Growing up in the mountains of northeast Alabama, I was never really aware that I was from a small town. Sure, I knew Birmingham and Huntsville had more people than my hometown of Boaz, but I never thought I was any different because I was from a rural community. I also wasn’t aware that I attended a small church.
Oak Hill Baptist Church was a little country church outside the metropolis of Horton, AL – insert sarcastic laughs here. The population in Horton is less than the average number of shoppers in a Walmart Supercenter at midnight. The auditorium sat maybe seventy-five with every inch of every pew taken. There was no sound system or lighting, no overheads or projectors for song lyrics. We had three different hymnals. Our song leader had to make sure to announce the hymn number and what color hymnal! There were no youth or children’s programs. Crying babies and disruptive kids were the norm. I didn’t even realize noisy babies were an issue until we moved to Missouri and all the children in our new church were sent to their designated areas so the adults could sit in uninterrupted silence to listen to the message. Our rural church had a piano, a song leader, and an old-school pastor. Again, it never occurred to me that my church was small, outdated, or in a cultural class perceived as lower than any other church.
I learned about Jesus in that church. I learned to fear and adore God, follow Jesus as Lord, repent of my sin, and have assurance in the perseverance of my faith. I learned that my salvation wasn’t based on my ability to woo God or the modification of my behavior. Rather, it rested in the relentless love of God for my soul. Mrs. Gardner, my Sunday School teacher, would talk about Jesus with tears welling in her eyes. This was a woman who had been rescued by the Lord and was obviously thankful for it. She gave her life to teaching young people about, in her words, "her Jesus." Her Jesus became my Jesus. God saved my sister there, too. God used this country church in the hills of Sand Mountain and its untrained, KJV-only pastor who, as the pinnacle of his messages, would herald the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Brother James will forever be a spiritual hero of mine.
I moved away from that church twenty years ago. Brother James is still the pastor. They’ve bricked the building and finally started locking the doors. After high school, I attended a Christian College in Missouri. After graduating, I went on to be a worship pastor in Wichita, a youth pastor in Detroit, and a worship pastor of a multi-site mega church in West-Central Illinois. I took a three-year break from vocational ministry to work for a prominent chicken restaurant based out of Atlanta. I was burnt out and had unrepentant sin and anger in my life. I needed the time off for catharsis.
While managing a store in Joplin, MO, my wife and I decided that I should serve a smaller church nearby. I began leading worship for a church across the state line in rural Kansas. A strange thing happened. My love for the rural church was awakened and began to grow. My career at the restaurant was going well, but I couldn’t shake my calling or passion for God’s church. I especially felt a tremendous burden for areas of the country and churches that are off most people’s radar. I now call them "fly over churches." Not many people are signing up for churches in communities in decline or with populations less than 2,000 people with the closest supermarket twenty-five miles away.
While leading worship in Riverton, KS our Director of Missions contacted me because a 100-year-old church in Arma, KS had just closed its doors and left its building and assets behind for a church plant. I had always wanted to plant a church. But I had an extremely pressing question, namely, “Where is Arma?” Though it was just thirty miles away, I had never heard of it. After receiving more details, I drove up to the little building and the only thought I could foster was, “Hard pass. Absolutely not.” The facility was tiny. It was a traditional white country church building with hardly any parking in a poor physical location. What could I possibly do here? Could anything good come out of that little mold-infested and dated structure?
In the nights and weeks that followed, I felt the Lord pressing in on me to take that little church building and start something that he could use to bring people to himself. Out of that calling, The Grove Church was born and, today, we have a thriving church in a little town of 1,500 people. We have locals, families from many neighboring communities, and university students from Pittsburg attending weekly. We’ve seen God do something incredible in the most unlikely of places. Our auditorium seats 85 with every seat taken. Crying babies are normative for us. We’re pretty tech savvy, but we are still very much a rural church. Our desire is to have a regional impact and assist other smaller churches through revitalization, resources, and personnel as we grow. We have a phenomenal volunteer staff team who oversee operations-outreach, connections-communications, creative arts and children. They’re essential to what we do.
When I initially sat and looked at that building and thought, “Can anything good come from here?” I had forgotten Nathaniel’s response to Philip when Philip revealed that they had found the messiah in John 1:46. “Nathanael said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'" When people ask me why I am a rural church planter or ask what good can come from Arma, my response is always the same: "Come and see." We herald the Gospel. We exalt Jesus. And that, more than anything, is what rural churches need… the beautiful Gospel, faithful preachers, and Jesus exalted.