These words of Robert Frost have always been among my favorite. I read them for the first time as a young boy, and they always evoked in me a feeling of both familiarity and curiosity. Growing up in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, only a few hours from New England, I spent much of my childhood walking through wooded paths not much different than the one envisioned by Frost. So I could easily relate to his words on that level. Yet another part of me has always viewed these words with mysterious wonder. What was down these roads? Why was one less traveled? What surprises awaited the intrepid explorer who ventured to the end? As a kid I always wanted to be there with Frost, traveling the same road to see what he discovered at the end. Little did I know at the time that my own journey would lead me down another road less traveled that would find me preparing for ministry in the same small, rural New Hampshire town that Robert Frost once called home.
That’s right, rural New Hampshire. This may come as a surprise to some, but we are not endeavoring to plant a church in a large metropolitan area, or even in a smaller suburban area. Instead, we are focusing our efforts upon a relatively sparsely populated county in northern New Hampshire whose land area is greater than that of the state of Rhode Island, but with a population of only 89,000. In fact, this revelation has come as a surprise to a few people I’ve talked to about our ministry. The impression among some seems to be that there are no people in rural America, or least not enough people for it to be worthwhile ministering there.
And don’t get me wrong. There is certainly a great need for church planting and gospel proclamation throughout the cities and suburbs, and I am grateful to God for those who are endeavoring to reach the lost in those areas, and I pray that God would bless their ministries and allow them to produce much fruit for His glory. Yet there seems to be a tendency among some, especially within the last several years, to elevate the importance of urban ministry while in the process devaluing the importance of ministry in other contexts. For example, there is often talk among missiologists and church planters of how the urban areas of our country continue to grow. As a result, we’re often told that if we are to be serious about ministry we must focus our attention on the urban centers of America.
Yet this call to urban-centric ministry doesn’t take into account all the facts. While it is true that the population of America’s cities are on the rise, what is often not reported is that this increase in population is primarily among those age 25-34, with the peak age being 25-27. But by the time these same 25-34 year olds reach the age of 41 many of them have left the city as they marry, have children, and begin seeking more stable, safer, and less expensive lives away from the action and excitement that drew them to the city to begin with during their younger and more carefree days. I can attest to this reality myself, as I witnessed firsthand the departure of many young, growing families from New York City when I worked there as a professional mover almost ten years ago. Even as I’ve talked recently with those ministering in urban settings this reality has been expressed to me, as well as the challenges this can pose for urban congregations, who see many young, often dedicated believers join in membership with them, only to leave within a few years after they finish college, marry, or begin having kids.This has obvious implications for ministry that is beyond the scope of this article to discuss. But at the very least this trend shows us that if a church planter wants to establish a church that has the potential for long-term stability and spiritual growth among the membership the city may not always be the best place to go.
An urban-centric ministry approach also fails to take into consideration that there are still more than 62 million people or 18% of the population living in rural America, spread out over at least 74% of the U.S. land area. Throughout these wide swaths of the American landscape are thousands of unchurched and unreached communities that are in desperate need of the saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So while there is certainly a need for the gospel in urban areas, we can’t focus all of our attention on the cities and in the process leave the people of rural America to die in their sins without an opportunity to hear God’s message of salvation. If we are truly concerned about reaching our nation with the gospel, we must be intentional about planting churches and proclaiming Christ in even the most remote parts of our nation.
Demographics aside, other factors can also feed into a fascination with urban ministry. As Darryl Hart points out in a recent article on rural ministry, there is a tendency among Christians to love the dramatic and the extraordinary. As a result, we often love to hear riveting stories about great transformations of people whose lives were wrecked by sin before finding salvation in Jesus Christ. This can in turn lead to a strong appeal to urban ministry, because stories like these are easier to come by in the big city, where lives of decadence, disillusionment, and disenfranchisement are more prevalent than in many other places.
But ministry in rural settings is often less spectacular than this and forces us to take greater satisfaction in the routine aspects of life and to see God’s grace at work among ordinary people through the ‘ordinary means of grace.’ By ‘ordinary means of grace’ I’m referring to the designation often made in the Reformed tradition for what the Bible describes as the primary means by which God dispenses His saving and sanctifying grace to His elect. These means are the reading and preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments/ordinances of the church, and prayer. As Ligon Duncan explains, “These are the main ways God’s people grow. We are saved by grace (alone), through faith (alone), in Christ (alone). But the instruments, the tools of God’s grace to bring us to faith and grow us in grace are the Word, prayer, and sacraments. Nothing else we do in the church’s program of ministry should detract from these central instruments of grace, and indeed everything else we do should promote and coalesce with them.”
Yet the grace that comes from these ordinary means doesn’t often produce instant results, whether in bringing salvation to the lost or in providing sanctification for believers. Rather, God’s means of grace often work upon people over long periods of time, in ways that aren’t immediately perceptible to the casual observer, and through a process of spiritual transformation that seldom produces immediate, visible signs of change. This is at least one reason why ministry in a rural context can be so helpful. When you’ve grown accustomed to living where life moves at a slower pace and where everyone takes more time to do just about everything, you can learn more easily to grow content with God when He too chooses to sometimes slowly and patiently work through His people by His means of grace to accomplish His will in their lives.
This isn’t meant to imply that those in urban ministry contexts don’t rely upon God’s ordinary means of grace for accomplishing their ministries. In fact, some of the greatest examples of a faithfulness to the ‘ordinary means’ can be found in churches located in cities like New York, Philadelphia, or Washington D.C. But as Hart points out, there is a tendency that can arise in urban ministry contexts to seek out the extraordinary examples of God’s redemption to the point of disregard and even dissatisfaction with examples of ordinary conversions. This in turn can cause believers to lose sight of the contentment and joy that can so often be found through the average and ordinary things of life, as we wait patiently for God to act in His own good time.
Sure, it takes more time to plant a church in a rural area, more time to do just about everything. And a rural church planter like myself will probably never have a church that is very large. And there are bound to be many other unique challenges that I will face as a rural minister that ministers in other contexts may never encounter. But the benefits of planting a church, and doing life and ministry along the road less traveled, out in the rural parts of America, I think, far outweigh the struggles and obstacles to be faced. Because it is often in these rural areas, amidst the grandeur of God’s creation, in the midst of the daily routines of life, and among ordinary people, living ordinary lives, that God through His ‘ordinary means of grace’ accomplishes some of the most extraordinary things as He miraculously saves sinners and transforms them into the image of His Son “from one degree of glory to another,” (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV).
“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” – 1 Corinthians 2:2 (ESV)
It has now been a little over a month since my last post, and two months since the launch of our ministry. During this time God has continued to bless our ministry and has allowed us numerous opportunities to connect with churches around the country. We have already had the privilege of presenting our ministry at three churches, and have four additional churches scheduled to speak at from now until the end of March! I have also had the opportunity to meet with pastors from several additional churches on top of that. In the process we have made many new friends and have been able to visit several new places. On one of our recent trips we were even able to spend a few hours at the beach! The water was cold, but we all had a great time. And being there on the beach, viewing the vast expanse of the ocean reminded me of the infinitely greater vastness of our God, who created that ocean and allows us to play in it. But just as the ocean is so vast, yet so accessible, God is so immense and high above us in every way, yet is ever near and close to us through the person and work of His Son.
The kids are also starting to get use to the travel that we have to do and are enjoying visiting different churches. So thank you to all who have been praying for us about that. As I mentioned in my previous post, it can be difficult to travel with six kids. But God has blessed us with some very good trips so far. And He has also blessed me with a wonderful wife who has become increasingly adept at handling our energetic little bunch in a variety of settings and situations.
As for my daily routine of contacting churches, that too has continued to go well. I have now called nearly 550 churches in the last two months and am regularly encouraged by the conversations I’ve been able to have with pastors and other church staff. It is still a wearisome undertaking at times, but God continues to give me perseverance and motivation as I get in touch with additional churches. And many of the conversations I’ve been able to have recently have served to provide additional confirmation of the need for church-planting and gospel proclamation in New Hampshire and of God’s call upon our family to that area.
As I discuss our ministry with others and continue to think and pray about the vision that God has given for New Hampshire and New England I am increasingly aware of the importance of gospel-centered ministry and how necessary it is to be gospel-centered, not just for a church-plant in Grafton County, New Hampshire, but for anywhere one may minister. In fact, this is the focus of our entire ministry, to proclaim the gospel to northern New Hampshire and establish a gospel-centered church plant. So as indicated in my previous post, I plan to work my way through our ministry vision in more detail by focusing on what it means to be a gospel-centered church. This post will begin that process by providing a very brief introduction of gospel-centeredness.
Admittedly, the term gospel-centered is of modern parlance. The phrase isn’t found in Scripture, and even among Christian authors of more than two or three decades ago the term is almost entirely absent. Yet I believe the ideas encapsulated in this phrase are thoroughly biblical and help to provide us with some clear Scriptural guidelines for ministry.
So what does it mean to be gospel-centered or to have a gospel-centered church? In the introduction to our ministry vision we ask this question, and in answering it we state that a gospel-centered church is “simply a church that strives to exalt Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ above all else.” Now that may seem like a rather obvious and even simple definition of what it means to be a gospel-centered church. After all, what evangelical church would argue that they don’t strive to exalt the person and work of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of those truths above all else? But what I believe separates truly gospel-centered churches from churches that only claim to be gospel-centered is how a church’s commitment to gospel-centrality integrates itself into the life and ministry of the church. In other words, how does the gospel shape the way we do church and the way we live our lives as believers?
In 1 Corinthians 2:2 the apostle Paul begins to an answer this question. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” (ESV). Here Paul provides a glimpse into his own life and ministry, a life and ministry that had Jesus Christ and the gospel of Jesus Christ at its center. Paul was determined to “know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” This doesn’t mean that Paul taught only evangelistically or that he spoke exclusively on the message of the cross. It’s obvious from Paul’s other writings that this wasn’t the case and that Paul strived to proclaim “the whole counsel of God,” (Acts 20:27). Yet it is clear from 1 Corinthians 2 and elsewhere in the New Testament that in all that Paul taught “the theme of his preaching ministry was only and always Christ.” In the person and work of Christ Paul recognized “a depth and complexity…that encompassed the whole of his message, with all of its variety of topics and implications, and thereby addressed the whole spectrum of human need.” This type of gospel-centeredness is in turn true not only of preaching and teaching, but of all aspects of Christian ministry. The message of Christ and Him crucified should work its way into each component of church life to such an extent that it can be truly said of a church that they are gospel-centered. In our ministry vision, we identify four primary means by which we can strive to achieve such gospel-integration in our church-plant. We state that we will place emphasis in our church on:
“A God-centered message of God’s grace through Jesus Christ that points people to the greatness and sovereignty of God over all things and the completeness of Christ’s sacrifice for both salvation and sanctification.
Gospel-centered worship structured around the elements of the gospel and focused on Christ-centered preaching, teaching, and reading of the Word.
A simplified but meaningful ministry structure that highlights the simplicity and depth of the gospel.
Allowing our belief in the gospel to permeate everything we do in life and aid in the development of a gospel-centered worldview that helps us to proclaim in word and deed that the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Each of the four areas listed above goes to the heart of what we believe it means to be a gospel-centered church. Each of these areas touches upon some of our theological convictions. Some address our church polity. Others focus attention on our mode of worship and general ministry philosophy. Still others touch upon such issues of how to engage the surrounding culture with the gospel and how we should live in the midst of that culture as believers. Yet in all of these areas we seek to reflect our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to display our desire for the gospel to pervade everything we do. In several future posts I hope to work my way through these four areas, one-by-one, in order to provide greater clarity and analysis of the ways in which we will seek to implement gospel-centeredness through our ministry in northern New Hampshire. So stay tuned!
 Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ From All the Scriptures, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Protestant & Reformed Publishing, 2007), 75.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18 (ESV)
It’s now been about a month and half since the launch of our ministry and I thought it would be a good time to provide an update on our progress so far in raising support to relocate to New Hampshire. I also plan to make additional posts on a fairly regularly basis on other topics pertinent to our ministry and ministry in general, and may even attempt to blog my way through our ministry vision in a more detailed manner. So stay tuned!
Well, as for our progress in raising support, I am happy to report that our calendar is filling up with churches to visit. We have three potential supporting churches that I will be presenting our ministry to in the next few weeks, a few more churches that have invited me to meet with their pastoral staff in view of potential support, and several other churches that I’m in conversation with about arranging meetings. Next week in particular will be especially busy as I have two meetings scheduled and one church at which to speak. Please be in prayer for us as we prepare for these meetings, that they would be productive times, and that God’s will would be accomplished. We’d love it if all of the churches we’ll be visiting would decide to partner with us in our ministry. But more than anything, our desire is that God’s will would be clearly discerned in each of these situations and that His desires would be fulfilled. We are also happy to report that we have an additional church that has committed to support our ministry at a later date. We still have a long way to go in this process, but things are gradually moving ahead toward the goal that we have set for our departure to New Hampshire. Please also be in prayer for us that the kids would do well as we travel and that they would have an enjoyable time in the process. It can be difficult to travel with six kids, and some of the churches we will be visiting are several hours away. Pray also for Mollie that she would have an easy time with the kids while I’m occupied speaking or away meeting with pastors. Most of all, be in continued prayer for the people of northern New Hampshire that God would soften their hearts and make them open and receptive to receiving His Word.
It has certainly been an exciting and busy time as I have contacted churches to present our ministry. Since December 3rd I’ve called nearly 350 churches and have had the opportunity to speak with countless pastors, church-planters, and other ministry leaders. Some days have been greatly encouraging. Many of the pastors I speak with are very excited about the work we’re doing and grateful for our desire to plant a church in an area of the United States that is so desperately in need of a true gospel presence. It has also been a great encouragement to speak with many pastors who are committed to Reformed doctrine and practice, as we are, and to see how the rich biblical teachings encapsulated in Reformed theology continue to grow in influence throughout the American church, and especially among church-planters. It has also been encouraging to come in contact with many churches that are themselves recent church plants and to hear how many of these churches are growing and flourishing for the glory of God. God is doing a great work in our nation through church-planting, but with some regions of our country still unreached with the gospel of Jesus Christ many new churches are still needed.
Calling churches for several hours each day can be exhausting work as well, both spiritually and physically, and some days have stretched both my faith and my stamina. Yet through it all, I have been reminded repeatedly of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18 that He would build His church, and “the gates of hell” (or more accurately “the realm of death”) shall not prevail against it. That is to say, the resurrected and exalted Christ is at work in the world establishing his church, and those who confess Christ, as Peter did in the preceding verses of Matthew 16, have passed from death to life. And nothing, not even death, can prevail against those who are in Christ, or keep Christ’s kingdom from advancing through the earth by the spread of the gospel, in accordance with God’s will. This realization has helped me to continue to pursue the vision that God has given us for a church in northern New Hampshire. I know that God will build His church and gather His sheep to Himself (John 10:16), and I am confident that this includes New Hampshire.
I am also greatly encouraged by other Scriptural truths that help me to see more clearly the big picture of God’s eternal plan for not only New Hampshire, but the whole world. Truths such as that conveyed in Isaiah 55:11, where God declares, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.’” Truths like that found in Hebrews 4:12, which tells us that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Truths like those expressed in John 6; Romans 9; Ephesians 1 and 5; and Revelation 13:8 and 17:8, among other places, which show that God has chosen a great multitude for Himself from among humanity, and has purposed from eternity to give them to His Son.
Because of these truths, I know that regardless of what role God allows me to play in proclaiming His message of redemption and serving Him in His church, the gospel will go forth with power and effectiveness, God’s kingdom will advance on this earth, and the Word of God will come to those whom God has purposed to save. The Lord has His elect in New Hampshire, God’s Word will come to them, and they will respond in repentance and faith. This is our confidence. Not a confidence in our abilities. Not a confidence in my skill at raising support or planting a church. Not a confidence in persuasive presentations or convincing arguments. But a confidence in our gracious and sovereign Lord, who by the power of His Spirit, and through the merits of His Son, will redeem a people for Himself “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” (Rev. 7:9) to the praise of His glory and grace.
This is what motivates us as we proclaim the saving message of Jesus Christ and prepare to do so full time in New Hampshire. This is what motivates me as I call and visit churches. And this is what ought to motivate and encourage each one of us as we faithfully share the gospel with others and live out the ramifications of the gospel in our daily lives. These Scriptural truths show us that while we have a responsibility to proclaim the gospel and live in light of the gospel in all we do, it is Christ who saves and God’s Spirit who convinces and convicts sinners. What wonderful truths these are, which allow us to proclaim Christ in boldness and freedom, knowing that it is not up to us to save anyone. We are merely tools in our master’s hands. After all, “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth,” (1 Cor. 3:7). Rather than that leave us in pessimistic doubt about the success or effectiveness of our witness, these truths provide us with the confident assurance that all of God’s purposes will come to pass! Christ will build His church: in Grafton County, New Hampshire, in your neighborhood, wherever that may be, and throughout the world, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.