Doing Big Church in a Small Town

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Sometimes it was heaven, sometimes hell
Kinda like church, kinda like jail
There's a water tower says ‘Welcome to nowhere'
As soon as I could I was long gone
My jeans were torn and my hair was long
Now I can't believe I wanna go back there
To a small town, to a small town

– The Great American Poet: Kenny Chesney

I don’t live in Atlanta.

I don’t have a flat in New York or a place just outside the city in Chicago.

My city has 1 mall, 4 McDonalds, 2 Starbucks and 1 Target that’s not “Super”. We don’t have much traffic, the book mobile from the library parks on the street in front of my house and I’m not all that worried if I forget to lock my front door. It’s right in the middle. Big enough to have local restaurants and a community college but small enough to always run into people you know at Lowes.

It’s Micropolitan.

The U.S. Census Bureau created this designation for cities that have populations between 10,000 and 50,000. These unique mid-sized cities fill the gaps in our country between metropolitan cities. Millions of Americans live in Micropolitan communities, wanting to live somewhere slightly less metro; but with more amenities than rural communities. These cities have become regional hubs for people who live in rural areas around them to, eat, shop, get medical attention and go to community college.

Doing church in a Micropolitan city has it’s unique challenges. Often people are really excited “to get out” when they grow up, it’s a much smaller percentage of people that stay or come back post-college. There’s a slightly smaller pool of leaders and resources. Worst of all, if you need to visit the Apple Genius bar you’ll be in the car for an hour, minimum.

Unlike most metropolitan areas, church people in Micropolitan communities still come to expect certain things from their churches. Most Micropolitan church leaders keep with the status quo leaving the truly innovative Ministry to those church’s in Metro areas. These Micropolitan Church People expect things like green carpet with gold fixtures, carry-in dinners and a painting of Jesus in the hall. They expect a ministry for every person in every age group, a knitting club, and the Christian flag stage left with the American Flag stage right. They expect the music to not be too loud and the garland to be in full force at Christmas in all its green glory. Biggest of all they, expect the church to be safe, clean and mostly all about them and their friends.

The micropolitan church is not just unique in challenge it’s ripe with opportunity.

You can change from surviving your city to leveraging it. You can do big church in a small city. So many micropolitan churches leave truly innovative ministry to the big boys in the big cities and are simply missing an amazing opportunity.

You can change your thinking right now. The path to innovative ministry in a Micropolitan context travels through these 4 strategic shifts. Each shift has a “conversation starter” that you can use to talk through some of these shifts.

Shift 1: Embrace your city or move.

Fall in love with your city or get out. See your location how God sees it and leverage it for the Glory of God.

Too many church leaders waste their minutes, hours, days or weeks wishing they somewhere else. Dreaming about what it would be like to do church in a different city. If that’s God, move, if it’s just you, stop it. It’s an epidemic in Micropolitan communities. There’s people all around you that need Jesus and you can be a part of that. No matter what size city you’re in, there’s something beautiful that God wants to do right there, that only you can do! Ask yourself, does God want a life-giving cutting edge church in our city? Of course He does! Change your thinking, fall in love, and get to work! There’s an opportunity here to not just survive your city but to do truly innovative ministry right where you live!

CONVERSATION: What are things about my city that I love? What limitations could really be opportunities? What are some specific ways we could leverage our location?

Shift 2: Think Regionally.

Stretch your thinking beyond your city. Micropolitan cities are hubs of small cities around them. People in these more rural cities will drive 45 minutes to hit the Wal- Mart or Library, so expand your thinking from just your city to your region. There’s an opportunity here to reach beyond the outline of your city to influence the region.

CONVERSATION: An awesome place to begin thinking regionally would be with this tutorial from UnSeminary. It will help you create an interactive Google map that will locate where people live that attend your church. Check it out and start dreaming about reaching beyond your city. After you see this map, how could we intentionally reach people in our region beyond our city?

Shift 3: Go 10% Farther.

You need to get your hustle on and work 10% harder. I’m not talking about rocking an 80 hour week. Most of the time if you’re pulling that many hours every week you just need to fix your broken systems and handoff ministry.

The strategic shift here is really just to go 10% further.

You might look at the “big city” church and think it’s all about money. It’s not. I’ve had the privilege of being up close to a lot of large-scale ministries and I’m consistently blown away. Not by how much money they spend, but by how hard they work. They consistently have 1 extra meeting, go 1 level deeper, spend 1 hour longer on creativity, have 1 more feedback loop; they just get their hustle on. It’s ironic because the church’s you perceive that could step off the gas don’t, and that should be a lesson to each of us to step on it. This shift in thinking has the power to explode the effectiveness of your ministry.


CONVERSATION: Central Christian Church in Las Vegas is a church of more than 20,000 people with 5 campuses in Nevada, 1 in Arizona, 2 in Florida, 1 in a prison, and even 1 in Australia. Last year for Easter they literally CALLED every person in their database to invite them to the service. In what specific areas do we need to go 10% farther?

Shift 4: Stop Adding and Start Multiplying.

The baseline activity for your church isn’t making the best environment or finding the right strategy it’s empowering the right people. So many micropolitan churches miss this. The thinking is “If I just get a little more” or “if I get 1 more volunteer here” or “If I just get this sign-up sheet filled” then we’ll be all set. Here’s the strategic shift, stop adding and start multiplying. Adding is slow, multiplying is explosive.

Often these churches are right on the verge of “staff being able to do everything” and they keep the ministry scaled to what they can do. They add and subtract people from their pond of ministry. Take away this, add this, tweak this. Multiplication is far from a pond, it’s a rushing river and it can begin one person at a time. Every ministry, every role, every small group, the core of everything your church does could be multiplication.

Take the core of your vision, your mission, the reason why your church exists, and think about it, I guarantee it’s about multiplication! More people finding Jesus! Every activity your church does could pull in the same direction! This was the plan of Jesus and there’s an incredible opportunity here in the micropolitan church! Influence can happen rapidly so expansion can happen quickly. In this smaller setting radical change can almost happen overnight. Think how differently you can steer a jet boat and the Titanic. You can decide right now that Multiplication is the new baseline model of your church and you can make it happen! Strategically shift your thinking in this way and watch as God does incredible things in your city!


CONVERSATION: Can everything we do be reproduced? Let’s put every single thing our church does on the whiteboard and have a conversation about practical steps we could take to set them up for multiplication. How could we move from a pond to a rushing river?

If I’m honest I do wish we had an Apple store here. I wish that there was a GAP in our mall. I wish that I could find twice as many high-capacity leaders. I have moments when I think that this whole leading a church thing would be a lot easier in a bigger city. But you know what? Those moments are becoming fewer and fewer for me. It’s not because those things are true or not true (we really don’t have a GAP), it’s because God has captured my heart with something greater.

It’s not just surviving my city, it’s leveraging it for the Glory of God. I don’t see those limitations, I see the opportunities. I see the future.

I see God doing incredible work.
I see unique possibilities.
I see incredible people that God so desperately loves.

I see the local church as the hope of the world, the hope of my city.

Jason Lee is dad to two girls and husband to his beautiful wife of 11 years.  When he’s not watching Disney princess movies and attending tea parties, he serves as the Executive Pastor at Oakbrook Church.  Oakbrook is an innovative multi-site church in Kokomo, Indiana with regional campuses in Micropolitan and rural communities.  You can find Oakbrook online at 

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