Like many evangelical young people, I looked up to church planters. I appreciated the risk they took for the gospel. It reminded me of the missionary biographies I loved as a child. (I am also pretty sure that I thought church planters were just plain cool.)
Something changed when I entered seminary. As church planting morphed in my mind from an intriguing idea to a real possibility I began to notice that very few church planting organizations seemed concerned about people living in places like the rural corner of America where I grew up. Church planting seemed to be almost exclusively the domain of urban and suburban hipsters. I knew cities mattered, but I wondered how entire church planting networks could so easily overlook millions of people living in America’s small towns and rural areas. Disillusioned, I began to think that my days as an aspiring church planter were over.
God had other ideas.
In the summer of 2016, my wife and I loaded up a U-Haul truck and moved with our three kids (ages 4, 2, and 3 months) and a half-completed dissertation in tow from the bustling university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, to Oil City, Pennsylvania, a small town about 30 minutes from where we grew up. In many ways Oil City seemed to epitomize the problems of the Rust Belt. Since Quaker State Motor Oil moved its corporate headquarters out of town in the mid-1990s, Oil City has experienced an infrastructure collapse marked by poverty, falling population, blighted housing, a brain drain and drug abuse.
But as real as the problems are, we have also found an amazing amount of promise in our town. We discovered that many in Oil City are excited to hear about new ideas and to see young leaders (Millennials, even!) who are willing to roll up their sleeves and love their town. We joined the Chamber of Commerce, adopted a block and welcomed community leaders into a service for a panel discussion. In all of this we see God’s hand opening doors for influence and connecting us to other churches and leaders in our town. We are praying for synergy — kingdom synergy!
We are also praying that many more embark on this adventure by following the big call of God to “small” places.
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.