Although the U.S. has grown to an increasingly urban from agrarian society throughout its nearly 250-year history, Gerad G. Strong believes rural America is one of the biggest mission fields in the world. One in five Americans still lives in what is considered a rural area, with a population under 10,000.
“It’s a relatively untapped and very viable ministry opportunity,” says Strong, who serves as executive pastor of Northplace Church in Sasche, Texas. About six months ago, Strong stepped into a new role with the Church Multiplication Network. He serves as rural team director for the Assemblies of God national ministry, in addition to his pastoral responsibilities. In his CMN function, Strong facilitates Launch training events each month, in which church planters are coached and mentored in order to contextualize church planting principles for rural, suburban, and urban areas.
And Strong, 41, knows what he’s talking about. Previously, while pastoring Bethel Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, he revitalized a rural church and then planted a multisite church with locations in several small communities. Now, at Northplace Church, Strong helps operate a development program for rural pastors called the Water Tower Network. Through this ministry, rural pastors of all seasons, whether just beginning to plant or well established in ministry, collaborate in a yearlong cohort to learn and grow together.
Although a megachurch, Northplace has a history of ministry in rural areas. According to Strong, 60% of counties across the United States are classified as rural. While these areas are often ripe with small churches, not all are actively pursuing the lost.
Strong notes that the need for healthy, relevant churches in these areas is only increasing. As the COVID-19 pandemic creates more opportunities for telework, many families are leaving expensive neighborhoods in urban or suburban locales for quieter, smaller towns that offer lower living costs.
One church planter who has been impacted by Strong’s commitment to rural ministry is Cody K. Cochran, an ordained AG minister and senior pastor of Bethel Assembly, an Anson, Texas-based multisite church with campuses in four rustic communities. Cochran is part of the CMN rural ministry team.
“Gerad understands rural,” says Cochran. “And what the Church Multiplication Network is saying right now is that rural ministry really matters.”
With more than two decades of bucolic ministry under his belt, Cochran knows that this context is tough. He believes that in order to reach rural America, pastors need to reinvent how they’ve ministered in the past.
“We’ve got to throw on a pair of Levis and tennis shoes and come off the platform if we want to reach these folks,” Cochran says. The longtime country resident certainly does his part to be relevant and authentic, often wearing a farmer’s cap and cowboy boots while preaching.
“There is a specific mentality that goes along with a rural context,” Strong says. “It’s being leery of outsiders, a pioneering mindset, and a tendency to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if possible.”
Many rural pastors also are bivocational, serving full time in ministry while simultaneously holding down another full-time job in order to meet the needs of their families. In communities where churchgoers may have fewer economic opportunities, churches often are unable to offer a full-time salary for lead pastors.
“These men and women pastoring in forgotten towns across the U.S. are just as deserving of respect as missionaries serving in isolated areas all around the world,” Strong says. He has written about the need for ministry in rural America in his new book, The Forgotten Field.