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God Wants to be Glorified in the Middle of Nowhere…Through You!

I called my grandmother’s town useless.

Not my finest moment, I know! I was preaching in a thriving city 1,500 miles away and made a joke at the expense of her small town. It’s a remote community called Ulysses, and changing the name to “useless” was a play on words that got a point across. Everyone laughed, but my little pun highlighted a big problem. I had developed a conviction that saw rural places as less important. And I’m not alone!

I grew up in a town that felt useless. Our most notable contribution came when we hosted the first night football game — in 1892. You’re welcome, Monday night football fans!

Along with many of my peers, I developed a childhood dream of getting out of my small town. We tend to associate the size of a town with its significance, and what kid dreams of living somewhere insignificant? By the time I reached my teenage years, I was determined to relocate to a fast-growing, crossroads community ASAP! As a young adult, I reasoned that a large, transient population would expand my capacity for growth and influence. It’s not a bad concept, and I trust God intends to use the city in a special way for the advancement of the gospel. But what does that mean for the middle of nowhere?

Rural America is Crumbling

I wonder what God thought about me calling my grandmother’s town useless. He probably didn’t chuckle with the rest of us. But as I look back, I can see His sense of humor at work. It wasn’t long after I cracked the joke that I wound up in the driver’s seat of an overstuffed UHaul with my GPS guiding me turn-by-turn back to small-town life!

A few weeks later, sitting behind my desk in an otherwise empty church, I felt as if I’d been put out to pasture. This felt nothing like the vibrant, busy life I enjoyed in the city. I was homesick for the city! But why did I feel this way?

Not only was I alone in the church, the whole region felt lonely! Unlike the fast-growing city I moved from, the population of this whole region was shrinking. Factories were closing. Kids were overdosing. Schools were consolidating. There was very little diversity, an expectation of uniformity, and a stoic vibe you might expect from people whose grandparents cleared the land with their bare hands. I sensed a mood that was part self-reliance and part desperation that made living in this small-town feel heavy. 

Photo credit: Garrett Heath

I’m not sure most people have an accurate view of small-town life. I blame the Hallmark Movie Channel! It’s pleasant to imagine rural places as a nostalgic journey over the river and through the woods to visit grandma, but her world no longer exists. Behind the facade, most rural communities are more heroin than Hallmark.

Sitting in my study, feeling homesick for the city, I completely missed the significance of rural places. God is very interested in the people who live there. He knows them by name and can tell you the number of hairs on their heads! But, more than that, God created the whole planet — even the places few ever go — for His glory! Small-towns play a big role in putting God’s glory on display. 

The Glory of God Through the Spread of Mankind

In Genesis 1:26-28, the author tells us something stunning about humans. They aren’t like any other part of creation! Man alone is made in God’s image. Meaning, when you look at another human, you see God’s likeness in them. And you’re not the only one looking! Angels and demons learn something about God through His human representatives. Think about that next time you look in the mirror!

But that’s not all.  God has entrusted mankind with the special responsibility of caring for the rest of Creation. God’s dominion over everything He has made gets exercised through His chosen instrument — people like us! Nothing shows off the glory of God like mankind.

So it makes sense that some of the first instructions God gave Adam were to be fruitful, multiply, fill the Earth, and subdue it. Eden wasn’t just about a couple of naked gardeners trying to resist the forbidden fruit. It was to be the epicenter for human flourishing!

Imagine how Adam and Eve must have felt when they considered their responsibility to fill the Earth. It must have seemed impossible! But, from the beginning, God declared His intention for a planet populated with people as a display of His glory. If the presence of a human magnifies the glory of God like nothing else, the spread of humanity is essential for the fulfillment of God’s plan. That’s why He issued the command for humans to tame the wild places and inhabit them.

In Genesis 6, we learn that mankind had indeed spread, but with tragic results. Instead of multiplying God’s glory, they filled the world with violence! This perversion of God’s plan prompted His decision to wipe the slate clean through a worldwide flood. He spared only a handful of people — Noah and his family.

What do you think were the first words God spoke to Noah when he got off the ark? I immediately picture a rainbow flannelgraph highlighting God’s promise never to flood the Earth again. But that’s not where God started. Instead, He reissued the command, be fruitful, multiply, and fill the Earth!

Just as the waters covered the Earth during the flood, God wanted His glory (made visible through man) to cover the Earth after the flood. The plan hadn’t changed! God still wanted the uninhabited places inhabited by His image-bearing, dominion-exercising representatives. So, He recommissioned them to flourish.

Photo credit: Garrett Heath

Mankind rejected God’s purpose again in Genesis 11 when a group of people first coined the phrase, “stop the spread.” They gathered on the Plain of Shinar, proclaimed their intent to make a name for themselves, and determined to stick to the city instead of scattering abroad. You’re probably familiar with the big, obnoxious tower they built to showcase the charade. 

But the tower wasn't the issue. The problem was that, with each course of bricks, these people were making a statement about whose glory they wanted on display.  They weren’t interested in spreading out over the face of the Earth to make a name for God. They believed they could centralize to make a name for themselves! So God confused the language, with the clearly stated purpose of forcing them to scatter according to His plan.

The Glory of God Through the Spread of the Church

In the New Testament, the command to spread continues. God sends His people out as His witnesses—to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth. His instructions, combined with tough circumstances like persecution, ensured the spread of Christianity from shore to shore.

In Ephesians 3, Paul explains that the church plays a previously undisclosed, but eternally planned, and unparalleled role in the spread of God’s glory. Through the church, the manifold wisdom of God is made visible far beyond the four walls of any assembly. In other words, a church’s testimony of God’s glory spreads through the community, across the region, and out of this world! Paul puts it this way, “10…through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord”

Follow my logic. God created all things for His glory. He gave man the unique responsibility of spreading His glory by acting as His representatives. He gave instructions for man to fill the Earth to ensure a world-wide scale demonstration of His glory. This happens only as mankind multiplies and fills the Earth. Yes, all of it. Even in places like Ulysses! 

But there’s a problem. Without God’s intervention mankind is only capable of covering the Earth with violence while trying to make a name for himself. But that won’t stop God! He has chosen to redeem a people who trust Christ by faith. He’s even given instructions for them to spread across the planet, assembling from town to town in local churches. As scattered Christians assemble for worship, their life together becomes a brighter display of God’s glory than anything else on the planet!

If you’ve seen a faithful church, you’ve seen a display of God’s glory that has no parallel. It makes a statement bigger than itself, speaking not only to the world around it, but to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. Since God declares His glory in such a potent and unique way, the spread of the church is vital!

The Glory of God in the Middle of Nowhere

How should a Biblical understanding of rural places change the way we value communities the world shrugs off as useless? God’s purpose for His glory in the middle of nowhere gives rural places significance! He wants to glorify Himself there, and he intends to do it through Christians gathering in churches all across the countryside.

That sounds great, but is it realistic to maintain churches in micro-municipalities? There is an overwhelming amount of evidence proving the challenges. Just look at all the empty church buildings dotting the rural landscape.

Wouldn’t it be more strategic to focus on larger populations, creating a ripple effect that eventually works its way into rural communities? Besides, rural people are used to driving to bigger places. Wouldn’t it be better stewardship for the church to pool its resources in a more populated place, allowing people to gather in a central location? That's good human logic, but does Scripture agree?

Scripture constantly reminds us that God’s strategy is not like ours! His ways are higher than our ways, and He isn’t satisfied with Christians centralizing in more populated communities. His plan is for the spread of the church – everywhere!

God’s objective has always been a planet that radiates His glory from every nook and cranny. Since the church is central to the spread of God’s glory, our convictions should lead to the practice of establishing healthy churches in as many places as possible until the whole Earth is filled!

The Bible does not link the size of a community with strategic significance. Otherwise, Jesus would have spent less time in the country. He didn’t consider small-towns useless. I shouldn’t have either. What about you? 

It’s easy to overlook the importance of rural places. Small populations are hard to prioritize when there are massive cities still unreached. Nostalgia tends to dilute a proper sense of urgency. And a highly decentralized population makes healthy ministry seem unsustainable.

Yet, if we agree that God’s purpose is to fill the Earth with His glory through the spread of the church, these obstacles must be overcome! If you live in the middle of nowhere, reconsider the great responsibility God has entrusted to you. He wants to glorify Himself there, and He’s chosen to do it through you! If you’re from a more populated place, consider how God might use your resources and prayer to help continue the spread of His glory through the advancement of the rural church. There are no useless places. How can you be useful for His glory today?

TJ spent his childhood dreaming of the day he could leave small-town Pennsylvania behind. After earning a degree in education (Cedarville University), he taught high school social studies and coached soccer, until an opportunity came to help plant a church in a growing Southwest Florida city. Several years later, with a growing family, TJ returned to his rural PA roots and promptly regretted the decision! Thankfully the Lord changed his heart, an experience that gave him a passion for the advancement of Christ's Kingdom in rural places. TJ has served as the senior pastor of Christ Church since 2012. He is a founding board member of The Brainerd Institute, a resource to equip men for rural ministry through pastoral residency, conferences, articles, and a podcast. TJ enjoys backpacking, photography, and prefers temperatures over 80 degrees. He is married to his high school sweetheart (Katie), and they have 4 children (Charlotte, Charity, Hudson, and Grant).