By Tobin Perry
Some of the most enduring images of Americana were born in the rural Midwest—from Mark Twain’s St. Petersburg, Mo., to Little House on the Prairie’s Walnut Grove, to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. It’s Anytown U.S.A.—where “salt-of-the-earth” people work hard and go to church every Sunday.
Truth be told, these small towns still exist. Take Amboy, Ill., for example. It’s one of those places you might expect to see in a movie. Walk down the town’s historic Main Street, even in 2011, and you’ll find a brick-and-mortar drug store, a couple of banks, along with other “mom-and-pop” shops. Many of the 5,000 people in the community either work at the local factory or on a farm.
According to Brian McWethy, who pastors the year-old Grace Fellowship Church campus in the town, it’s “a small, Friday-night-football kind of town.”
Despite small-town values, few Amboy residents have a personal relationship with Christ. Only one other evangelical church had been in the city when Grace Fellowship arrived in 2010. The town is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Many believe they can simply earn their salvation by being “good enough.”
Yet the Midwest in 2011 isn’t only small-town America. Ten Midwestern cities rank in the nation’s top 50 in population. For example, the urban-professional community of downtown Cleveland could scarcely be more different than Amboy. Most of the urban professionals have master’s degrees. Most don’t stay in the city for long—either moving to the suburbs or out of state in a few years. And most didn’t grow up in downtown Cleveland.
Still the vast majority doesn’t have a relationship with Christ. Cleveland church planter Alex Ennes suggests that no more than 2 percent of urban professionals in downtown Cleveland are in church twice a month. Ennes compares it to working with an unreached people group.
In the Midwest lostness is surprisingly high—75 percent according to North American Mission Board statistics. Evangelical churches are scarce. (It’s actually three times easier to find a bar than a Southern Baptist church in the region.)
Southern Baptists have been working in the region since the 1950s. But according to Steve Davis, NAMB’s regional vice president for the Midwest, early efforts focused on starting churches for primarily transplanted Southerners. Davis, a native of Indiana, says he’s heard many of these early Southern Baptists in the Midwest talk about going to grocery stores and inviting people who bought grits or had southern license plates to church.
While it might have been a good way to find people with an inclination to attend a Southern Baptist church, it often led to churches out of sync with the communities they served.
“They became colonies of the South in the North—and they didn’t reach the indigenous people,” Davis says. “When the jobs started drying up or people retired and went back to the old homestead in the South, a lot of these churches were left struggling.”
Today, Davis believes the region has a desperate need for a diverse lot of new churches that will reach the increasingly diverse region—and reach them in their own cultural context.
Grace Fellowship Church-Amboy and Alex Ennes’ Gateway represent those diverse ways Southern Baptists are reaching their communities through church planting. Grace Fellowship-Amboy, which was started as a campus of a larger church but plans someday to become autonomous, focuses on demonstrating Christ’s love in practical ways in the rural community—whether that’s handing out cold water and popsicles on a hot day or helping a person who needs a hand up.
“Time is as short as ever,” McWethy says. “We can’t wait for them to come to us. We’ve got to meet them where they are and show them how much Christ loves them.”
Ennes has plans for a new coffee shop that’ll be a place where Gateway members can build evangelistic relationships in downtown Cleveland and where urban professionals can come to discover how they can contribute to their community.
Both Grace Fellowship and Gateway have church multiplication at the center of their evangelistic strategies. Gateway, just four years old, has planted one church and is in the process of planting another. To make the planting process less burdensome, if not easier, they share everything—from health insurance to mission teams—with new church planters. Along the way, Ennes said, the church has consistently passed on resources (like money and mission teams from other states) that could’ve helped them grow in order to help church planters who could use them more.
Ennes said both church and pastor have whole-heartedly bought into the multiplication vision. “My heart is to reach Cleveland, not plant a church,” he added.
Gateway West, the autonomous yet partnering congregation Ennes’ church helped plant in 2009, has already grown to average weekly attendance of more than 150 people in the more blue-collar West Cleveland.
Davis believes Southern Baptists represent incredible potential in the Midwest.
“I’ve said for some time, the potential in the Midwest is tremendous,” Davis said. “The economic situation has opened up opportunities for the church to be the church. In many areas of the Midwest, we really could change the spiritual landscape.” OM
Tobin Perry is a writer for the North American Mission Board.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC