Early in my ministry, I served at a local church in a small university town. God used that experience to deeply form who I am today. Those years of ministry were a true blessing and I’m thankful for the lessons I learned and the ways I grew in my walk with Jesus. Ministry in rural areas looks a little different than ministry elsewhere. The natural rhythms of life move a little slower, you get to know your neighbors in deeper ways and the cultural dynamics sometimes feel distant from other parts of the nation and world.
Too often, these smaller places are overlooked for other, fast-paced and populous cities—but God does not overlook small towns and rural communities. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite. There is tremendous opportunity to reach the lost in rural parts of the country.
Small town pastors experience many blessings, but they also face unique challenges. In the midst of this, God has called them to humbly serve as they pursue His Great Commission work. Yet, what specific challenges do they face today, how can they effectively share the gospel with all people and how can we support them?
To discuss this topic, I’ve invited Ronnie Martin, church planter and founding pastor of Substance Church (EFCA) in Ashland, Ohio, to write an article and speak with me in an interview about his experience pastoring in a small town. He shares valuable insight, encouragement and lessons learned along the way. Please take the next few moments to read his article and watch the interview.
“Ok, so where exactly is your church again? Asheville, North Carolina, right?”
“No, it’s actually Ashland, Ohio. Not quite as fun as Asheville, but we like it.”
“Oh, sorry. So where is Ashland, Ohio?”
“It’s halfway between Columbus and Cleveland. So, if you’re ever on Interstate 71, you’ll pass right by us…or through us…especially if you want to stop by Grandpa’s Cheese Barn and load up on all kinds of, well, cheeses.”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve had the above conversation, I would be the benefactor of hundreds of dollars. I really do pastor in a town called Ashland, Ohio, which has a population of about twenty-five thousand people, and is home to the legendary Grandpa’s Cheese Barn. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a water tower that used to have the words “World Headquarters of Nice People” inscribed on the front.
When I planted Substance Church in 2013, my family and I had only lived in Ashland for three years, having relocated from the suburban sprawl of southern California where I had been born and raised. It should come as no surprise that our entrance into Ashland was like arriving in a foreign land that had radically different traditions, values and mindsets than anything I had grown up with. To be honest, we had casually dismissed the “culture shock” that our family and friends seemed so concerned about until it came upon us in a storm of wind, rain and summer tornadoes about three days in. It turned out that weather would be the least of our problems, but that’s another story for another time.
If all this sounds like the beginning of a cautionary tale concerning cross-country ministry moves, we should be reminded that God seems to have a pattern of placing His people in unfamiliar cultures to accomplish His countercultural, kingdom-expanding work.
If all this sounds like the beginning of a cautionary tale concerning cross-country ministry moves, we should be reminded that God seems to have a pattern of placing His people in unfamiliar cultures to accomplish His countercultural, kingdom-expanding work. Although we have faced numerous obstacles as suburban transplants in small-town America, the Lord has used every square inch of it to not only plant two churches, but to sanctify the heck out of our souls in the process.
With that said, here’s a few observations the Lord has taught me in our thirteen-year journey of pastoring in an overlooked place.
God plants pastors
I had no idea what the Lord was doing when I left California behind with my wife, 14-year-old daughter and two cats. I was not a church planter. I had come from years of working in the music industry until the Lord called me into vocational ministry. If that wasn’t a big enough identity crisis, He decided to place me in an obscure, overlooked place that left me feeling isolated and unknown. What I didn’t realize until years later after tripping and falling headfirst into church planting was that God was using this town to plant me.
Paul’s words to the Thessalonians carry some implications for pastors when he wrote:
“May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:12-13).
To increase my love for others and establish greater holiness in my heart, the Lord planted me in foreign soil so that I might gain some additional inches of spiritual maturity that I was dearly lacking. We often think of church planting as this moment when the work of the gospel comes for the hearts of the people, but what we often forget is that it comes for the heart of the pastor, too.
What I didn’t realize until years later after tripping and falling headfirst into church planting was that God was using this town to plant me.
God moves in slow but significant ways
A cliche of small-town America is that it is slow-paced and therefore out of step with the times. But slow doesn’t mean insignificant. Pastoring in a slower-paced environment unburdens you from the pressure to adopt church growth strategies and seeker-sensitive gimmickry to build a sustaining ministry. In fact, those more pragmatic methodologies can come at the expense of people’s trust while increasing their suspicion. In the same way that we appreciate a slow-cooked meal for the flavor it will deliver, ministry in slower, overlooked places will bear beautiful fruit when we patiently wait on the Lord to do His work at His pace.
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7-8).
God doesn’t overlook anybody
The lack of visibility that pastors receive for ministering in overlooked places only comes horizontally, because on a vertical level, God doesn’t overlook anybody. This should serve as a comforting reminder to pastors in any context that the world’s acknowledgment of what we do is not the glory we are called to be seeking after. In the end, it won’t be the size or visibility of the place God called us to pastor that matters, but how faithful we were in spreading the good news of the gospel to shepherdless sheep who will never be overlooked by the chief Shepherd.
Send a Response
Share your thoughts with the author.