Jesus went to small towns because they had big problems. Rev. Donnie Griggs speaks on why small town ministry is important at RTS Charlotte.
Introduction: It’s my privilege to introduce our speaker, Pastor Donnie Griggs, from One Harbor Church in Moorehead City, and as I introduce him, just a little background about how we met. My family for many years has vacationed out in Beaufort, North Carolina, different from Buford, South Carolina, for those of you who are not up to that, and that’s near Moorehead City. For years, we were looking for a good church there. If you know anything about coastal churches in these small towns, it’s hard to find ones that actually preach the gospel. One year we heard about One Harbor. We stumbled in there and thought, “We’ll give this church a try.” We were wonderfully refreshed by the fact that they taught and preached and proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It was wonderful.
I did a little research on who they were, met Donnie, and found out they’ve got several different churches in Moorehead, Beaufort now, multiple sites there, and just doing some great work in that area. I was really excited to see the church planning mentality there in a smaller town. We are excited to have him here, not only to preach in chapel, but of course, do the church planter lunch at noon. He’s written a wonderful book called Small Town Jesus. I’ve got it on my shelf. It’s a great look at a whole new world of church planning.
His wife, Jill, is here with him, also some friends, and they’ve got two kids. I got to say something about your kids’ names. I love these names. So their kids names are Jedidiah Owen and Wyatt Jude. Some long thought was put into those two names. All kinds of biblical, historical, church references there. Love it. We’re excited to have Donnie here and sharing God’s Word with us and looking forward to some wisdom we can glean from him while he is with us. So Donnie come and share God’s Word with us.
Donnie Griggs: It’s great to be with you guys. This is me dressed up. I was e-mailing yesterday. I was turkey hunting, sitting in the woods, and I was like, “Man, what should I wear?” I emailed, and I got it back, “Well, usually it’s a jacket and tie.” Then I spent a few minutes e-mailing friends who might own such such clothing items and couldn’t find anything that would fit me. So I e-mailed back, “What if I don’t wear that? Is that going to be seen as disrespectful?” So anyway.
How I Developed a Heart for Small Towns
My name is Donnie. I was born and raised in a little tiny town called Moorehead City, surrounded by even smaller towns. We’ve got islands like this little island town of Davis, where a lot of the people, their last name is still Davis. We have guys in our church from Davis; their names are Davis Davis. That’s where I’m from.
I left high school, ‘99, I graduated. I was gone for about 10 years. Lived in Texas for a while and then lived in Southern California for a while. I did a lot of short-term mission trips all around the world. It was the first time I’d been on a plane, got to see the world, and then I really plugged into a church in LA, north Orange County, Los Angeles sort of area. That’s where I learned about church planting. That’s when I started reading about church planning. I assumed that based on what I’d read and based on what I was experiencing, that I’d be giving my life to planting a church in a major city.
Very long story short, we visited my hometown on kind of a throwaway trip, and my wife and I and a couple other friends ran into a whole bunch of folks I’d grown up with and gone to school with, and it all seemed like they were in a race to go to hell the fastest. And we got on a plane to go back home to California and our heart just broke. That’s what happened. Our heart broke.
There’s this moment in the gospels where Jesus comes upon this crowd, and he says, they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. And he had compassion on them. That’s what happened to us. Again, long story short, within a few months, we packed everything we owned into our little Toyota 4Runner. Our church had taken up an offering. We got 800 dollars. For you guys here, thinking about church planning, you can do it. You can do it cheap. On the way there, we hit black ice in Texas, and we rolled over in a ditch and went upside down, totaled our car. The next day, we packed everything into a rental van and kept driving. We got to town on Friday, started church on Sunday, and we just went for it.
Dealing with the Obscurity of Small Town Ministry with Theological Conviction
For a while though, to be honest with you, I dealt with this subconscious feeling that I wouldn’t have said to anybody else, but I felt like I’d been benched. Do you know the terminology? You’re playing sports and it’s just not working out, so they put you on the bench. That’s kind of what I had felt. I didn’t say this to anyone, but if God really wanted to use me, why would he stick me in the middle of nowhere? Why would God do that? Sort of like God had a passive-aggressive way of handling me, like, “Let’s just let’s stick him out there.” There’s so many cities. Why waste my life in this little town? That kind of what I felt for a while.
We’ve got a long way to go, but God is really at work in small towns.And what happened over time was I grew in two things. One, I grew in theological conviction about the place I was in, and I grew in a missional reality. What is it really like here in this little town with church buildings on every corner? And through that, God really showed me not only that he wanted me to be there and have purpose for me to be there, but that it was a worthwhile cause.
As Mike said, I wrote a book eventually because there just wasn’t much out there on it. I’ve spent the last several years meeting lots of church planters and pastors and folks from all over the world in small towns, from Australia to South Africa. I do a lot of work in the UK: Wales and Ireland and Scotland and all over the place, and then across the states. What I’ve learned is two things. We’ve got a long way to go, but God is really at work in small towns. He’s really doing amazing stuff.
But if we’re going to make a difference, we’re going to need an army of both existing pastors in these little towns and new churches. We’re going to need an army of folks who are going to go all in and be serious about bringing the gospel to small towns and rural communities. I want to take a few minutes to talk about those two things. Theological conviction and what’s it really like in small towns if you’re going to do ministry?
We don’t have a lot of time. I’m available to talk afterwards. I’m available at lunch. I’ll give you my contact details. We’ve got a website I blog on and do stuff on. We’re not going to cover everything, but we’re going try to cover a few things. I’ve got a verse here just to help us see where Jesus went and why he went there. A very simple verse in Matthew 9:35 from the ESV says:“Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages.” The villages there are just unwalled places. They couldn’t afford a a wall. They’re a tiny, little unprotected place. And “he’s teaching in their synagogues, and he’s proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and he’s healing every disease and every affliction.” This is what Jesus did.
Jesus Did Ministry in Big Cities and Small Towns
This little verse can help us a lot. Just a few points from this. First is that Jesus did ministry in big cities and small towns. Jesus did both.
I was speaking at a church in Southern California last year and someone pulled me aside and said, “We heard you’re in a small town. We go to a Bible college. And they were teaching us how sometimes people move from small towns to big cities, and maybe some of these people end up in a really good church, and maybe sometimes those people who end up in a good church, maybe they move back to their small town, and maybe some of those people are going to help start a church. And so that’s good news for you guys, right?” And I was like, “That sounds like terrible news.” There’s a lot of maybes involved to get the gospel to a place like where I live. If that’s if that’s the modus operandi we’ve got, we’re in trouble.
Jesus could’ve started in a city and hoped to trickle down to the small towns sometime later, but Jesus didn’t. He could have, but he didn’t.
Jesus Addressed the Big Problems in Small Towns
The next thing we see is that Jesus did really big things in these little towns. Jesus didn’t do second-rate miracles. Jesus didn’t say, “If you want to see the real show, join us next week in the big city.” He didn’t do that. He did this effective, amazing ministry: miracles and teaching in little towns.
Jesus went to these small towns because they had big problems.Jesus went to these small towns because they had big problems. The small towns didn’t have small problems and the big cities had big problems. Jesus went and he did the same thing in both because they both had really big problems that only he could solve. They needed him. This wasn’t a publicity stunt for Jesus. He cared about people. He valued everyone. People mattered to Jesus. When you see Jesus go in, he’s dealing with crazy beliefs they have about God that need correction, diseases and afflictions that only he could heal. They needed to hear and they needed to see both of those things, to hear and see the gospel of the kingdom demonstrated in front of them, proclaimed and demonstrated. Jesus went and did this. He went to small towns because they had big problems.
Now for us today, what are small towns like?
People mattered to Jesus.I think a lot of times we think of Mayberry, the Andy Griffith Show, which is about an hour and a half from here. But the reality is that that’s not the case. Small towns today have really big problems. The Wall Street Journal wrote an article recently where the headline was “Rural America Is the New Inner City.”
A quote from that article: “In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance, male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas).” That doesn’t even get close to the addiction problems that we’re facing. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently said the rate of drug overdose deaths in rural areas has surpassed rates in urban areas. It is a huge public health concern.
My brother’s been a heroin addict for the last 20 years. Probably the worst heroin addict in our county. He reckons he’s stuck a needle in his arm 20,000 times. He got high last summer and beat my parents up, so we got him locked up. At court for his court date I was there, and this little old church lady—that’s what she looked like to me—was sitting in front of us. The judge said, “No one in this courtroom has not been affected by someone in their life from heroin.” And this lady turned around on me. She said, “Not me. I don’t associate with people like that.” And my response is, “Well, if you live here, you associate with people like that.” Everybody in our community is affected by heroin.
At Easter, I spent probably an hour and a half talking to people after the last service dealing with their addiction, people wanting to know if Jesus can really help them. And the range of those people was, I’m not kidding you, a 14-year-old girl all the way to a grandma, wanting to know, can Jesus help me with my heroin addiction? Every week I talk with addicts wondering the same thing. I’m the chaplain for our fire department, our E.M.S., and it’s absolutely insane the amount of calls that we get called to. People laid overdosed in the bathroom of the Waffle House dead and nobody even knew they were there. It becomes normal to get called out of bed in the middle of the night to go to an overdose.
It’s not enough if we just reach the cities because all people everywhere matter.My thought is that it’s time that we prioritize ministry in small towns. We’ve prioritized the suburbs. We did that for a while. We captivated a generation to the beauty and the power of church planting in big cities, thanks to incredible leadership by guys like Tim Keller. Phenomenal. And that’s all really good. We need to keep doing those things. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough if we just reach the suburbs. It’s not enough if we just reach the cities because all people everywhere matter. That means that these people in little towns, they’re also made in God’s image, and because they’re made in God’s image, they’re worth us prioritizing. They’re worth us reaching.
God saw these little towns when he made the earth and said they were good too. Knowing that they wouldn’t have a Target, he still said they were good. Knowing that they wouldn’t have really great small batch coffee, he still said they were good. Knowing that if you did ministry there, you might not have the biggest social media profile, he still said they were good. Frankly, the gospel is the hope for small town America.
The gospel is the hope for small town America.Yeah, but don’t they have a church on every single corner? Yeah, but nobody is going to these churches. And if they’re going, they’re probably just hearing morality. I’m pretty sure here at this amazing seminary, you learn that morality is not the same thing as the gospel, but that’s what most people are hearing. I’ve got a friend who grew up in church in North Carolina who asked me what was Easter all about. She literally thought it was about bunnies. That’s what she thought. We have atheists getting saved on Sundays.
Don Carson says that there’s a generation who will believe the gospel, the next generation will assume the gospel, and the next generation denies the gospel. Well, in small town America, we’re dealing with a generation of people who have fully just denied the gospel because their parents assumed it. They have the gospel of do better and try harder, but it’s not good news. They put their hope in morality, hard work, America, Donald Trump, you name it, but it’s left them heartsick because only the gospel can save. We’re seeing people who others would have and did give up on, people who should be dead, and they’re thriving now because of the gospel. It really is hope for the hopeless. It really can set the captive free. It really can take you from death to life.
A guy named Derek Jenkins showed up at our church on the second Sunday. We were meeting in the living room. It felt like a cult, a handful of people in a living room. He’d been invited the night before. He came in to say he had 10 minutes he could stay for. I was like, “Well, it’s church. It’s going to be a little longer than that.” He ended up staying the whole time and kept coming back.
Two and a half weeks later, he showed up at my house. And he said, “Do you know where I had to go that time I told you 10 minutes?” I said, “No.” He said, “I was going to go kill myself.” He said, “I’d been a heroin addict, and they told me if I got sober, I’d be happy. I got sober, and I was just aware of all the things I was unhappy about. So I decided to go and end my life and someone invited me to your church. I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it 10 minutes.’” Now, he’s helped us start one of our sites. He’s on the worship team. He leads a community group. He’s on the road to becoming an elder. He’s thriving because of the gospel. He should be dead.
We’ve got someone in our church who when we started the church, they were stripping to support their crack habit. And me and Jill would go to their house and be with their kids because they’d strip all night and then they’d go get high on crack and they weren’t there with their little kids. Now they’re thriving because of the gospel. It is hard work, but is rewarding.
Not Everyone Should Go to Small Towns, but Some Should
Now, the last thing I’ll say is that not everyone should go to small towns, but some should. Like Luther said, we are kind of like a drunk guy on a horse, falling off one side and then falling off the other. I am in no way advocating that we abandon cities or suburbs for rural. That’s crazy. People need the gospel in big cities. People need the gospel in suburbs. I’m just saying everybody needs it. That’s my argument: if all people matter, and the gospel is the only cure, then we should take the gospel everywhere. If it was good enough for Jesus, if it was important enough for Jesus in three years of earthly ministry to spend time like he did, it should be good enough for us. If it was good enough for Jesus to send his disciples, it should be good enough for us.
If all people matter, and the gospel is the only cure, then we should take the gospel everywhere.We should take gospel ministry seriously no matter where we’re taking it. We should take it seriously. We shouldn’t use small towns as stepping stones for bigger and better things. We should go in there with conviction, with our hands gripped on the plow. We’re not looking left; we’re not looking right. We’re there to make a difference. The work is hard, the field is big, the harvest is plentiful, and we need a lot of skilled laborers.
I just want to end with this verse from Romans 10. Paul has just got done saying how the gospel is so good, it can save anybody. He says, “But how will they call on the name whom they have not believed? How do they believe in him of whom they’ve never heard? How are they to hear without someone preaching? How are they to preach unless they were sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news.’”
We’ve got this Jesus who brought good news to the poor in really seemingly unimportant places, little towns that couldn’t even afford a wall, and then sent disciples to do the same. I’d love you to join us in praying for more and more of that. That’s what I want. I want to see more and more of that. I want to see us taking the gospel seriously, everywhere, including little unimportant towns like mine. Amen.