My great grandfather started churches in small towns in the early 20th century. He had a third grade education and somehow managed to pull off one semester of bible college on top of that. He was found out by the school and consequently kicked out of college, but not before being exhorted to pursue great things for God in spite of his educational deficiency. “He couldn’t spell ‘CAT,’ but my oh my could he preach, play, and sing,” my great aunt told me.
He planted churches in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. When I have inquired about how many churches he started, no one seems to know how many…but it was a lot of them. Ova Gabehart would settle into a town, find work, preach the gospel, and erect a building. Often, the buildings they built were also used for the community or for schools. He developed leaders in those churches, ordained men, and moved somewhere else to repeat the process.
Nearly a century later, I planted a church in Milton, West Virginia. New Heights Church was established in 2012 in a town of around 3,000 people. I can remember being assessed as a church planter and being asked, “Why Milton?” I panicked. I feared that Milton’s population wasn’t substantial enough or that the town wasn’t strategic enough. What I’ve learned is that all of earth is strategic enough. Wherever there are image bearers of God, there exists the need for missionaries.
I firmly believe that we should long for a global impact from regional work, beginning in a singular place.
Let’s begin by what ought to be assumed. If God has the whole world in His hands, then we should have the whole world in our hearts. We ought to care deeply about all nations and all people. John Stott said, “We must be global Christians with a global vision because our God is a global God.” In the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20), Jesus really does mean that we should make disciples of all nations. In the Jerusalem mandate (Acts 1:8), Jesus actually wants us to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. We have to take this seriously.
Is there anyone on the planet unworthy or invaluable enough to withhold the gospel from? Of course not. All should hear of the good news that Jesus died as an atonement and rose victoriously. To that end, our local churches should have international partnerships. The first century church had international partnerships, without the aid of Skype, online money transfers, and airplanes. If they could facilitate international partnerships without modern amenities, then we have absolutely no excuse to not reach around the world with the message entrusted to us.
Particularly for churches like ours (in small towns), it is a good thing to adopt a regional vision. When I say regional, I don’t necessarily mean that every local church should attempt to reach a geographical region that spans hundreds of miles. What I do mean is that we ought to reach as far out as we can offer consistent and quality ministry.
I hate fitted sheets. I’m a tall guy with long arms so sometimes it feels like what I’m used for most often at home is changing light bulbs and putting fitted sheets on beds. You can’t fold a fitted sheet. It’s not made for a drawer; it’s made for a bed. In the same way you stretch a sheet, we ought to stretch the gospel. You may lay in the middle of the bed, but the sheet extends to the extremities. So while it is good to have a focal point of ministry, it is not good to let that be the only focus of ministry.
The priority of one thing does not mean the outright neglect of another. To have a focal point of ministry can (and should) mean that we are still able to stretch the gospel wide. Epaphras was one of the pastors at the church at Colosse. That was his primary context. But we also see a passion that he had for a region. Colossians 4:12-13 says, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.”
There were three main cities in the Lycus River Valley: Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colosse. Of the three, Laodicea was the thriving metropolis, with a growing economy and a large population. Church planting strategists would surely select that city as the place most strategic for a new church. But Epaphras started a regional gospel movement from Colosse: a podunk town in decline. In fact, the fact that jobs had left Colosse for Laodicea may have made the people in Colosse more desperate for a message of hope. Folks in small towns are often primed for the gospel already. Taking advantage of this, Epaphras impacted a large region with multiple large cities by starting small in a podunk town.
This is my prayer for small towns across America: that places like Milton, WV would be the nesting grounds for revival. I long to see churches planted in small towns that send missionaries, ideas, and gospel renewal into cities. To see this happen, we have to start somewhere. And the best place to start is a small, singular place.
Have you ever had so much work to do that the overwhelming nature of it paralyzed you? That’s how I felt in 2011 as I surveyed the mountain state, praying about how to make an impact. The need seemed insurmountable, and the gospel waves I was praying for felt like they would in reality only be ripples from pebbles dropped in an ocean. The best place to start was where I was, with what I knew. I grew up in a town of less than a thousand people. I planted our church in a place where I could reach people I grew up with. I avoided the big cities, understanding that God saw fit for me to be raised around pickup trucks and fishing poles, rather than taxi cabs and lattes. So why fight that? I decided to stick with what I knew and plant small.
Small becomes big when God adds the increase. Fast forward 5 years and we now have three campuses and have seen hundreds of people turn away from sin and toward our savior. And there’s no indication of slowing down or shrinking anytime soon.
The key to having a big impact in a small place is having a strategy of one person at a time. You’re not called to a place as much as you’re called to people. My town’s motto is, “Where Living Is A Pleasure.” Says it right on the sign when you drive into town. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but God’s mission for my church is not to make Milton a more pleasurable place to live. The mission is to make disciples as God turns wretched sinners into saints. And that happens one person at a time, not one place at a time.
I’ve heard so many pastors and church planters talk about blessing their cities and making their cities better. That’s fantastic, but it’s idolatry if we’re not reaching people primarily. The way to make a city better is to make people better through the gospel. When Paul was in Corinth, Jesus told him, “…for I have many in this city who are my people.” (Acts 18:10) Jesus wasn’t in it to see Corinth win the coolest small town award. Jesus had people in that city who belonged to Him.
The moral of the story is this: when we focus on the small stuff, God makes it big. When we disciple one person at a time, God brings revival. When the task seems too daunting, we buckle down in a small town…because God will be faithful to bring glory to His name, even in places off the map.