Many pastors serving in rural contexts find themselves serving congregations with deep roots. These small town and country churches have history, traditions, and sometimes carry baggage with them. As generations change, pews that once were full of Sunday-morning regulars are looking more and more sparse, and the work of the rural pastor is often a work of revitalization.
For pastors Dan Reed and Eric Phillips, however, the call to rural ministry is a call to planting something new. Instead of reviving ministries that already have roots in a community, Dan and Eric come to their small Pennsylvanian places with seedlings. Both in the second year of rural church-planting, these pastors know as well as anyone that it can be gritty, difficult work – but neither are afraid to roll up their sleeves and dig in.
Harvest Mill Church (Brookville, PA)
Pastor Dan Reed’s call to plant brings him to Harvest Mill Church in Brookville, PA, a small town right off Interstate 80. Both Dan and his wife Heidi grew up in small western PA towns, so when the Lord called them to church planting in 2021, they came in with a love for the people of communities like Brookville. Like every small town, Brookville has a unique character of its own. One example of this is Scripture Rocks Heritage Park, a wooded area where a man lived by himself in the early 1900’s and carved Bible verses into large rocks. The Reeds enjoy taking walks with their four daughters in this park.
Harvest Mill Church began meeting in an old flour mill turned office space in the fall of 2021. By the spring of 2022, the Sunday morning crowd of about 35 had outgrown the mill space, and in September of last year, they moved to meeting in the local high school cafeteria where they continue to meet for worship. In terms of receptivity to the new church, Dan notes that most people in the community are indifferent - something he did not expect as a first time church-planter.
Yet, Harvest Mill continues to persevere in creating a presence in the community by looking for outreach opportunities. At the community’s main summer event, the Laurel Festival, they passed out free snow cones. They also put on their own events, like “Moms vs. Sons,” which is a fun night of competitive games for boys in grades K-6 and their moms. Held at the local YMCA, it was such a big hit the first year that the church was asked to make it an annual event.
As Harvest Mill continues to grow and have a presence in Brookville, Dan says that they “feel a need for more people who share their vision for missional disciple-making and would be willing to share the load of leadership.” Harvest Mill is praying as a church for five more “everyday missionaries” to join their community over the next year.
Redeemer Anglican (Franklin, PA)
Meanwhile, in Franklin, PA, Pastor Eric Phillips finds himself in the second year of church planting at Redeemer Anglican Church. Redeemer began with three families from the planting parish of Grace Anglican Church (Grove City, PA). A year and a half into holding public worship in Franklin, Sunday morning attendance now averages around 30 people.
Franklin, once a booming oil town, now holds lots of opportunities for Gospel ministry. Though there are plenty of churches in the area, nearly 70% of the population remains unconnected to a faith community – less than the national average. The heart behind Redeemer is thus creating what Eric describes as a “stable outpost for the Gospel” in Franklin - a place where the Gospel is central and people find true Christian community.
A great encouragement to Eric in this work is taking on what he calls a “parish-minded approach to ministry,” a mentality he draws from the Anglican tradition. Traditionally, local congregations were termed “parishes.” A parish was not just the church in a given town, but rather referred to a small geographical region where a presbyter or priest was called to minister.
Eric applies this concept to his ministry in Franklin: “I’m called to be a priest to all in our parish regardless of whether they ever attend Redeemer Anglican…Ultimately, my orders are to be a minister of the Gospel within this community and be a priest to all I come across, not just those who show up on Sunday.” Because of this mentality, Eric tries to spend a majority of his time during the week in the local community: working at the coffee shop, talking to local shop owners, and walking the streets.
As a church, Redeemer also embodies this parish-minded approach to outreach. In the summer, they host monthly outdoor services in the town park, letting the community witness their worship and join in. They’ve also participated in local events and festivals that are already going on. When Redeemer has held their own events, they like to do them as “community events held outside the church walls,” such as hosting a traditional English Lessons and Carols event in the local coffee shop during Advent. As even small towns begin to look more like metropolitan areas due to things like digital networking, Redeemer is committed to keeping the church local and embodied.
Challenges of Small-Town Church Planting
Despite the charm of small towns and the reputation that rural areas have for being more religious, church planting in rural contexts can be grueling at times. “Most of the challenges we have faced were expected,” says Pastor Eric, “but I did not expect how challenging they would be.” Though planting in different communities and even different church traditions, Pastors Dan and Eric identified three of the same major challenges that come with rural church planting.
1). Trust is hard to build. When asked about the challenges that come with rural church planting, the first thing that both Dan and Eric mentioned is the challenge of being perceived as an outsider by a community where most people know each other. Building trust is essential for church planting in all contexts, but in rural places and small towns, it can be “a longer and more difficult road,” says Pastor Dan.
2). Growth is slow going. In small areas, the numbers are just smaller. While this can be disheartening, Pastor Dan encourages faithfulness and endurance: “We need to remind ourselves that God has people in our towns that he wants to save, and he wants to use our church plants to bring them His message. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1 person, 10 people, or 100 people - what matters is that we are faithful to love and disciple the people that God brings our way.”
3). Discipleship can be another challenge in small-town contexts. Both Pastor Dan and Pastor Eric see the task at hand as something that must go much deeper than simply getting people in the pews. “Small towns are full of people who are very ‘churched,’ but not ‘discipled,’” says Pastor Dan. He goes on insightfully:
"If the scorecard is how many people are in a pew on a Sunday, or even how many people have at one time in their life made a profession of faith, then rural America is doing well. But if we use the scorecard Jesus laid out for us and ask how many people in our small towns are being taught to observe all that he commanded (Matthew 28:20) and being brought to maturity in Christ (Colossians 1:28), then rural America is closer to an unreached people group than it is to seeing gospel saturation."
Or, as Pastor Eric puts it, “Most have a basic knowledge of Christian teaching, but little understanding of the Gospel and do not recognize our deep need for grace-infused physical community.”
The challenge of the rural community is not simply to be introduced to the institution of the church or even brought inside its walls, but rather to be penetrated by the life-changing power of the Gospel. This is a daunting task, one that no man can even attempt without the work of a mighty God.
Through the challenges of rural church planting, both of these faithful church planters share two sustaining passions: a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a passion for the people of small, local communities. They know that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few; in faith, they are choosing to put down new roots.
Evalyn is a PRM writing intern and rising senior who is studying English and pursuing teaching opportunities in classical Christian education. She lives in and loves rural Western Pennsylvania