Many church planting efforts are focused on the largest cities in a given region. Planters often target areas with large populations to reach a greater segment of people with the gospel. Cities matter because people matter. But there are many people who live in small towns and villages in rural areas who need the gospel. For example, roughly 25% of European and 19% of American populations live in a rural setting. We cannot forget them. We need to plant churches among our rural neighbours and in the rural communities of the regions where we live.
Acts 29 Europe church planter, John Hindley, was previously planting in one of the UK’s largest cities but has since moved from the city and is currently planting in a rural community in Norfolk, England. In this interview, John talks with us about Broad Grace Church and some of the realities of life and ministry in rural areas. We have learned much from John over the years. We think you will, too.
What prompted you to move from one of the UK’s largest, most influential cities to, what is in many people’s eyes, a relatively mundane rural village?
We moved to plant a church in rural North Norfolk through a combination of seeing the need and feeling a sense of calling to the people there. Shortly after I married Felicity in 2002 her parents moved to North Norfolk. As we visited them over the years we saw the need for churches to proclaim the gospel of Christ in a way that was biblical and relevant. It was not that there were no churches doing this, but there are far too few. We talked with local pastors and they affirmed the need and encouraged us to come. Tom Chapman, pastor of Surrey Chapel, made the comment that it would be easier to find a good person to come to take over the church we had seen planted in Manchester and lead it forward than to stay there and find someone else to come to Norfolk! He also offered to encourage Surrey Chapel members who lived in the area around Wroxham to join us. As we planned and prayed our love for the area and the people of Broadlands and North Norfolk grew. This internal work of the Spirit compelled us to Norfolk alongside the clear need and the opportunity the Lord gave through our partnership with Surrey Chapel.
What would you say is the most important thing to know about the rural context?
People are people, sin is sin and Jesus is a generous Lord. By that I mean that rural ministry and rural church planting is very similar to in a city because the fundamentals are the same. It is also similar because every area, and village is unique. Having said that, there are three distinctives that seem to generally shape rural ministry:
- Low population density and geographical dispersement: villages are small and people are spread out. Building relationships in the church and with others requires more planning, more phone calls and less dropping in on the off-chance of someone being in.
- Socially mixed areas: the same small part of a village might have the manor house with a titled squire; a cluster of six new wood-clad housing association properties and four ex-council semi’s with a mix of retired couples and young families making ends meet to different degrees; the Georgian Old Rectory with a successful solicitor, doctor and their family; a couple of bungalows with older residents and a terrace of Victorian houses with young couples working in Norwich. This means a church must reach a range of people and really demonstrate the wonder of unity in Christ when there is nothing else in common.
- Low mobility: you do not have lots of Christians moving into the area to grow a large base to reach people from. On the other hand, people are not moving away all the time. It takes longer to get to know people, but we are four years in and feel like we suddenly have lots of local friends and contacts, inside and outside the church. Relationships are generally slower to form, and to dissolve.
What are some of the characteristics of your rural context?
North Norfolk is beautiful, with small villages, often centred around a church, pub and sometimes a green. The coast is wild in Winter and postcard- worthy in Summer. People love their county, their village and value community. It is harder to find, though. Older people might know each other, but their children moved into the city for work and then maybe to another village later on. Most people move to the village hoping for rural community, but so many have moved in that it is not as obviously found as they imagine. Christians can help to be a catalyst in showing and demonstrating community, especially if they can partner with what is there and good, rather than replacing it. There are great opportunities to bless our villages.
Are young pastors reluctant to go to a place where there’s no Starbucks?
There aren’t enough people planting churches in urban or rural areas.
Not once they’ve tried the lattes at Piece of Cake in Coltishall (and seen the size of the homemade cakes)! I think rural ministry might feel a bit indulgent in one sense – moving to a beautiful village in Norfolk is not a gritty calling. In another it doesn’t feel very edgy. I don’t think there is generally a problem of too many people going to the cities – there just aren’t enough people planting churches in urban or rural areas. I sometimes feel there is a bias to the city that is presented overly strongly (Jesus spent a lot of time in Galilee). But the heart of the issue is that people need the gospel. People are more concentrated in cities, so we need more church plants there, but a quarter of the population of Britain and around half that of the European Union live in rural areas. We need to learn how to do rural planting, urban planting, planting on council estates and schemes, suburban planting and everything else we can think of. Christ will be worshipped by all nations, even the distant coastlands. There is nowhere beyond the scope of his forgiveness, the reach of his love or the cover of his blood. We simply need to go everywhere until he comes. He gave the disciples a great commission, we carry on their mission, and we are not relieved until the Lord of the Harvest says so.
How is the Bible received in a rural setting? Is it different than what you experienced in the city?
Where we are there is generally a greater respect for the Bible and assumption that it is good. Schools see Christianity as part of the fabric of life, and a greater awareness of seasons means creation is more obvious and so the word the skies proclaim (Psalm 19) is perhaps given greater weight. God and his word are not followed by many but they would be more respected generally than we experienced in Manchester. Having said that, this feels like it is changing, perhaps just more slowly.
How do you define “contextualisation”? And what has contextualisation looked like for you in a rural setting?
At the first meeting of our potential core group in Norfolk, sitting having supper together, we talked about the best way to slaughter and butcher a pig. This never came up in five years of church planting in Manchester. Contextualisation is never changing the gospel, but changing our presentation to fit the local circumstances. In the deepest sense, it is simply love. If Christ gives me a love for my neighbours then I want to tell them about him truly and simply, and what simply looks like will vary. Contextualisation also means being flexible about where you start. Jesus presented the same gospel differently to the rich young man, the woman by the well in Samaria, Mary, Martha, Zaccheus and Nicodemus. He did so because he loved them.
For us, contextualisation has looked like working hard at welcoming all ages, presenting the gospel in a way that is simple but deep. It has also meant learning that being externally good and visibly coping are important values for a lot of people, and that the gospel offers the freedom to be honest about your carefully buried guilt, shame and terror that you are not coping at all.
What is your vision for church planting and ministry where you are?
North Norfolk and Broadland have 250,000 people, mostly living in villages of less than 1000. Far too few of those villages has a gospel church and they all need one. We need hundreds of churches, mission teams or gospel communities to hold out the word of life to those people. That is a vision that we hope is Christ’s, because given the few churches there are in such contexts means it’s impossible for us to achieve it on our own. But Jesus will build his church, and his Father is able to do far, far more than we ask or imagine.
Is God really calling more people to the cities and suburbs than to the outlying areas? Or do we just think he is?
I pray we see more gospel harvesters in the countryside, because the need is vast.
He is probably calling more people to adventures of cross-carrying grace than ever hear him. I am so deaf, my ears blocked by the sounds of my wealth and comfort. I pray we see more gospel harvesters in the countryside, because the need is vast. The fields are ready for the harvest and if the lightning falls first, it will be terrible to see the grain rotting as it stands. But the call is not to leave urban ministry and come to the country. The call is, ‘Follow me’ and joy, hope, peace and love lie in picking up our cross and following after our Lord wherever he leads.
How can we be praying for you?
I am so easily tempted to sin – to despairing of the Lord saving our neighbours, friends, family and colleagues, to imagining that I and my abilities are crucial to the Lord’s work. This is coupled to knowing that I cannot do so much of what the Lord puts before me. So pray that I would repent of my pride, trust him, turn to him for grace and realise that he gives only good gifts to his children. Pray for our family that we would know Christ together, pray more together and talk more about Jesus together. And pray the same for BroadGrace, our church, and that this would flow over into us talking to everyone we know of the good news of Jesus. Pray that the Lord would save many.
John Hindley (@John_Hindley) is the pastor of BroadGrace church in Norfolk, UK and the author of the bestselling Serving without sinking. He studied for ministry at Oak Hill College, and then co-founded The Plant church in Manchester before moving to Norfolk. John is married to Flick and they have three children.