“The Gospel in the Hollers.” I’ve heard of many conference titles, but this was a first. My friend Will, leading a rural conference on church planting, graciously invited me to speak at this event. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, and I’m very familiar with hollers, and I’m aware of the need to saturate them with gospel-centered churches.
Will and I believe that rural places need a big vision of Jesus. Not all rural places are the same around the world. Some are wealthy while others are poor; some are charming while others are depressing. But all rural places need a big vision of Christ and his church.
Many people look down on certain rural places, but if you’re in such a place, then know that Jesus can identify with you. After all, “the carpenter’s son” heard this sort of thing: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46; see also Mark 6:1–6). The question, of course, implied the answer, “No!” Nazareth was just a little town of 300-500 people and no one believed anything significant came from there.
Rural places need a big vision of Christ and his church.
As a carpenter, Jesus could have built plows, yokes, furniture, small buildings, beams, chairs, and more. But now Jesus is building his church around the globe (Matt 16:18), including in rural areas.
The disciples can also identify with the rural folks. Jesus selected his disciples around the Galilee region, a place known for distinct accents and a rural way of life. It was a place to fish, not a place of formal sophisticated learning. Yet these disciples were taught, trained, and commissioned there by our Lord. On the day of Pentecost, people could not believe what God was doing through these hillbillies (Acts 2:7).
When Will asked me to write this foreword, the first thing that came to mind was Paul’s letter to the Colossians. (It was apparently on his mind also, as he references Colossae later in the book.) The church in Colossae was established by a faithful church planter named Epaphras (Col. 1:7). This church in a seemingly insignificant town received a letter about the greatness of Jesus.
If you go visit the town of Colossae today (as I had the privilege of doing recently), you won’t find much. You can see some fascinating sites at nearby Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 4:13), but all that is left in the ancient town of Colossae is an unexcavated mound. Colossae sat on the main east-west road from Ephesus to the East. At one time it was a thriving city, but by the time Paul wrote this letter, it was a small town. In fact, scholars have stated that this was one of the least influential cities to have received a letter from Paul. I think that’s noteworthy.
Many churches around the world are small in size, and many exist in small, rural places, but that doesn’t make them insignificant in the eyes of Jesus. If you are a member of a small church, recognize that it’s Jesus’s church and he cares about it.
The church that Jesus approves is not always the church that gets attention.
Interestingly, the only two churches (out of seven total) commended without any criticism in Revelation 2-3 are the churches of Smyrna (Rev. 2:8–11) and Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7–13). Both seem to be small in number, poor, and looked insignificant to many, but they were faithful in doctrine, character, and mission. In contrast, the church in Sardis had “the reputation of being alive” but Jesus said was “dead” (Rev. 3:2), and the church in Laodicea had affluence and prosperity but made Jesus sick (Rev. 3:16). This doesn’t mean that all small churches in small places are good and that all big churches in suburban or urban places are bad. There can be bad small churches and good big churches. It means that the church that Jesus approves is not always the church that gets attention. It means that Jesus knows and Jesus cares about your church—about the church’s doctrine, fellowship, character, and mission—regardless of where it is and how big it is.
Will’s biblical faithfulness and his cultural insights come across in every chapter, whether he is writing on evangelism, discipleship, community, leadership, or church planting. I pray that his work will bear fruit for years to come, for the good of the church and the glory of Christ.