Jesus often perplexed his followers. Perhaps the most befuddled we find them is in John 4. In that story, the disciples leave Jesus alone near an out-of-the-way town in backwoods Samaria in order to go grab some lunch. When they return they are startled to find him crossing religious, gender, and racial barriers to converse with a shady woman.
As they encourage him to dig into his lunch, he says: “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work. Do you think the work of harvesting will not begin until the summer ends four months from now? Look around you! Vast fields are ripening all around us and are ready now for the harvest. The harvesters are paid good wages, and the fruit they harvest is people brought to eternal life. What joy awaits both the planter and the harvester alike!” (John 4:34-36, NLT)
On hearing this the disciples must have squinted their eyes and said to each other, “What is he talking about? I don’t see anything!” They must have thought: “An abundant harvest here? In this podunk place? Among Samaritans? It’s time we finish our lunches and hit the road to Galilee!”
But Jesus was right, of course, and he and his team ditched their original plans and stayed in Samaria for two more days where they saw many people come to Christ.
Our church is experiencing something similar. We are seeing Jesus’ Spirit do amazing things in unexpected, out-of-the-way places.
The Vineyard church movement has typically targeted large cities and university towns like ours in our church planting efforts. We have seen some great success in those areas and have avoided rural towns. I remember being told by a Vineyard leader I respected, “I don’t think Vineyards would do well in small towns.” He thought the audience would be too small and the culture too different.
He was wrong. In the past three years our church has used a multicampus strategy to launch Vineyards in three smaller towns and their success in reaching the unchurched has amazed us.
In March 2009 we started a campus in Sullivan, IL, a town of 4400 that is fifty miles south of our original campus in Urbana. Sullivan is the county seat and largest town in Moultrie County. So far in 2012 the Sullivan Vineyard is averaging 407 people each week. Thirty-one percent of those people were not previously involved in a church, and an additional 33% say that they previously had a church home but were not actively involved in it. We originally thought we’d try to launch a Vineyard in every town with a WalMart, but Sullivan doesn’t even have a WalMart!
Our next campus launch was in September of 2009 in Danville, IL, a struggling, industrial town 35 miles east of us. Although it’s a considerably larger town at 32,500, Danville is probably not on other denominations’ church planting radar. It’s a shrinking community that has lost more than 10,000 people over the past four decades. The new Vineyard there is thriving and now averages 254 people at its weekly worship services.
In September of 2010, Paxton (IL) Vineyard was launched. Similar to Sullivan, Paxton is a county seat with a population of 4500 and no WalMart. The Paxton Vineyard is averaging 210 in its Sunday worship services. What we are discovering is that people in rural towns need God! It’s amazing but true! There is an incredible need for Jesus-centered, Spirit-empowered, culturally-relevant churches that are targeting the unchurched. When we offer solid preaching, powerful worship, and excellent children’s ministry in these communities, we—unfortunately—have little competition.
The average age of people in these rural towns is higher than the average age of people in other towns. For example the median age of Sullivan is 40, compared to a median age of 34 for the overall state of Illinois. But the average age of Vineyard members in these towns is younger than it is in our original campus. We are particularly seeing lots of teens, young adults, and young families come to these new Vineyards.
As I mentioned, we are using a multicampus strategy. We are one church now in five locations. (We launched three new campuses and also adopted a smaller Vineyard in Bloomington, IL.) Most Sundays, the four newer campuses use a video of the message that was given at the original campus the previous weekend. Occasionally the messages are preached live by the campus pastors who guide their respective campuses under the leadership of our senior pastors, Happy & Dianne Leman.
Before we started this venture we were told by people we respect in the Vineyard movement that a video format would not work in rural areas. They were wrong. The new campuses not only work, they work better than our original campus. They report a higher percent of people involved in small groups, more people involved in ministry roles, a higher percentage of previously unchurched, and higher levels of satisfaction with children’s ministry, youth ministry and even the sermons. People in the newer campuses also report that they feel more connected to the church. Forty-two percent of attenders at the new campuses say that they feel “extremely connected” to the church, whereas only 26% of people at our original campus claim that.
I hope that this all doesn’t make launching new campuses or planting new churches in rural towns sound easy. It’s a lot of work. To launch a thriving new campus means training a campus pastor, developing small groups, investing money and staff time, and mobilizing leaders and teams for key areas like children, worship and welcome teams.
I also hope you realize that using a multicampus approach doesn’t compete with church planting. While we launched three new campuses in the last three years, our church also sent out two church planting teams to Homewood and Peoria, Illinois. Whatever methods we use, we must remember what Jesus demonstrated in the Gospels… that the harvest is often to be found in overlooked people and unexpected places. There are overlooked people groups and places all around us. I’m writing this article to open your eyes to rural America. Small towns need thriving churches! But perhaps there are also other overlooked people or places for you to consider. What are some places or people groups near you right now that you are overlooking? Listen and look! If you tune into what the Spirit is doing and saying, you will see amazing results in unlikely places! Jesus is saying to all of us: “Do you think the work of harvesting will not begin until the summer ends four months from now? Look around you! Vast fields are ripening all around us and are ready now for the harvest. The harvesters are paid good wages, and the fruit they harvest is people brought to eternal life. What joy awaits both the planter and the harvester alike! ” (John 4:35-36) Here in rural America, we understand harvest. When it’s time to harvest, it’s time to act NOW. It’s time to get out in the field and get to work! Listen again to Jesus’ words: “Look around you! Vast fields… are ready now for harvest.”
If you want to learn more about how to partner with God in what he is doing in rural areas, come to the Small Town USA Conference that is April 19-21, 2012, in Lancaster, OH. The cost is just $35 per person if you register early. Come and bring a carload with you. You can get more details at http://smalltownvineyard.com.