This article is adapted from Aaron Morrow’s Small Town Mission: A Guide for Mission-Driven Communities. Get your copy today!
I grew up on a farm.
Tractors, cattle, crops, big machinery, freezing cold winters, too many cats, and a marathon bus ride to school every morning. That’s right, I grew up on a farm. And that farm was next to a small town that my family and I called home. I’ve lived in small towns for most of my life, even after I moved away from the herd of cats. The small towns I’ve lived in may not be as cool as Austin or have the trendy conveniences of Seattle, but small towns will always be a part of who I am. If you live in a small town, you might know what I mean.
According to the US census, just over half of our population lives in towns, boroughs, villages, and townships with fewer than 25,000 people or in rural areas. Meanwhile, thousands of Christian books are published every year and hundreds of these are about mission and reaching people for Christ. Many of them have insightful and helpful ideas about mission that can be applied anywhere, but many of their ideas don’t seem to work in small towns. We should be thankful for resources like these, but we also need resources written specifically for mission in small towns.
A friend at my church has said that books about reaching people in closed countries in the 10/40 window relate best to mission in small towns because residents often have hardened religious mindsets and impenetrable circuits of relationships. My friend is probably exaggerating the comparison, but I understand what he’s saying because mission in small towns can be incredibly difficult and complicated.
KEEPING THE END IN MIND
Mission is not the ultimate goal of our lives. Pastor John Piper writes,
Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.
We are designed to be worshippers of Jesus who find our identity in him. Imagine if you found your identity in being on mission and successfully winning people to Christ. If that’s you, eternity will jolt you because there are no unbelievers in heaven. Let’s keep the perspective that being on mission is a temporary necessity. From now through eternity, Jesus should be the focus and goal of everything we do, including being on mission to reach people with the gospel. While mission isn’t the ultimate goal of our lives, worshippers of Jesus are on mission because it’s the indisputable by-product of worshiping him. My hope and prayer is that many people in your town will turn to Jesus and worship him with you.
Small towns are in desperate need of missionaries. When I say missionaries, I’m not referring to the pastor of your church or people who suffer for Jesus by building huts and preaching to native islanders. No, I’m referring to regular people. Small towns desperately need normal, everyday people like farmers, factory workers, teachers, secretaries, and small business owners who think and act like missionaries to reach their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and extended families for Christ. Pastors in small towns should be deeply respected for their incredible hearts to advance the gospel. However, the responsibility of mission is given to all believers, not just pastors. If you are a Christian, you are sent to be on mission regardless of where you live or what your job is.
Almost every resource about mission is based on a certain way of doing ministry. Some resources seem to take a self-righteous tone by telling us and our church how to do ministry in our town. That’s not my goal. We’ve all read books or articles like that and found them a bit off-putting. My goal is to help you better understand principles of mission in small towns instead of offering a rigid prescription for you and your church. In the matter of mission in your town, remember to follow the lead of your church’s leaders because Scripture is clear that they are the ones you must submit to (Hebrews 13:17). My hope is to come alongside your church, not to replace the authority of your church’s leaders.
One of my least favorite jobs on the farm was building fence. My dad always said he felt great satisfaction after making a well-built fence. I have no idea what he was talking about. If you’ve never built a wire fence, it’s actually much harder than it seems. But I did manage to learn that an important part of successfully building a wire fence is to have a series of anchor posts that will support the rolls of wire. Similarly, our study of mission in small towns requires a few unique anchor posts to support it.
– Anchor Post #1: Gospel-Centered
The gospel is the good news of God’s grace invading the darkness of this world. It is the grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation ordained by God and orchestrated through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Christ’s crucifixion is the heart of the gospel. His resurrection is the power of the gospel. His ascension is the glory of the gospel.
But what does it mean to be gospel-centered? When people talk about it, they’re often saying it in one of two ways. First, people use it as a lens to view all of our spiritual growth as dependent on the gospel. At the end of the day, all spiritual growth happens in the midst of our ongoing struggle with sin and our ongoing need for grace through Christ to invade the darkness of our hearts. Dane Ortland says,
This is why Paul constantly reminds people—reminds Christian people—of the Gospel (Romans 1:16–17; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 15:3–4; Galatians 1:6). We move forward in discipleship not mainly through pep talks and stern warnings. We move forward when we hear afresh the strangeness of grace, relaxing our hearts and loosening our clenched hold on a litany of lesser things—financial security, the perfect spouse, career advancement, sexual pleasure, human approval, and so on.
Second, people use it to refer to how the gospel shapes our outlook on everything in life and ministry. This would include how we understand politics, social action, ethics in the workplace and elsewhere in the public sphere, being on mission in a small town, and countless other related examples. In this sense, the gospel is actively forming how we look at and understand everything in our lives and the world around us.
Being on mission to reach non-Christians is obviously important because hell is hot and forever is a long time. But more importantly, we must be on mission in a gospel-centered way if we want mission to be healthy and sustainable. Growing in a gospel-centered way gives our mission authenticity and frees us from the burden of “do better and try harder.” Mission in light of the gospel is intrinsically found in God’s nature; knowing this helps us see mission as something to be naturally integrated into our lives as followers of Christ, as opposed to just another thing to add to our already busy schedule.
– Anchor Post #2: The Local Church
If we aren’t committed to a local church, that’s a big problem. It’s impossible to reconcile mission apart from the local church because the New Testament constantly emphasizes mission in the context of the local church, not makeshift spiritual gatherings. If we want to be aligned with the New Testament, we can’t be on mission to our friends, neighbors, and co-workers without also aiming to prioritize the flourishing of our local church. And even though some local churches are more challenging than others to be invested in, the Holy Spirit can empower us to be patient and loving to any group of people, just as he is with us! In the end, the gospel needs to form how we think and feel about the local church.
Furthermore, I embrace a missionary understanding of the local church. This doesn’t mean that mission is the only thing that a church does, but it does mean that mission must be prioritized. That’s because mission is an essential element of a local church’s identity as an outworking of the gospel.
– Anchor Post #3: Equipping People
Churches that are committed to seeing their people as missionaries should also be committed to equipping their people for being on mission. Equipping means discipling and training people to think and act like missionaries and sending them on mission in their spheres of influence (i.e., where they live, where they work, where they play, what their kids are involved in, etc). In Ephesians 4:11–12, the Apostle Paul says,
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.
Pastor J. D. Greear has said that, in light of Ephesians 4:11–12, the day he became a pastor was the day he left the ministry because God gave pastors to the church to equip people for the work of ministry.
Greear is obviously overstating his point for effect, but I generally agree with what’s he’s saying.
The discipling and training process for sending people on mission is crucial for a church that wants to be on mission. It’s also worth noting that most churches who are committed to this process aren’t overly committed to getting non-Christians to attend the church’s programs and facilities. Granted, getting non-Christians to attend a church’s programs and facilities can be good and helpful, especially in small towns that are filled with non-Christians who have a more traditional mindset about how churches function. However, if this strategy isn’t accompanied by a primary strategy of discipling, training, and sending, the church will probably and eventually be filled with people who expect pastors and programs to do the work of mission for them.
– Anchor Post #4: Mission in Community
Ministry is meant to happen in the context of relationships because all of us, whether we realize it or not, have a deep need and desire to know and be known by others. We have been made in the image of God, who has eternally existed in community as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are designed to be in relationship and community with others. This is why we should do mission in the context of relationships and biblical community as much as possible.
Making disciples who are on mission together is (or should be!) one of the priorities of the local church. That’s why you should go through Small Town Mission with someone whom you want to be on mission with. This might include Christian neighbors, co-workers, members of your small group, or anyone you meet regularly with for discipleship. If you’re married you might consider going through it with your spouse, because married couples who follow Jesus are on a permanent mission trip together. Even if you’ve been married for thirty years or more, don’t underestimate what the Holy Spirit can do when it comes to aligning both your hearts and minds for the sake of mission.
After all, mission isn’t just something that must be prioritized globally and in big cities; it must also be prioritized locally and in small towns.
Aaron Morrow (M.A. Moody Bible Institute) is one of the pastors of River City Church in Dubuque, Iowa, which was planted in 2016. He and his wife Becky have three daughters named Leah, Maggie, and Gracie.