So Much For The City: Rediscovering a Vision for Small-Town Church Planting

So Much For The City: Rediscovering a Vision for Small-Town Church Planting

One of the albums that made up the soundtrack to my late-teens was the debut record from The Thrills, a Dublin-based rock band who peaked around 2004. Titled So Much for the City, it was a homage to small-town America with more than just a hint of The Beach Boys thrown in. One moment they were pining for the bright lights of the city, the next they were finding it had lost its charm and were longing for home.

Dreaming of the City?

There’s no doubt about it: the emergence of church-planting in the last couple of decades in the Western Church has been really exciting. As an undergrad thinking about ministry back in the ‘noughties’, it felt like planting was the epitome of ministry aspiration. Voices from across the pond were undoubtedly a significant part of this: Mark Driscoll was telling us (with rather colourful language) about how Mars Hill had grown out of his living room into a multi-campus church in Seattle. People were starting to notice how years of head-down ministry and thinking from Tim Keller on planting in secular places was bearing fruit. Here in the UK, the London set had their wheels in motion: St Helen’s, HTB and Co-Mission have been courageously relentless in pursuing new planting opportunities, be they ‘grafts’ into existing (but perhaps struggling) churches or fresh start-ups. New student-focused churches were being initiated in university cities and towns across the nation, especially where it was felt there was a lack of existing gospel ministry.

But in pretty much of all of this – or certainly in the way much of this was portrayed, there was a common planting loci: the city.

Hoping to plant a church? Chances are you were dreaming of the city.

And despite the growth and maturity of countless church plant movements and initiatives, some would argue that the ‘citification’ of church-planting hasn’t changed much since then.

Got Nothing Against a Big Town…

Donnie Griggs is out to change that. In his little primer for small-town planting, aptly titled Small Town Jesus, he takes his cue from John Mellencamp’s 1985 hit, ‘Small Town’:

Got nothing against a big town / But my bed is in a small town / Oh, and that’s good enough for me…

Cities are great. We need the gospel planted in our cities.

But perhaps too often we’re focused on the city, and no one else gets a look in.

Just think about the language we use: we talk about redeeming our cities and renewing our cities. We say cities are strategic because, after all, the world comes to our cities. And cities (and large towns) are where the students go, so that’s where we need to plant. And anyway, doesn’t the Bible’s story end with a city?

Small towns, on the other hand?

Well, they somehow don’t grab the imagination in quite the same way.

The Assumption of the Trickle-Down Gospel

And perhaps sometimes going hand-in-hand with this emphasis on the city has been the assumption that if you reach the cities, you’re reaching the nation. Griggs refers to this belief as borrowing from ‘Trickle Down Economic Theory’.

We believe the gospel will trickle down from the city to the small towns and rural villages. But does the gospel really float down-stream quite so efficiently? Are cities quite so porous, in that sense? Speaking about the UK context, Tim Chester has offered a similar warning:

“It’s often said that we should focus our attention on cities because cities are centres of influence. The idea is that the gospel will then spread out to surrounding rural areas. And there maybe something in that.

But we need to realise that the movement of the gospel to rural areas will not happen by accident. We need to be intentional. We need to plant churches in rural areas. In much of the area where I live people would have to drive at least half an hour to an evangelical church. Unbelievers are not going to do that! We need to take the gospel to them.

And that means scattering areas like the Peak District and North Yorkshire with gospel communities. Our vision has got to be churches planted in market towns, supporting gospel communities in village after village.”

In Griggs’ analysis he counts small towns as those under 25,000. According to the 2011 census, there were 7,339 towns or cities in England, and only 411 of them had more than 25,000 inhabitants. That means to focus exclusively on cities (and large towns) and to assume that the gospel will float downstream will mean over 6,928 small towns are likely to fall off our radar.

To be fair, much is being done to de-mystify the aura of church-planting as being all about the city. There’s the pastiche of planters wearing skinny jeans, using on trend fonts and doing their sermon prep over flat whites in coffee bars, and inevitably it’s an image that is tied-up with city living.

Of course, many pastor/planters in cities would be quick to point out that the reality on the ground is nothing like that. Cities bring with them unique problems and unique and ugly under-bellies. At the moment I’m going to Manchester once a month to meet with other planters and each time I come out of the station I’m reminded me of the sheer scale and breadth of gospel need in cities.

But there does seem to be this latent assumption that church-planting is something you do in the city. The obvious problem with this is that people are less likely to consider moving and planting in the small towns. That’s simply not where planting happens. After all, how can you plant where there’s no constant influx of twenty-somethings to bring on board, or where there’s no Starbucks in sight? But there’s another inherent danger too.

The Danger of ‘Copy & Paste’ City-Planting into Small Towns

The city focus is also problematic for those of us actually in the small towns, because we start to assume that the way to do ministry and plant churches is by modelling ourselves on planting in the city. If that’s all I can see in the projected culture of planting, then I’m going to assume my job is just to reproduce it in the small town. To use Griggs’ phrase, it’s copy and paste ministry. And that’s going to leave me disheartened and envious when I find that my small town isn’t particularly taking a fancy to the version of flat-packed city church I’m attempting to construct.

Here Griggs uses the example of Tim Keller. All around the world he sees people trying to imitate the ministry of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City. But the ministry at RPC has been shaped by the culture of the context. Keller has “done the hard work of serving, learning, and earning the right to be heard within his cultural context.” The fruit of his contextualisation is the particular ministry & mission RPC. But what we mistakenly do is imitate the fruit, copying and pasting that shape of mission & ministry into our own contexts. We forget that what we should be imitating is the process of contextualisation, rather than the particular contextual NYC fruit. Of course, we probably follow that route because it avoids the hard work of understanding our context too.

Contextualisation can be a bit of a swear word, and, to be sure, there’s a danger of over-complicating it. But equally we don’t need to make it into a ‘baddie’ that is out to get the gospel. Griggs puts it simply when he says:

“Culture is the context that we will plant the seed of the gospel into.”

Know Your Soil

The simple point with small towns is that their culture is a different context to that of the city. (Of course, we equally shouldn’t assume that ‘city culture’ is one clear-cut homogeneous package either.) But the point is that small towns will be different again. Griggs asks:

Do you know what makes your small town tick. What is it that everyone loves? What do people rally around? What do they celebrate? What do they mourn? What fuels your economy?

Interestingly, in the same year (2016) that Griggs’ brought out Small Town Jesus, a pastor called Aaron Morrow authored a book called Small Town Mission. Morrow is located in Iowa, some 1,100 miles from Griggs’ base in coastal North Carolina, but as we might say in England, it seems that books on small town ministry are a bit like buses, right?! Morrow’s book has some really useful practical suggestions and is formatted as more of a workbook for a small group or group of friends to work through.

Of course, there’s no substitute for just being present in a place – the nuts and bolts of observing life and culture and talking with people and hearing their stories, as well as their hopes and dreams. But as I read Griggs and Morrow I find they help me make sense of the cultural and religious realities I see around me – as well as providing lots of wisdom for serving the work of the gospel in such places. At 70,000 people, Barrow wouldn’t be filed under Griggs’ < 25k definition of a small-town, but it’s geographical isolation and wider rural Cumbrian context mean that lots of his reflections apply.

This post has been slow-cooking away for a while, but what made me come back to it was hearing that Donnie Griggs is running his first UK-based Small Town Jesus conference – and on the Wirral of all places – my home! Maybe in due course I’ll share some of the specifics of what I’m learning here, although this may not be the best forum. For now I’d commend STJ & STM, and leave you with the jangly joy of The Thrills performing Big Sur: