Americans Are Going Home. Maybe It Is Time To Think About About Planting Churches There Too?

Some dear friends left their life in the city and moved back home a few years ago. They live in his Mom and Dad’s place in the Sandhills of Nebraska. North Platte (pop. 23,000), a hour to the south, is the nearest town of any size. There are no confessional Presbyterian or Reformed congregations for hours. The P&R congregation in Sidney, NE closed when Cabellas fortunes shifted and workers moved. The nearest confessional P&R congregation, in Kearney, NE is 2 hours and 3o minutes away. The confessional P&R congregation in Cheyenne is 3 hours away and the congregation in Rapid City, SD is 4 hours away. In leaving the city and going home they are part of a trend. I do not know how large a trend it will be nor do I know how long it will last. Which mortal knows anything about the future during Covid?

Nevertheless, there are early indications that Americans are leaving urban centers. Some surveys suggest that they are going west and south. New Yorkers are fleeing taxes, snow, and a what seems to be an increasingly repressive Covid regime for Florida. U-Haul confirms that people are leaving New York and San Francisco. Some of the Bay Area exodus is headed to  to less expensive locations in California but U-Haul says that the top locations outside of California are Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Texas, Utah, Idaho, and New Mexico. According to Andy Kierz the rustbelt states (particularly Illinois) are still losing people. The Pre-Covid trend, in 2019, according to American Van Lines, showed people leaving the high taxes in California, New Jersey, and Illinois (with Minnesota chasing the pack). Where were people going? “Idaho first followed in order by Arizona, South Carolina, Tennessee, and North Carolina.”

Some influential voices are also speaking up publicly about leaving the big city and going home. In March, 2019, a year before Covid, Michelle Anderson published an essay in the New York Times about moving home to Fergus Falls, MN. Two years before her, however, in March, 2017, J. D. Vance wrote in the NYT about his family’s exodus out of Silicon Valley and back to Columbus, Ohio. He describes not only his own journey but that of others. There were a flurry of stories about people fleeing the cities this summer, because of Covid. The data seem unclear so far.

Still, the pre-Covid interest in going home says something. P&R church planters, planners, and power-brokers ought to re-think their single-minded zeal “for the city.” Christ has his elect all over and yes, the P&R churches have a legitimate interest in establishing missions in cities. It is not as if Los Angeles is overburdened with P&R congregations.  We have a big job to do in announcing the gospel everywhere and to everyone. This is not a plea to avert our eyes from the cities.

It is a plea, however, to remember those places from which many of the city dwellers fled. Many of those places are underserved or served not at all by P&R congregations. Perhaps the focus on the city was necessary since there might have been a perceived bias in the P&R world against cities. I do not know but I do think that the pressure, in some quarters, to plant and “succeed” in two years puts church planting projects in rural and semi-rural areas at a considerable disadvantage.

It seems obvious that, to plant churches in the Plains, that vast stretch of land from Canada to Mexico and between the Rockies and the Mississippi River, will take more time and proportionally more investment. The return on investment will be lower. It will not be sexy nor will there be thrilling reports. The church planters will not even be able to position themselves as culture shapers or influential figures as church planters in NYC, Boston, DC, Miami, Dallas, or LA might be able to do. In fact, planting confessionally faithful P&R churches on the Plains is just hard, slow work. In the neighborhood of our congregation in Kansas City, if you had not lived there for 20 years, you were a newcomer. There are whole towns that are predominantly one religion or another. Some towns in Nebraska are predominantly Lutheran. Others are predominantly Methodist and others are predominantly Roman Catholic. A few towns on the Plains have a Reformed heritage and there are a very few where the Reformed Church (or churches) are the churches in town (e.g., Sioux Center, IA; Sutton, NE) but those towns are by far the exception. In most towns folks have never heard of the Reformed Church and the only Presbyterians they know are from the PCUSA congregation with the nice lady minister, where they celebrate Gay Pride Day. Most of the Presbyterian congregations have just closed or merged with the local “community church” or the local Methodist congregation.

Still, Christ has his elect on the Plains and in the Midwest (the Rust Belt). Yes, there are congregations in those places but is the gospel of free acceptance with God, in Christ alone, preached? Does the Reformed theology, piety, and practice have any inherent value or are P&R churches just another brand? What about those pilgrims who, in the providence of God, must move to Dubuque, IA? What is the strategy for reaching Dubuque or North Platte?

These are questions that deserve prayer and thought and, one hopes, a new attitude and then, perhaps, a new initiative.

©R. Scott Clark


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  1. The problem seems to be are there enough of us in an area to establish a physical church presence. I for example, prefer OPC, but would attend one of several other denominations as options. It is often difficult enough to establish a PCA church, let online one of the more rigorously confessional churches. We are simply too fragmented. How far should one travel to a home church? I would almost wish people would open up their homes or other meeting locations as traveling say 1.5-2 hours for services does not really allow one to properly worship, but having a place to spend the sabbath as a family can mitigate that somewhat. Virtual worship is contrary to the idea of corporate worship, so I do not have a good solution.

  2. I can’t agree more. We just went through this exact journey – to get away from the density of the city. It was very hard to find a small town that had a Reformed presence in the more rural part of our state, which was very important to us. We had to change from the URCNA to the PCA in order to do this.

    It’s not just rural areas, though — it’s the TYPE of rural area. In the rural Rocky Mt. West, where we are, there is a different mindset than the Plains states. Most towns here have no clue about what Confessional Reformed even means.

    I miss the URCNA very much, but I also realize that the PCA was a good middle ground for the mindset of our location in the West and it had a better chance of thriving in this particular culture. So we are learning to adapt and God has taught us much through this journey. There are many wonderful, solid Christians in our new church and we are actually grateful to be able to see the larger scope of the church at large by this move. Sometimes we can fail to see this gift when we stay in a closed environment.

    So, thanks for suggesting this. Dr. Clark. It’s nice to hear that cities are not the only places worthy of placing a new church plant. Our new PCA has actually planted another church in a neighboring town. You are right – it is slow to grow, and that is because of the culture of the area. That shouldn’t hinder the placement of a church in areas like ours, however, but it should define how the process should take place. For instance, wearing robes would not be a good idea in areas like ours if you want to slowly teach the principles of the Reformed faith to people who are new to it, for example. They will think you are Roman Catholic and will never get past that image. You have to allow people to grow incrementally and to love the theology of what they are learning, so you can’t take a city church as an example and try to make a rural one just like it. Rural areas tend to be more casual — we need to meet them at that confluence.

  3. “In most towns folks have never heard of the Reformed Church and the only Presbyterians they know are from the PCUSA congregation with the nice lady minister, where they celebrate Gay Pride Day.”

    Yep! Seen that many times.

    Also have the nicest properties, while your local NAPARC church, if there is one, meets in the drafty local community center.

    The last is a comparatively minor complaint, but it saddens me because the people that sacrificed so much for the obtaining of those properties even a few generations ago would not be pleased with the fate of their legacy.

  4. Part of the problem is that a lot of the small rural towns are dying. Agriculture has consolidated into huge holdings worked by big machines. The light manufacturing that used to provide jobs is gone. Many of the kids have moved to hipster areas in the big cities. I’ve heard there’s a lot of economic depression and despair in the countryside. I would think a pastor would have to be bi-vocational in these areas.

    I’ve noticed there isn’t much organic growth from new converts in urban congregations. Most members are from some other church, possibly in an outlying area. These urban congregations are really just a consolidation of members from surrounding areas that feed the city.

    Whatever the strategy, new converts are definitely needed.

  5. Families ARE fleeing places like California. I don’t know all the data, but I have personal experience with a handful of families that have or are planning to leave the Golden State. With the rise and growth of telecommuting, many employers will allow you to work from wherever you settle down. So, maybe “the strategy” in these cases is to move to a place where there are established or new NAPARC churches. When our family was planning to leave California for Minnesota our first question was “is there a Reformed Church there?” Too often we prioritize other luxuries when choosing to relocate, when the question of an available Confessionally Reformed Church (i.e. NAPARC) SHOULD be of primary importance.

    FYI, if any P&R folks are fleeing CA, NY or other urban centers, Vancouver Washington is a beautiful place to live! We are one hour from the coast and one hour from the mountains. We have no income tax and you can shop across the border in Oregon with no sales tax. Plus, the cost of living is reasonably low. 😉

    Thanks for all you do Dr. Clark!

    -Pastor Chris Coleman
    Peace United Reformed Church

  6. I would love a Reformed Confessional Church in my area! For that matter, I would love a Christian Church in my area. The area I live in is the very definition of rural and agricultural. The town I live in (Max) has a population of 50. The county (Dundy) about 2,000. There is a LCMS right on the border to the next county to the north (Chase), but other than that, there is not a single Christian Church in Dundy County. We have a plethora of apostate churches such as ELCA, PCUSA, UMC, UCC, and of course the Romanists. But no Christian Churches. We have a Southern Baptist church, but the SBC is too “Woke” to be considered Christian anymore, and the SBC Pastor here was always going on antisemitic rants. In the next county over, where we go to church, it’s pretty much the same thing. PCUSA, UMC, UCC, and the Romanists. We attend a C&MA church, but for how long I don’t know. Our pastor was very Reformed in his theology, but has since retired. Our preaching elder is a Calvinist, but the denomination is pressuring us to become more liberal, and the C&MA is really going downhill fast in their headlong rush into apostasy.

    To say the rural areas are underserved or not served at all is far more true than you or your readers might realize.

  7. I’ve been waiting for someone to realize this and speak out about it. I would love to be involved in ministering to the rural parts of my neck of the woods; central oregon. There is only one P&R church in like a four hour radius, no shortage of cults and emergent church model Pentecostal congregations though…I’m suffocating out here. There is a rich mission field right here in the wilderness of the PNW…

  8. I’m about an hour and a half from Grace Church in Bend, that is the P&R church I was referencing, Pastor Dan Dillard is a great man, I attend there as regularly as I can. Half of the year the weather is too difficult to make the drive. I’m taking care of my grandmother as a caregiver as of the last 6 years, my grandfather and her both attended the Escondido Reformed church back in the late 80’s and 90’s when Pastor Caminga was still there.

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