“No Little People or Places”: The Promise, Challenge, and Gift of Pastoring in a Small Town

We must remember throughout our lives that in God’s sight, there are no little people and no little places. Only one thing is important: to be consecrated persons in God’s place for us, at each moment.”

-Francis Schaeffer

When Jim Ryan first moved to Marissa, a small town nestled in the fertile farmlands of southern Illinois, he never imagined it would become his home and place of ministry for over two decades.

Marissa’s total population is around 2,000 people. By contrast, the metro area population of St. Louis, just an hour’s drive away, numbers over three million. Even Busch Stadium, the legendary home of the St. Louis Cardinals, seats enough to hold over 20 times the population of Marissa.

“I didn’t think I would be in any church for 22 years, much less a rural, small-town church,” said Jim. “But this has been truly a blessed trip and adventure for me. I’ve not only fallen in love with this church but with small towns in general.”

Prior to becoming the Senior Pastor of Marissa Presbyterian Church, Jim had only ever lived in larger metro areas. Naturally, adjusting to life in a small town took some time. Like any missionary going into a new culture, he explained, you have to adapt to some of the local customs and traditions.

But as he grew accustomed to life and ministry in Marissa, Jim discovered what many others have: that small towns are not only brimming with gospel opportunities, they are places of unfathomable beauty, deep friendship, and rich community.

“That’s the wonderful thing about small-town living,” Jim said. “The community is almost automatic. You can walk down the street and almost always enter into a conversation with someone you know—a neighbor or a church member. Churches in suburban and inner-city areas have to work for years to build relationships. In a small town, it’s already there.”


Big Needs in Small Towns

Determining the precise number of PCA churches in small, rural towns is tricky, since what constitutes a small town is somewhat subjective. But we do know this: almost half of all PCA churches have 125 members or fewer. And there are approximately 400 churches located in towns with populations under 30,000. Quite a few have less than 15,000 residents.

Rural areas often face a number of difficulties—economic hardship, declining and aging populations, depression, and drugs, to name a few. By offering patient guidance and the enduring hope of the gospel, pastors have the ability to make a lasting impact on the lives of those they serve.

“The church can answer every one of those [issues],” said Jim. “The gospel addresses all of that. That’s why we need churches and Christians who see this as a mission field—a place to come and invest their lives. Not just a few years, but to put down roots, to invest long-term in these areas.”


The Challenges of Small-Town Ministry

To be sure, serving in small, rural areas poses some unique ministry challenges for pastors and church leaders.

Larry Hoop, editor of byFaith magazine and Stated Clerk of the Ohio Valley Presbytery, has spent over 24 years serving small-town, PCA churches. While attending Covenant Seminary, he even focused his doctoral research on effective rural ministry.

“In my experience, the besetting sin of rural areas is broken relationships,” said Larry. “People get mad at each other over little things. In urban or suburban settings, people move around a lot. But that doesn’t happen in rural areas. So people have a lifetime to either hurt or irritate each other.”

By way of example, Larry told a story about a family in his church quarreling over an inheritance. As he recalls, during a meeting one family member brought up a grievance with a sibling that had occurred half a century earlier.

Both Larry and Jim listed a number of other obstacles, including Biblical illiteracy, congregational resistance to change, declining populations, and the tendency for people to view Christianity as simply a box to check on Sundays.

According to Jim, another major challenge of rural ministry is changing demographics. Historically, the church was often the center of community life in the small towns of rural America. Many people belonged to churches and attended them regularly. That’s not really the case anymore, says Jim. In these areas, attendance has been declining and many churches have closed.

“There’s a lot of evangelism that needs to happen in small towns,” said Jim. “People are spiritually lost. They need the Lord. The cultural Christianity veneer is pretty much gone. We don’t see even the Christmas and Easter crowd as much anymore.”


The Promise, Beauty, and Opportunity of Ministering in the “Little Places”

Though the challenges are real, both Larry and Jim were adamant about the abundance of kingdom opportunities in small towns.

“It sounds a little odd, but in a small town you actually almost have more opportunity [for evangelistic witness],” said Larry. “The reason is you’re more visible. If I’m in a church of 500 in a city of 2 million, I’m lost. If I’m in a church of 150 in a community of 4,000, everybody knows you.”

To illustrate his point, Larry told a story about a gentleman in his congregation who died of cancer. He had two sons in high school, and they both played football. When it came time for Larry to do the funeral, he was floored by the turnout. “We had 600 people packed into our tiny little church. Every seat was filled. I bet half the high school was sitting in our church, and I got a chance to preach the gospel. You just don’t get those kinds of opportunities to have that kind of footprint in a bigger place.”

When asked what his message would be to the next generation of PCA leaders and pastors, Jim asked them to remember the places where Jesus spent most of his ministry:

“Come out here to rural America and check us out. The fields are white for harvest out here in the little places. And that’s where Jesus went. When Jesus ministered on Earth, he went to the towns and villages of Israel. He basically avoided Jerusalem for a good part of his ministry. He was in Galilee and the outlying places—that’s where Jesus was preaching, doing miracles, and making disciples.”

Larry agreed. “Don’t rule out serving in a small town, rural area. Don’t think of it as somehow less or as just a stepping stone. Think of it as a place you could be called to, to spend the better part of your life. Because it’s a very rewarding ministry and you can have just as much impact—if not more—in a rural, small town than you can in a city.”

Towards the end of our conversation, Jim began riffing on an idea that Francis Schaeffer’s famously expounded on in his article, No Little People, No Little Places.

“A lot of times it is the small places where God is doing some of the biggest work,” Jim said. “It was Francis Schaeffer, who said that, ‘With God, there are no small people and there are no small places.’ And I think that’s exactly right.”

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For more on this topic, check out our resource page for small town and rural ministry.