crowds of people would show up. Although that’s not exactly the case here and now (perhaps strictly because of the population difference), it’s pretty close. In many of these communities, there are really only two choices: Traditional (predominantly Lutheran in these parts) or Charismatic. If you offer something between those two extremes – or completely different – people are going to show up.
- Core is Key. Pioneering work is tough anywhere. I think it is especially difficult in small towns to go in as an outsider and try and build something from scratch. In these small, tight-knit communities, you will always be an outsider, no longer how long you live there. And coming in people will be highly suspicious and untrusting of you. I came into a situation here where a core group had already been on the ground for nearly 2 years. They, of course, are all locals, many of whom were born and raised in this community. They know the culture, have the connections and see the vision. I came in and provided the leadership. Their connections combined with my leadership have given us credibility and trust in the community. Of all the external factors, I believe this to be the most critical to the brief success we’ve enjoyed.
- We are Not Alone. Already I see huge potential for new church plants in surrounding communities like Detriot Lakes, Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Crookston. In fact, I think they may even be riper than Thief River Falls. Small towns are an overlooked and untapped mission field for church planting.
Obviously, my observations are just initial impressions, but they are not just informed by my experience, but by the experiences and research of others, as well. My observations focus mainly on gathering a crowd because that is the stage we are in. Long-term evangelism and discipleship results will be determined over time.
I’d love to hear from others who are planting in small towns and rural communities.