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Ghost Towns and Small Towns: Church Planting in a Boom-and-Bust World

Author's Note: This article is the second of two installments on rural and small-town church planting. It is a minimally reworked version of a piece that was previously published in June 2017 on Ed Stetzer's blog The Exchange, which was then hosted by Christianity Today. This piece has since disappeared from the internet. Republishing it here serves as a means of keeping this conversation alive and as a way of anticipating a 2025 Center for Rural Ministry affinity group focused on church planting and church revitalization.

About 20 minutes from where I live, one can find the unfortunately named town of Pithole. At least one could have found the town had one been looking between January 1865 and August 1868. During these years, Pithole exemplified the highs and lows of life in a boom-and-bust world.

A Boom Town Gone Bust

After the first successful oil well was discovered on the bank of Pithole Creek in January of 1865, people rushed to the area seeking their fortunes. Some sought oil; others hoped to separate men from their newly made money. As oil boomed, so did the population, which grew to 2,000 by July of 1865 and nearly 20,000 by that December. Within two years, the town counted 54 hotels (and almost ten-times that many prostitutes). By September of 1865, Pithole even had a three-story theater with seating for 1,100.1

By 1868, however, two devastating fires, failing oil reserves, and a local financial panic had triggered a mass exodus that left just over 200 residents in the once-vibrant town. Pithole’s borough charter was annulled in 1877 and the land that had originally been sold for $100,000 and made its investors millionaires was sold back to Venango County for $4.37. Today, Pithole remains a quintessential ghost town.

Pithole in 1865, Wikimedia Commons

A Wider Phenomenon

Pithole is an example of the boom and bust realities that so often mark small and large places alike in our country’s rural and Rust Belt regions. Where I live, the boom was oil. In other places, the boom was cars, steel, or (insert your local manufacturing plant here). You get my point. All across the Rust Belt and much of rural America, work dried up or shipped out, sometimes down South, sometimes overseas.

Over time, most larger cities were able to reinvent themselves. Places like Pittsburgh found ways to claim the best of their blue-collar heritage while still managing to find their place in the emerging information economy.

The Impact of Boom or Bust on Small Towns

Small towns navigate this boom-and-bust, post-industrial world with much more difficulty. Some small towns with exceptional foresight or fortuitous connections to natural beauty, government contracts, or the institutions that still prove lucrative in our economy, survive and even thrive. Most small places, however, are not so fortunate. In these towns, the allure of the boom remains strong, but the bust has been long. Whether it is the hope of attracting a new manufacturing plant or dreams of Marcellus Shale being found under one’s feet, small towns are often left in the lurch as dreams fade.

For many rural villages and small towns, these realities are all too familiar. While we may not have many literal ghost towns, we do have towns where long-term economic decline, population loss, and brain drain exert a deep and lasting influence on local culture and lay the groundwork for things like substance abuse, depression, and self-defeating attempts to tap into an economic boom through lottery tickets, sports or online gambling, or long-shot ambitions of hitting it big in sports or music.

Sustainable Small-Town Church Planting

What does all of this mean for small town and rural church planters? Quite a lot, actually.

In the last five years, major church-planting voices and networks have (finally!) begun to consider the plight of the rural poor and the Church’s near complete failure to launch any kind of sustained church-planting efforts that take small-town and rural America seriously. For better or worse, we have a the 2016 presidential election to thank for this new awareness of rural matters. It was an election that catered perfectly to the high-hype, boomtime dream that so many in America’s forgotten places feel has eluded them. I’m not a political scientist, and I won’t speculate on if or when this current political boom will bust.

Pithole today, Wikimedia Commons

What I do know is that small-town church planting must avoid capitulating to a boom-time mentality. While people—especially young people, many of whom still live in rural areas and small towns—may long for a church plant to fulfill their Internet and mega-ministry fueled boom-time expectations with better worship bands, hipper pastors, and cooler ministries than the tall-steeple churches that dot their town’s corners, rural church planters can’t afford to simply ride a wave of relevance or boomtime ‘cool factor’ in smaller places.

In a culture like ours, these approaches can be incredibly enticing. In many small places, it does not take a lot to become the hip new church in town. The competition is simply not that steep. As church planters, however, we accept a boom-time mindset--where relationships take back seek to our own ambitions or seemingly neutral terms like ‘production values’--to our own peril and the peril of our congregations and communities. Although it might seem as if people in our towns want a hyped, mega-ministry approach, these efforts are frequently unsustainable at best. More often they end up being deeply disappointing or even harmful to the spiritual and mental health of those involved.

Small-town and rural church planting means representing God and His community in places that have often been burned by short booms and long busts. The history and current reality of many of these places call us as church planters, ministers, and Christians to preach and live a different hope—one that prioritizes relationships over hype, marketing, and quick fixes.

The hope our congregations and communities need is a hope founded on the long-term faithfulness of God, not another too-good-to-be-true scheme. For those from places all too familiar with the consequences of boom-and-bust realities, faithfulness over the long haul is both difficult and priceless.

  1. William C. Darrah provides a detailed account of the rise and fall of pithole. See, William C. Durrah, Pithole:The Vanished City (Chicora, PA: Mechling Bookbindery, 2006), 48, 77, 138, 146, 206-207. ↩︎

Charles E. Cotherman is Executive director of the Center for Rural Ministry and an assistant professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written on rural ministry, church planting, and history for a variety of publications including Evangelicals, Radix, Modern Reformation, and Plough. He is the author of To Think Christianly (IVP Academic) and a contributing editor of Sent to Flourish: Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches (IVP Academic). He lives with his wife, four children, and a spoiled cat and dog in Oil City, Pennsylvania.