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When I announced my engagement a few years ago, one friend wrote to say he was happy for me but wondered if I might be squandering my talents on a small neighborhood church, and said a suburban megachurch seemed like the congregation I should be influencing as a pastor’s wife. Matt has received similar questions from people asking why someone with two master’s degrees would serve a community where many people stopped their education after high school.

As a movement we’re excited about churches in the suburbs and churches in thriving cities and even churches in the inner city, but we have very little interest in the hundreds (thousands?) of blue-collar, declining neighborhoods around them. I’m a big fan of having churches anywhere, but it’s curious that we have largely ignored a major socioeconomic sector of the American people. Is the church allowed to have the equivalent of flyover country?

We may pretend these mission fields don’t exist because it takes a long time to see even modest results. This is in stark contrast to the upwardly-mobile Whole Foods communities whose rooftops are counted when some church planting groups decide where to launch next. I can’t blame them; there’s certainly lots to celebrate about a big start, these organizations can raise more money when their launches bring in the numbers, and educated suburbanites need Jesus. But so do the people in places like Levittown, and just because we don’t have a formula for it doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

Again, I understand the desire for Bible-Belt crowds. It’s tempting to want a bigger church on a faster track not only because it validates one’s own talents (most people assume if you lead a small church it’s because you can’t do any better), but because it seems like a better leverage of life. Sometimes I have to remind myself of the occasional moments of insight and life change we witness among our people, the baptisms, the friendships. I think of St. Augustine who served a little area in modern-day Algeria and still managed to influence the world for centuries.

My first week in Levittown the librarian processing my application for a new card smiled and shrugged her shoulders when I mentioned I’d just moved to the area.

“Don’t judge Pennsylvania by this city,” she said. “This is a hard place.”

It’s kind of true. But that means our best leaders should be here, and thriving suburban churches should be where young guys go to cut their teeth before moving on to more-perseverance-needed mission fields.

We also need to remember these are mission fields; the locals may speak English, but each place has unique cultural and social norms. Many folks avoid these areas because they don’t understand them. To prepare to serve a country as diverse as ours, wouldn’t some Bible college or seminary specialization be helpful? A few classes about spiritual and socioeconomic differences around the country would prepare graduates to serve in places other than 750-member Indiana churches.

Finally, let’s encourage our single pastors to consider these fields. Sometimes we avoid living in and ministering to these areas because we don’t want to raise our families in them. Even if a town is safe, as Levittown largely is, the schools may be middling (as Levittown’s largely are). Guys and gals who aren’t worried about resale values and college admission have more flexibility in living options and locations.

Ministry in a blue-collar town is not for everyone. Neither is ministry to a multicultural urban church, the residents of an inner-city, or the generations who gather in rural churches. But if we’re serious about reaching the whole world for Jesus, some of us must give our lives to the small churches, the less significant areas, the slowly-but-slowly growth.

Conventional wisdom says if you’re successful, you’re not here. When will we learn that success has more than one definition, and sometimes it includes struggle?

About the Writer

Jennifer Johnson serves as Chief Communications Officer at Johnson University. She and her husband Matt live in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

  1. Mike Brown
    Mike Brown on

    Thank you! I serve a small church in the middle of cornfields and can’t even imagine being anywhere else at the moment nor desire to. One of my biggest frustrations is that the glorification of the megachurch seems to result in many of our current preachers trying to emulate them in smaller or medium sized cities by imitating their language, restructuring their own stage presence to mirror them, and even copy thir ministry and administrative set-ups. More and more, I see or hear about pastors who won’t make a hospital call or home visit because their favorite megachurch pastor doesn’t (most often because they can’t). Add to this, many next generation preachers see the small church as nothing but a short-term stepping stone to a bigger church.

    Unfortunately, national conferences often contribute to the glorification issue by scheduling primarily well known megachurch leaders to the prime speaking opportunities. This certainly seemed more and more true in the latter years of the NACC. I am grateful and excited to see that some churches have the financial resources and personnel to create incredible ministry programs and enjoy witnessing 50-100 people a week come to Jesus in metropolitan cities. But it seems that the overwhelming majority of churches which are small to mid-sized congregations often get overlooked. I, for one, would love to see a line up of speakers from time to time include those who aren’t marquee names or even numerically successful but pour their hearts and souls out to the mid-sized towns, farming communities, and even churches where their primary ministry is to those who are preparing to graduate life into eternity. I hope to see Spire take steps to dare to be different in this way.

  2. Team Spire
    Team Spire on

    Spire is more than a once a year conference like the former NACC. It is a relational and interactive platform designed to assist leaders of all sizes of churches in growing healthy congregations. It is committed to living out the principles of the Restoration Movement in the 21st Century. We hope everyone will watch the process unfold and find the network and the conference is suited for all.

  3. Ben Brandt
    Ben Brandt on

    Thanks for the encouraging post Jennifer, and Mike I’m with you man. Rural, small-town ministry is tough. I know I felt a bit left out seeing predominantly skinny-jeans on stage at NACC’s. Nothing wrong with skinny jeans, and those preachers are making the right move by being fashionable to their context. But folks where I minister look like they’re Mike Rowe on the set of “Dirty Jobs”. I didn’t see much if any representation of rural ministry or ministers at the last couple NACC’s. It would be nice to have more frequent affirmation of what you’re saying Jennifer.
    That being said, we also (or at least I) need to recognize that the speakers NACC puts up there are deserving. Their phenomenal preachers and organizational leaders who’ve been at it a long time. Let us each take responsibility for our own ministries and elevate our skill to the highest level possible, regardless of our circumstances. Are my rural circumstances more difficult for producing rapid growth and large congregations than a church just off the interstate in an economically prosperous area? You bet. But on the other hand maybe I’m just not good as that guy on stage. Maybe that he has something that I don’t due to years of steady effort and perseverance. Maybe if he was in my place, he’d be doing a better job than me. That’s quite possible, so I’d better work my butt off to make sure it’s not. Is mission completion harder out here? Probably. But, adjusting expectations accordingly, that just means I’ve got to up my game all the more if we’re going to make disciples in my town. I’ve been dealt the hand I have, it’s my responsibility to play it the best I can. I imagine God has all the patience in the world for my foolhardy mistakes, but I wonder if He has as much patience for my excuse.

  4. Douglas Parks
    Douglas Parks on

    I deeply appreciate finding this post on this site. I am a bi-vocational minister in a small town in Missouri. I feel God has given me a unique opportunity to provide most of my own support, and still minister in a place where I am needed. Small town churches, with their budgetary and population constraints, struggle to find quality ministry personnel prepared to commit to this environment. Our colleges and conferences structure their programming in a way that inadvertently sends a clear message that a successful ministry is a numerically big one.
    Regarding the response from Team Spire, I’m sure the intention to serve churches of all sizes is genuine, but I think it would be wise to revisit this topic. When Huddle opportunities lead off with “breaking the 200 or 800 barrier” it reads a little tone deaf to the needs of the majority of churches who have memberships of 100 or less. Yet our mission fields are no less important. We have to stop thinking that ministry strategies designed for large urban and suburban contexts can be simply adapted to small churches. The simple fact is, rural ministry is a whole different animal, and requires different tools. Like any mission field, small town America, and its thousands of small churches, need apostolic vision, and strategies designed specifically for us.

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