The 2000 census estimated over 59 million Americans live in rural areas. In addition, an estimated 22 percent of Americans identify themselves as non-Christian, and 60 percent do not attend weekly services.
This means that around 13 million Americans living in rural areas deny association with Christianity, and over 26.5 million are not attending a weekly service. Though these are not necessarily the only indicators of belief or nonbelief, the numbers are telling.
We desire to see a Vineyard church in every community – in large cities, suburbs, and small towns throughout our nation. But less populated towns can often be overlooked. Many of our Vineyard pastors believe we could do a better job reaching out to our smaller communities.
Joel Seymour, senior pastor of Lancaster Vineyard Church in Ohio, is one of the pastors who believes the Vineyard should have a much larger presence in smaller areas. He has a particular passion for small and rural communities.
When thinking about beginning a plant in a little community, vision is key. “It’s important from the outset that the sending church has a specific vision for planting in a small town,” Joel said. “I’m convinced that most churches’ mentality is not to plant in small towns or rural areas. It’s been borne out of our church-growth mentality and even Wimber’s church-planting mentality: in the early days, going to smaller towns was not in our growth strategy.
There was never any initial vision I’ve seen that shows us going much past bigger cities and suburbs. In reality, and from what I see today, we haven’t.”
Does the Vineyard need a change in its thinking on small town church planting? Joel believes Vineyard-style churches can indeed be sustainable in less populated areas. “We need to remove the thought that all our church plants will contain large-church numbers at the worship services or become megachurches,” he said, adding that most Vineyard churches have memberships of around 100 to 200 people.
“We need to remember that not all Vineyards look like our 10 to 12 largest churches. Can we recapture the vision of the ‘normal-sized’ church, and can we capture the vision of what can happen in a small town?”
In a small town, a small church can often have even more of a cultural impact than a megachurch can in a large city. Unlike a megachurch, which often calls for a certain type of speaker with a large amount of charisma, a small town church primarily needs a leader who is relational, loyal, and consistent. It needs a pastor who can give at least three or four years to the community and be a good friend to his or her neighbors. It can take a while to gain trust in a smaller community.
How can a pastor best connect with a small town’s residents? Joel explained that it’s often ideal to get involved with the community’s important institutions: the school, the city council, and local businesses.
“If you move to a small town, and you have kids, the question of whether or not to homeschool your children is a critical decision,” Joel reasoned. “The school of a small town is such a major institution in that context, because it’s the one institution that brings the whole town together. When I started my first church plant, the town I lived in – about 5,000 residents – would shut down for a Friday night high school football game. In a town of 40,000, you might get a good crowd, but the whole town does not shut down for the game and bring all of its residents to one meeting place!
It’s key to be involved in some way, shape, or form with that institution to benefit your church plant.”
Joel advises pastors starting out in a smaller town to first get involved in community organizations and, as an individual, become a good neighbor. “Then, and only then, start your worship services,” he said. “I learned this by accident in my first church plant. I was the outsider, and I rode on the coattails of the senior pastor of that church. His dad was on the city council and owned the local Dairy Queen and pizza joint in town. That gave us a built-in base to pull from. That was our booster rocket.”
Built-in credibility from the beginning is extremely beneficial in small town church planting. But not all situations are the same. Bivocational planting might work best for a church planter who doesn’t have the benefit of built-in credibility. “Get a job. Let people get to know you, let people begin to trust you, and know that you’re there for the long term,” Joel advised. “It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to begin your church plant as an outsider any other way.”
One more possibility is to build on the strength of a trusted small group in the planting community. “We have seen some Vineyard planters who were not originally from that town do well when there were previously-placed small groups there. The credibility came from the small groups,” Joel said.
Our vision for church planting in the Vineyard is to extend the kingdom of God by helping our local churches fulfill their God-given call to plant other churches. Rural America is another facet of this vision. We believe that God is raising and equipping individuals to answer this particular call. Are you one of those individuals?
If you have more questions or would like to hear more information about what Joel and several other pastors are doing, the Vineyard Church Multiplication Team would love to help. You can contact us at [email protected].