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Church Planting In The Small Community

Interview with Steve Larson, Dennis Dickson, Chris Gray and Darren Widner

Many church-planting efforts are focused on larger cities. Church planters target areas with large populations to reach a greater segment of people with the gospel. But there are many people who live in small towns in America who need the gospel. We cannot forget them. Paul Drost, director of the Church Planting Department for the Assemblies of God, visited with four pastors who have successfully planted churches in small communities. Steve Larson planted a church in Byron, a town of about 3,100 people, 10 miles west of Rochester, Minnesota. Dennis Dickson is pastor of Southside Assembly of God in Bend, Oregon. Prior to coming to Southside, he planted a church in Grants Pass, Oregon, a town of about 12,000 people. Chris Gray planted Greater Valley Assembly of God near three communities: Sayre and Athens, Pennsylvania, and Waverly, New York. There are 15,000 people in this area. Darin Widner, is restarting a church in Harrisonville, Missouri. Darren has also planted a church close to Poplar Bluff, Missouri. These pastors shared their vision for planting churches in small towns along with their successes and struggles.

MANY CHURCH-PLANTING EFFORTS TARGET LARGER COMMUNITIES WHERE THE RESOURCE OF PEOPLE IS GREATER. WHY PLANT A CHURCH IN A SMALLER COMMUNITY OR A RURAL AREA?

GRAY: Statistics show that whether you are in a large city or a small town, about two-thirds of the people are unchurched. In our area of 15,000, there are over 10,000 people who have no church affiliation.

People in small communities still have problems. I know of several people in our community who are in abusive relationships. We need to see that people without Christ in small communities are lost.

DICKSON: There are people who like the family-size church. We have ministers who are geared for that size church. They are father figures who want to know everybody in the church intimately. This is their personality.

Steve Larson

In a small town, it's important to have a building. Some people think, They won't last because they don't have a building. This is a credibility issue.—Larson


LARSON: I felt called to a small community. I have a heart for the small town and church.

One of the dynamics of small-town ministry is being able to know many people in your town. When you go to the post office, you can have casual conversations and build relationships with people outside of the church.

WIDNER: There are many people in small communities who don’t know the Lord. In small towns there is sometimes a greater concentration of alcohol abuse. We shouldn’t exclude any area, because people in small towns need the Lord too.

IN WHAT WAYS DID THE DISTRICT OR SECTION SUPPORT YOUR CHURCH-PLANTING EFFORTS?

WIDNER: In Poplar Bluff, the district gave us permission to plant a church and sent money. But most of the support came from the section. They put about $80,000 into the building. At that time, I was not getting the personal support that I’m getting now. I was working a second job.

GRAY: The district and section have been behind me. I received support from the Pennsylvania-Delaware District Keyman Fund for home missions pastors. These funds come from churches that support home missions. I received $800 a month to help offset living expenses. Initially this was for a year, but I had a year extension.

District Superintendent Philip Bongiorno and others from the district have provided moral support. They have also provided resources: access to an audio-visual library, and they have helped me network with people. When I need something I know whom to contact. Churches have also helped. Pastors have invited me to speak, and they have blessed us financially. I can call them and they will pray for me.

Steve Larson

We didn't try to become a community church. We put the name Assemblies of God on everything. The church is stable because of that.—Dickson


DICKSON: The district home missions committee was involved from the inception. We sat on the mother church board and the mother church’s board was our board. Later we had a sectional board of three pastors who were church-planter mentors. They sat in on our board meetings. The people seemed to receive that better and didn’t feel like a stepchild. The mother/ daughter relationship has a different dynamic, but the daughter church wants to grow and be its own church.

LARSON: The district gave us $500 a month. Some of the churches in the section invited us to preach and take an offering. Roger Stacy is in charge of church planting in the district. He has been a big help. The district sent us to a church-plant BootCamp. There I was able to connect with other church planters.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE SUCCESSFUL THINGS YOU DID TO REACH YOUR COMMUNITY?

LARSON: We have had success using direct mail. Going door-to-door would have turned off people in our community because Jehovah’s Witnesses go door-to-door. When we send out a 3,500-piece mailing, our attendance generally increases by about 20—30 as a result. We look at what we do as an experiment. We record results. We aren’t afraid to try new things.

Having a clearly defined vision is important. We major on majors. We defined two or three things we wanted to do and stuck to them. We also remind our people what we are about. Everyone has a place in the ministry. We have what we call the open chair. At the end of the service I pray that the Lord will show our people who they can invite to church.

The Lord has blessed us with influential people from the community. A dentist who has been in the area for 30 years is coming.

DICKSON: We emphasize Royal Rangers, Missionettes, and our men’s and women’s ministries. We tell people we are supported by the district and on a national level. We didn’t try to become a community church. We put the name Assemblies of God on everything. The church is stable because of that. People want to know you are Assemblies of God because they know what you believe.

We work at reaching boys and girls. When parents see that we love their children, they come.

Steve Larson

Statistics show that whether you are in a large city or a small town, abaout two-thirds of the people are unchurched.—Gray


GRAY: Getting people to network and build relationships has been important. When people come to our church, they find a caring and loving environment. People outside the church sense the camaraderie. We have people from every class of life. They come in jeans or a suit; it makes no difference. People feel accepted. We also try to make everything we do relevant to their situation.

In our community, there was no Pentecostal church. Our goal was to reach the unsaved, nurture and build them up on a one-on-one basis. However, because there was no Pentecostal church in the area, people were traveling to other communities for church. Others stayed home or went to another denomination. When we started our church, a number of these same people began to attend. This was a benefit, but it also caused us to shift our focus. Instead of going out to talk with individuals about Christ, I encourage people to bring their friends. We still reach the unsaved, but these people coming in have given us a healthy foundation on which to build.

WIDNER: I planted a church near Lake Wappapello, just north of Poplar Bluff, Missouri. We got to know the people and became their friends. I drove a school bus and this helped me get to know students and parents.

You can’t reach a smaller community unless the people accept you. We did everything with integrity. This also happened to us in Glide, Oregon. There we took a church of eight that we were rebuilding. We had to correct some wrongs that had been done in the past. We built a new image and made a new name in the community, which helped to establish our credibility as a church.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN PLANTING A RURAL OR SMALL-TOWN CHURCH?

LARSON: One of our major challenges has been a traditional religious spirit. People may not have been to church in 30 years, but they claim a denominational loyalty.

In a small town, it’s important to have a building. Some people think, They won’t last because they don’t have a building. This is a credibility issue. Along with this is a lack of history in a community. We came to Byron in 1996, but didn’t start the church until 1998. We spent 2 years building trust. Some people go to a small town and expect to start a church in 3 months. But you have to build trust.

There is also the barrier of momentum. If you are not moving ahead, people will think you are not doing anything. This is difficult in a small town because you don’t have all the programs. Many people are used to Sunday school, confirmation, and other programs.

GRAY: Perhaps the greatest challenge for me was my lack of experience. This was my first church. Another was getting people to realize who we are. The Assemblies of God was unknown to most people in our area.

Our church is a blend of socioeconomic culture. There are farmers, factory workers, and professional people–each with a different mind-set that we needed to work with.

One of our biggest challenges was gaining people’s trust. This is especially true in a rural area.

DICKSON: The turning point for us was about 3 1/2 years into the work. The first few years are tough because in a rural setting people are thinking, Let’s wait and see if the people in this church are real. This is especially true if you don’t have a building.

We were in a high school for 18 months and averaged about 35 in attendance. People did not believe we were credible because we did not have a building. When we got into our own building, it was a different dynamic.

It is difficult, frustrating, and discouraging to haul equipment and set up each week. Some weeks you only have 8 or 10 people and want to quit. To avoid this, set a goal and tell your support people what your goals are. Ask them to help you stay steady. If church planters do not connect on a sectional and district level and get input from the national level, they will not be successful.

Steve Larson

You can't reach a smaller community unless the people accept you. Everything we did, we did with integrity.—Widner


WIDNER: One of the biggest challenges we are facing is getting the finances together to complete our building. We are moving into the old church, but we have to do quite a bit of remodeling.

WHERE ARE YOU HOLDING SERVICES AND WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS TO RELOCATE OR BUILD?

DICKSON: We started from scratch. We went into the local high school and rented a conference room. The first service we had eight people. At 18 months we were ready to admit that we weren’t going to plant a church because we couldn’t get beyond 35 people.

For the planter, it is necessary to attend district functions. Every time I went the speaker said something that kept me going. At one District Council I realized we had never held a missions convention. We invited a missionary and had a convention. The next week a man offered us 3 1/2 acres of commercial property for $15,000. The district gave me permission to purchase the land and gave $40,000.

Another group in our district said, "We have a team with 200 men that can come and build a church. We want to build your church." I went to the bank, and they offered me any amount of money I wanted because of the equity in the property and the fact we were going to build a building. Then another guy came and drilled a $3,000 well for free.

MAPS workers in our district also came. When we reach out beyond ourselves and help one another, you begin to understand what it means to be part of a larger Fellowship. None of the people in the church could deny the miracles they saw. Thousands of dollars of material and labor was donated to our church. When the project was complete, we had a $90,000 debt loan. The day the builders walked, our property was worth about $350,000.

One of the dangers of a church plant is building the sanctuary too small. To get enough people in the church to retire the debt, you have to plan. I built the sanctuary bigger than some wanted. Ask experienced people, "In this community, what size structure should we build for a long-term benefit?"

GRAY: The Lord has blessed us with a storefront church. We are meeting in a building that has other businesses in it. Decorators in our church have done a wonderful job of creating an appealing atmosphere–a place where people feel love and warmth.

We are in the process of looking for another facility or land for a building. We need something permanent.

LARSON: We are meeting in a legion hall located near a major highway. The church’s location is one of our best sources of advertising, because people go by on Sunday mornings and see the packed parking lot. Not having a permanent building has hindered our growth. However, we just purchased some land on which to build.

WHAT HAS CHARACTERIZED YOUR APPROACH TO MINISTRY?

DICKSON: We are a high expectation church. We tell people who come to our services who we are and what we believe. I give them a brochure on the Fundamental Truths of the Assemblies of God and I emphasize membership, accountability, and responsibility to God. We base our ministry on worship, discipleship, fellowship, and evangelism. We also find needs in our community and develop ministries to meet them.

Large churches can afford singing groups and other special events. In a rural setting you can’t afford these so you develop your people to use their gifts.

I want an aggressive, growing church. The size of a church is based on administrative strategy and philosophy.

GRAY: I am more of a teacher than a preacher. People know that what they are hearing from the pulpit is a biblical message. Second, I try to make my messages relevant. People are discovering how the gospel relates to their lives. Third, we emphasize the experiential.

LARSON: We use children as ushers. When kids are involved, they bring their parents. This ties in well with people of Lutheran background. On Sunday morning we have a children’s sermon as part of the service. Parents like to see something for the children.

THE 20 MOST SUCCESSFUL ASSEMBLIES OF GOD
"RURAL" CHURCH PLANTS IN THE 90s

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