By Kima Jude
For most of us, the thought of rural North America conjures up images of not
only what charms-quaint, peaceful villages surrounded by farms or fields-but
what detracts, too-the emptiness. The greatest void, however, is not from the
lack of people. The same communities that fail to sustain thriving industry,
hospitals or malls, also struggle to place God in their midst.
All told, the rural U.S. includes some 50 million people scattered
throughout every state and nearly every county, according to Steve Nerger,
manager of Strategic Places for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). And 13
million Canadians live in a rural setting, says Dwight Huffman, national
church-starting consultant for the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists.
For the most part, they live in unincorporated towns-places where people are
willing to trade urban amenities for the tranquility of the rural life but
nevertheless huddle for community.
Rural North America makes significant contributions to the rest of the
continent, but these are quietly accomplished and often overlooked. Yet these
are places and people not forgotten by Southern Baptists, who make an effort to
track them through their state conventions and associations, highlighting them
on maps, pinpointing their lostness, praying for a presence there-and a
strategy that will be effective and lasting. Many of these towns lack Southern
Baptist work or an evangelical church of any kind.
"There are towns with no churches, period," Nerger points out. To leave them so
terribly vacant is unacceptable. "Every town needs a touch," he says. "We're to
reach every town and community with the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Although Southern Baptists can point to rural North America for our origins,
it's not just history that drives the emphasis on town and country ministries,
says Nerger, but the immense number of people there-a sixth of the U.S.
population and about 40 percent of Canadians, lost in its vastness. Their
scattered placement works against them to minimize their significance, but not
for Nerger. "That's a lot of people, you know." Adds Huffman: "In most rural
Canadian communities, the churches that were there 20 to 30 years ago have
moved to larger communities, leaving many places with no church at all."
Indeed, there are lessons to be learned from the denomination's
humble, rural beginnings. "You never want to just disregard where you came
from," Nerger says. "But the need for churches is what's driving us."
There's no single way to define rural, except through smallness, such as
minimal population or scant resources, because rural shows up in many settings.
It includes farming and ranching communities, resort towns, even stark
wilderness. Although these are especially prevalent in the U.S. Midwest and
West-as well as the South-they can be found anywhere, even in the
NAMB defines towns with populations of fewer than 2,500 as rural. In such
places, fully funded churches with full-time pastors and facilities are
probably going to be a rarity rather than the rule. Instead, what strategists
look for are bivocational pastors and laity who recognize the need and trust
God to make the little they have be enough. "We want to plant a presence of the
gospel," explains George Garner, missions and leadership development consultant
for the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention. "I believe no town is too
small. But a leadership strategy has to fit that smallness. Let's find a way to
reach them, and then do it so it will sustain itself."
Rural North America often suffers next to more populated urban centers, because
teeming populations commandeer resources based upon sheer numbers. "But do we
forget those other areas?" Garner asks. "We can't. We've got to have some
strategies, because Jesus called us to reach all the lost."
Complicating that, rural North America itself may not recognize its own
neediness, according to Garner. People living in rural settings aren't
necessarily clamoring for church starts. "We need an intentional strategy to
look at every pocket of lostness."
Short-term projects like Vacation Bible School may be the "probing activity to
find a person of peace or platform" where the gospel can be established, Garner
says. "Then, as we do that, God always brings people from other places,
While indigenous leaders are key figures in planting churches in the town
and country context, Garner defines that term broadly. "Having someone
indigenous is significant, but the person may not always be native to that
area. He might be someone from another part of the country who loves that
setting and can relate to the people there."
Rural church planter Jesse Rust fits those descriptors. Rust is a NAMB
missionary working to plant churches in Montana, a state that ranks fourth in
the country in land mass but has a population of only a million. Rust grew up
on a ranch in western Iowa. His background and seminary training make him
uniquely qualified for Town and Country church planting. He is at home in
Moccasin, a community of about 20 homes situated 17 miles away from the nearest
town of 500.
"We love it here," he says. "We're convinced this is where the Lord has us.
We're ready to spend our whole lives here." Since arriving on the field a year
ago, Rust has been instrumental in establishing three Bible studies and
launching worship services in various locations. Yet as he drives from town to
town, he continues to see the urgency of establishing and maintaining God's
presence. "It's an area where most denominations have been closing churches for
Despite the situation, church planters find their ministry can be effective
and their churches can thrive. Bob Pittman has been pastor of Hazen Baptist
Fellowship in North Dakota for the past 10 years. Relocating from Houston, he
moved to a nearby town to pastor a church that closed its doors shortly after.
Meanwhile, however, he realized Hazen, population 2,500, had no evangelical
It's not an easygoing life, according to Pittman. Winters turn incredibly cold.
But there are benefits. He rarely locks his doors and walks wherever he goes.
He knows most people in town.
While rural churches may not be able to boast soaring memberships, they can
make significant contributions. Bill Savery has pastored First Baptist Custer,
South Dakota, for the past 28 years. The church, the only Southern Baptist
congregation in a 40-mile radius, has experienced what Savery describes as
consistent growth, but it's still small by most measures-about 125
The congregation cannot afford full financial support for its pastor. Savery
has worked a variety of jobs in Custer, population 1,700, including leading
seasonal tours in the resort community, substitute teaching, driving a school
bus and logging. He turned down
the church's first invitation for him to be their pastor, because he knew it
would be difficult to make a living and find adequate housing. Instead, he took
a pastorate in Georgia, but returned to South Dakota within a year. Job
prospects had not changed, but his heart had. "We knew the whole time we really
belonged in Custer."
Because of his long tenure, Savery has become what Myron Grueneich,
strategic coordinator for the Dakota Baptist Convention, identifies as key in
rural North America. "Our successful church plants have taken the approach that
they are the church of the community, and the pastor is the pastor of the
community." As such, the pastor often gets involved in every aspect of
small-town living. For example, Savery conducts most of the funerals in town.
Such pastors are invited to pray at civic affairs. Often they serve on the
While First Baptist Custer is located in a small town with scarce resources,
there's nothing small about its ministry. "Our church is very involved in
giving." In addition to the Cooperative Program, it supports organizations like
Jews for Jesus and Teen Challenge.
The church also owns and operates Camp Volunteer, which hosts groups for
retreats in a scenic setting, four months out of the year. "Such a small church
doesn't have the resources to run a camp like that, but God is able." Volunteer
teams from Tennessee, Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Florida and
Colorado have helped over the past 10 years.
"That's one of the reasons there's so much joy in Southern Baptist
work-you're not trying to do it alone." NAMB offers resources and encourages
networking, according to Nerger, so the rural areas of the United States and
Canada will never become the places that Southern Baptists forgot. "We need to
get off the highways and go where the people live. That's the call of town and
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC