Influence

 the shape of leadership

Planting in Small Places

How one Missouri church is reaching rural communities

Plato, Missouri — an unincorporated village with a population of 109 — may not seem like an obvious place to plant a new church. Yet that’s what Pastor Kevin Larsen says God called him to do.

Average attendance has yet to top single digits since the church’s soft launch last January, but Larsen isn’t focusing on numbers.

“If you don’t have a lot of patience, rural ministry is not for you,” says the Detroit native. “It can be tough. That’s where faith comes in — realizing God builds the church, not me.”

Larsen’s congregation is one of 17 parent-affiliated Assemblies of God churches Life360 Church has planted across southern Missouri.

“Our approach is to plant in smaller, rural towns that have public schools and no AG church,” says Ted Cederblom, vision pastor of the multisite church and lead pastor of the main Life360 campus in Springfield, Missouri. “You’d think anyone in their right mind would go where there are a lot of people, but God has given us a heart for rural America.”

Cederblom, the son of Assemblies of God missionaries Larry and Dorothy Cederblom, grew up on the mission field in Panama. When Cederblom became the pastor of Park Crest Assembly of God in 2003, he wanted to see it become a multiplying church. The congregation changed its name to Life360 to reflect the vision of moving beyond Springfield’s Park Crest neighborhood and taking the life-giving message of Jesus in all directions.

Although some of the early church plants did not last, Life360 persisted — and finally found its niche in rural ministry.

“We’ve always had a permission-to-fail approach,” Cederblom says. “Our failures are where we learned and grew.”

Today, Life360 has about 1,200 attendees — 400 at the main campus and 800 across the other 16 locations. Each church has a lead pastor and associate, with full-time salaries provided through the Life360 network. Every planting team receives a church van and building, as well as ministry training and support. Lead pastors preach their own messages, and tithes stay in the local congregations.

All the leaders come together weekly to share stories, swap ideas, celebrate wins, encourage one another, and pray.

Cederblom believes those connections are vital. During the 1990s, he discovered how isolating ministry can be while leading a small congregation in inner-city Los Angeles.

“My wife, Robbin, and I were all alone there,” Cederblom says. “I would have given my right hand to have had an associate and a team of people beside me.”

Gaining trust in a small town, where people are often wary of outsiders, takes time, Cederblom says. The first priorities for planting teams are putting down roots, forming relationships, and serving the community.

Rural areas often have high rates of poverty. The churches work closely with local schools to provide feeding programs and other services, often in partnership with Convoy of Hope’s Rural Compassion.

“Every one of our new church planters moves into the town and lives there.”
— Ted Cederblom

Sam and Christina Gunn, co-pastors of the Life360 church in Benton, Missouri, arrived in the small town at the beginning of 2020. They had intended to wait until later in the year, but the Gunns felt a sense of urgency they believed was from the Holy Spirit. So they loaded up their belongings the day after Christmas, left their home state of Vermont, and drove through a snowstorm with their two young children.

It was a leap of faith. The Gunns didn’t even have a home address in Missouri when they pulled out of Vermont. It was not until they were on the road that the couple finally located a place for their family to live in the town of 863 people.

“We believed God had a plan for us and a location for us,” Christina Gunn says. “It was pretty incredible to see Him make a way like that.”

When pandemic shutdowns happened that spring, God’s guidance became more evident. The ministry team quickly mobilized to help the community, serving thousands of meals to school children and distributing milk and other staples to needy families.

We realized this was why it was so urgent that we get there,” Christina Gunn says. “Being there during the pandemic, we really got to know people.”

The team has formed relationships not only through compassion, but also by fishing with neighbors, hosting small group Bible studies, taking sports drinks to the police department, working with city leaders, and participating in community life.

Last fall, Life360 leased a former school building in Benton as a meeting place for the new church. While remodeling, workers found trophies and other items dating back to the 1930s. The Gunns hope to restore the memorabilia and incorporate it into a decorative display that honors the heritage of the facility and the town. They see it as another way to build relational bridges.

For Erin Parker, planting a church in Neelyville, Missouri, with her husband, Sloan, meant coming home. She grew up in the community, which has a population of 483. The Parkers were ministering in the Chicago area when they sensed God calling them back to Missouri.

Having a history in the community has been helpful, but the Parkers are also intentional about serving, attending ballgames, and forming friendships. The church is in a hub of small-town activity. It is in the same building as the post office and is in close proximity to city hall, the community center, and the schools.

“Everything happens where we are,” says Sloan Parker. “We get a lot of traffic. I’ll see people going into the post office and run out to introduce myself.”

The Parkers have also tapped the power of social media to make connections. Last spring, they reached out to families of the class of 2021 and used the church’s Facebook account to spotlight a graduating senior each week. Within a few weeks, the number of followers exceeded the town’s population.

Cederblom says showy events aren’t as important in rural communities as showing up and showing an interest.

“Jesus didn’t commute but came to live among us” he says. “Every one of our new church planters moves into the town and lives there.”

In fact, pastors typically spend six months to a year living in the community before launching a church.

“Before trying to become a church with a little steeple and cross, we’re getting in the community and loving on it,” Cederblom says. “Jesus said, ‘I will build my church,’ but He started with impacting individual lives.”

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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