Recently I was struggling with a situation and I tried to jot down on my personal blog how I was feeling and it ended up being a lot longer and more personal than I'd expected. But I posted it anyway, and some people started to respond that it has resonating with them in some way or another. And I realized that I need accountability and encouragement on this matter, and that people reading this blog may also benefit from the things I said.
So I decided to cross-post it here with this disclaimer. I also want to note that part of it takes place at or in response to an event hosted by Small Town Summits, which is an awesome work happening in New England that I would encourage you to check out and support and learn from. A link to their website appears in the story below. I also took notes at that event that I was planning to explore some more and share what I learned on this blog; so I wanted to make you aware that while I touch on some things here that I will also touch on in later posts, the focus here is on the impact those things had on my story. Note that because this was originally written for my personal blog rather than this site, it has a somewhat different feel than some of my other posts. I have not edited it in any significant way, only added media and one little note I realized I had missed.
Click "Read More" below for the rest.
So our church is in Fitchburg, a densely-populated post-industrial city with a low median income, a lot of empty storefronts, and a state college. However, a significant portion of our congregation (I’ve heard estimates as high as 40%) lives in Ashby, a low-density town that borders Fitchburg and is largely agricultural with a median income about 40k/year higher than the city. The people in Ashby tend to have deep roots here, and everyone knows everybody and might actually be your cousin.
We live in Ashby.
Now, when we moved here, we knew very little of this. It was just one of the closest towns to our church that qualified for a USDA mortgage which is a pretty sweet gig if you can get it. But our pastor saw an opportunity. Because while he doesn’t mind people coming to church from the next town over, he recognizes that there is a significant culture difference between the people who come from one town versus the other, and that Ashby itself is pretty lacking in churches (there are two, if you count the Unitarian Universalist one, and we aren’t entirely sure what gets preached at the other). So he was already thinking that maybe some of the Ashby people could get together as a core team and do a church plant here. And suddenly one of his most gung-ho church planter members was living in it.
Now, when he first suggested it, it was half joking, and I responded in kind. But the idea never really left my mind. I was opposed to it, which may be a surprise to some, but it was because I knew we were working toward going to Ireland and I didn’t really want to invest too deeply in Ashby and then fly off. Of course, we bought a house and plan to keep it for whenever we’re in the States, so my usual aversion to putting down roots makes no sense, but old habits are hard to break.
But I knew, intellectually, that we should be doing something in Ashby since that’s where we live. We can’t ignore our own town with the excuse that we’re doing ministry in the next town over, I know that, and I know that’s part of why a church plant had even been mentioned. I just wasn’t really on board with it. Then I found out that there already was a church plant here, and I felt I was off the hook for caring about my community because maybe I can just help that team out on the side and boom, just like that, I’m investing in my town and doing church planting work without needing to get my hands dirty or really care about how it pans out. Which is very antithetical to my usual mindset, you see, but I’m used to caring about places like Fitchburg, I grew up in a place like Fitchburg, that’s natural and easy for me and we’re in transition and I’m frustrated about school and the delays on things and do these rich white people really have problems, anyway? Can I just this one time do what I’m comfortable with however I want to do it?
So I made contact with the church plant. I attended a service. I traded contact info with the pastor. And then I watched them get a building! They’ve been in the grind ten years and finally have their own building! That’s awesome!
Their building isn’t in Ashby. They’re leaving. That’s less awesome.
And then we found out we may have a chance to start prefield preparations to go to Ireland right away instead of waiting til my stepson turns 18 in late 2022 and we were all excited and we pursued that and we put all our focus on getting that going and getting to work quickly and leaving Ashby behind to go do the real work we were called to.
…and then we weren’t approved. We have to wait, three years to begin and then probably at least two more years to raise support and take classes and all that.
And I’m back to looking around at Ashby.
And this idea that we need to be working while we’re here, because we’re always on mission, right? And God placed us in Ashby, right? keeps coming up again. And I don’t really know if I want it to be real.
So I go to this conference called Small Town Summits. It’s a pretty great thing, my pastor invited me partly because he knows the guys who run it and is excited to go and bring me along. I’m looking forward to it, if only to be out doing something different. I sign up for a breakout session called Church Planting in Small Places because I mean I love church planting and I love thinking about it and planning it and doing it and sure I’m not trying to do it right now but I will be again and this might be useful and interesting.
I run into people I know there. Somehow the idea of planting in Ashby comes up first thing in the morning. “I’m willing to pray about it,” I say. “I mean, I guess we’re looking at at least five years here now and God can do a fair bit in that time but if He really wants us to do this He needs to tell us.”
They start talking about why we should care about the small, slow, unstrategic places. Why our focus on only planting in big exciting cities is leaving millions of people unserved. I start to remember working with Vita Nova Greenfield back in 2014 and having an eye toward Millers Falls, a tiny little village off to the other side of Montague. I remember telling people I wanted to see something happen there and the only way I could get them to even listen was by convincing them it could reach beyond Millers and being frustrated because there are people in Millers Falls who need to hear the gospel, isn’t that enough? Is it not enough to reach out to people, if you don’t have plans to launch a global movement from it? Are these souls less worthy of work because they don’t have influence on the movers and shakers of the world?
What happened to the guy who thought the souls in Millers were just as valuable as the souls in Greenfield?
A lot can happen in five years, you know.
And I’m meeting people and talking about this and it’s weighing more and more on me. And I take some info cards on Acts 29’s rural church planting initiative. And my pastor asks what breakout session I’m doing and I say church planting and he’s like, really? and I tell him “I have one angle, man.” Do I? Is that how I’m behaving now?
The breakout session leader is talking about how the primary focus cannot be on the church plant, but on the place. We are called to a place, to a people, and church planting is just one option of what we do there. And I feel like I’m being run over by a train.
And the idea of church planting in Ashby is still coming up and I’m wondering if there isn’t something to it. And now this session is talking about the things that hinder our joy in service and we’re put into groups with strangers and told to talk about what’s stealing our joy (but not to find solutions, that will be later) and I realize it’s being stuck in one place because I’m not doing quite what I want to do and change is being slow and we’re getting no closer to Ireland and now there’s this idea to do something else that may or may not be worth exploring and might even delay Ireland more and I’m mad, okay? I’m tired and I’m frustrated and I just want to fix this but I don’t know how.
So one guys reads Philippians 4:11-13 to me. And we’re all praying about the things we’ve said. There’s this voice in my mind going “there’s a lesson here. I’m learning something through this. I’m learning to rely less on my own wits in outsmarting situations, and I need to learn to be where I am instead of always letting my mind be four steps ahead.” I need to let myself invest. I need to care about Ashby.
So I’m repenting. And I’m thinking and praying. On the way home we talk about it. At home I tell Carol, and for the first time since 2017, I’m excited again at the prospect that a church plant might be in our near future. I don’t know what this means. I know that we need to start putting down roots and building relationships and investing here, where we are. I don’t know if that will mean a church plant forms. I know that if it does, then securing someone to lead that after us will be part of the requirements to believe God has opened the door to Ireland. I know we can’t live waiting for something when there are people right here who need the gospel.
And now I kinda want to plant a church in Ashby. But more importantly, I want to do whatever it is God has us do while we’re here.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation