Featured Image

Go Big or Go Home: Reimagining Rural Church Planting

Author's Note: This article is the first of two installments on rural and small-town church planting. It is a minimally reworked version of a piece that was previously published in May 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 pastor affinity group focused on church planting and church revitalization.

We’ve all heard it: “Go big or go home.” It’s the phrase we used in high school after we succeeded in eating 66 chicken wings—one hugely important wing more than our best friend. It’s the phrase we used in college to commemorate basically any achievement from a victory in intramural sports to a surprisingly good grade.

It’s the phrase we told ourselves, and maybe a close group of friends, right before we asked the girl of our dreams out on a date. In 2015, the band American Authors capitalized on the cultural ubiquity of the phrase in a catchy song titled…wait for it…”Go Big or Go Home.”

The Places We Call Home

For many young people in rural areas, this phrase also sums up what feels like a virtually indisputable certainty in life. Today, if you happen to have been born and raised away from the fast-growing urban and suburban centers of our country, there is a pervasive sense that to make it big you have to go somewhere else. If you’re content with smallness (small dreams, a small checking-account, small opportunities, etc.), however, you can choose to stay or choose to return home after spending a few years away at college.

I know the power of this line of thinking because I grew up in a rural area on the edge of the rust belt. For decades this part of the country has been a region in which many who can get out do get out, where one grows up hearing adults talk about how few jobs and opportunities exist locally. For people growing up in places like this, there is a sense that a successful future requires a move to the city--or perhaps at least the Sunbelt. The sense is that young people growing up in small towns and rural areas have a choice: they can either go big or go home.

For too long, evangelical church planting agencies, conferences, and well-known church planters have contributed to this mindset by overlooking the need for rural church planting.[1] I grew up in an evangelical milieu, where church planting was probably the coolest church thing I knew of. It felt like all my favorite pastors were successful church planters, not denominationally appointed ministers.  

When I thought and prayed about my future, the idea of church planting always came up. I knew of town close to where I grew up that seemed desperate for a new church plant. But where were the models of inspiring rural and small-town church planters?

Holy Discontent Sets In

It was during the three years (2009-2012) my wife and I commuted from our rural town to an urban seminary nearly two hours away that the absence of any significant or sustained efforts to plant churches in rural areas really hit me. None of the church planting models I saw during my seminary years—whether at school, on television, the internet, or in popular Christian literature—seemed to care much at all for the rural and small-town folks who peopled my childhood memories and made up the vast majority of my friends and relatives.

Church planting was exciting, but it seemed to be the domain of urban and suburban hipsters.

As time went by, and I transitioned from seminary to a Ph.D. program in Religious Studies, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, as important as urban and suburban church planting were, there had to be more to the picture. If millions of Americans still lived in rural areas, surely God cared about them too.

I began to sense that God was doing something with my growing sense of resolve to pursue church planting in the rural areas that seemed to be overlooked or forgotten by large church-planting agencies. I felt called. I had a sense of holy discontent.

I also felt very alone.

Finding Friends for the Journey

Eventually, I came to find, like the prophet Elijah, that I wasn’t as alone as I thought. Even before the 2016 presidential election--when the country seemed to wake up to the reality that rural America still existed—there were a few brave and blessed souls who also saw the need presented by rural America and were working to plant churches in these areas. I just had to find them.

The more I looked, the more I found folks across the theological spectrum who cared about small places and small churches. One of my earliest conversations was with Joel Seymour, who was then leading the Vineyard USA’s Small Town USA initiative. In talks with Joel and others who cared about small-town church planting, I started to find folks who spoke a shared language. I had previously read Francis Schaeffer’s sermon “No Little People, No Little Places,” and had been moved about God’s concern for small places. Now I realized that I had found a group (and a few good friends) who felt the same way.

Leaving the City to Plant a Small-Town Church

In July of 2016 my wife and I and our three kids (ages 4, 2, and 6 months at the time) moved from a bustling university town to the rural corner of western Pennsylvania that my wife and I had always called home and planted a church. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) big, at least in comparison to the large suburban and urban churches that tower over the landscape of American evangelicalism, but it is what God has called us to. Not everything about the move was easy, but from the first months till today we have witnessed God’s faithfulness over and over again.

A Sunday morning gathering in October 2016 at Oil City Vineyard Church in Oil City, PA.

What about You and Your Home Town?

I know that there are small communities like ours scattered throughout the United States, communities that could really use a healthy church plant. I also know that there are many young people who have grown up in these communities who have accepted the false dichotomy that they can either go big or go home.

I am convinced that God is calling enough church planters to meet the needs of rural areas. Whether or not they are listening remains to be seen. My hope is that a growing number of them might hear and respond to God’s still small voice as he calls the to look back toward home, even if home is a small, seemingly forgotten place. The church planting world is ready for a generation of young planters who can act in faith and humble confidence on the fact that in God's eyes one never has to choose between going big or going home. In terms of kingdom significance, there are truly no small people and no small places.

[1] Fortunately, this longstanding situation has improved in the years since this article was first published. Those interested in rural and small-town church planting now have far greater access to models and materials than those who sought them prior to 2017.

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.