Small Town, Big God: Church Planting in Rural Places

By Mike Feliciano

Out of our small towns comes great gospel opportunity. Here's why the harvest is so plentiful... and how you can find your place in the Great Commission here.

Small Town to Small Town

I began my church planting experience back in 1976 in Cleveland, Ohio. I had lived and grown up in Valley City, a small town just 45 minutes south of Cleveland. We lived in a small town but commuted 45 minutes into the city where my father had planted a church on the west side.

Ten years later, he would plant another church in Chicago, Illinois. We were witnessing, serving, and worshiping in the city, but little did I know that God was preparing me for rural church planting. I’ve been able to use much of what I learned from planting with my father in my own church planting journey, though on a much smaller scale.

A Gospel Opportunity

My wife Julie grew up in Rowsburg, Ohio, and we raised our four children here. We are currently planting our second rural church in this small town. We are 7.8 miles east of Ashland, Ohio, 41 miles south of Cleveland, and 84 miles north of Columbus. In our area, there seems to be a trend of people moving away from the city and into the country. As couples marry and have children, they desire to go back to their hometowns to raise their families.

Many can no longer afford the city or suburb taxes. Some are concerned about the quality of their children’s education and school safety. So, they move to the country, commute to work, and sometimes even to church as well. So, because of this shift, we have a tremendous opportunity to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ here in these rural spaces.

Small Town, Big Impact

If people were to look at the area we are serving in, they might respond with, “There’s nothing here!” However, I’m quick to respond, “God is here, and He has people here who will hear the gospel and be saved.” I’m thankful Jesus was born in the small town of Bethlehem (Luke 2). We know, too, that our Lord grew up in the small town of Nazareth (Matthew 2). His ministry base was the small town of Capernaum, and the majority of His ministry took place in the region of Galilee (Mark 1; Luke 4).

In rural church planting, you must look at an area you can reach, not merely a dot on the map. There may be 500 people in our town, but in the four townships surrounding us, there are 13,000 people all within a 6-mile radius. This does not include the city of Ashland, where there are 23,000 people. In rural church planting, it’s not the population of the town you are in, but the population of the township you are in.

All Because of God

We planted our first church, Fellowship Church, in the village of Wellington, Ohio—a town of 6,700 people—on January 15, 2015. God blessed the work, and the average attendance was 120 people. Over the course of eight years, 75 people came to Christ, and 67 were baptized. We sent a church planter out of Fellowship, and he planted a church in Wooster.

God led us to the Ashland area in 2023, where launched Hillside Church in Rowsburg, Ohio, on March 5, 2023. The average attendance is 75, and we have seen nine people come to Christ and five baptized. As you can see, it’s not the size of the town, but the size of our God and the power of His gospel.

In Courageous Obedience

The people in these rural areas have the same needs as those in the city or suburbs: their greatest need is forgiveness of sin and for salvation in Christ. They have the same economic struggles, social issues, feelings, and addictions of those who live elsewhere. These people are farmers, blue collar workers, teachers, nurses, and small businesses owners. They love their families and their country, work hard, have common sense, help their neighbors, and take pride in their communities.

These people are just like you and me. They are looking for the answers to life. They will listen to someone who cares, is genuine, and who will keep his word. There will be trials wherever God leads you to serve Him. There will also be many victories and much fruit along the way. So, the question is this: will we be obedient to go wherever God leads us? Do we have the courage to step out in faith? It’s not the size of the town or the church; it’s about the awesomeness of our God! He does big things in what might seem to some like a small church.

Reaching Rural Communities for Christ

I’ve been on the staff of three mega churches over the past 36 years. God has taught my wife Julie and me many valuable lessons through these pastors and churches. He has sharpened our ministry skills so that we could take what we’ve learned and reach rural Ohio for Christ. We preach, teach, witness one-on-one, hold outreach events, make disciples, pray, and fellowship with those around us.

There are many of us rural church planters and pastors out there, and I want to take a moment to encourage you to be faithful and refuse to quit! We will reap if we faint not (Galatians 6:9). God doesn’t say when we will reap or how many we will reap, but He does promise that we will reap! Our work is not in vain; God gives the increase. So, keep planting and watering, and trust that God will bring blessing (1 Corinthians 3:6-8). My hope is that if you are considering rural church planting, you will take the next step and talk with your pastor and association director of missions. Don’t delay—the need is urgent, and Jesus is coming soon!

With Gratitude, On Mission

I’m thankful for the North American Mission Board, the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio, the Cleveland Hope Baptist Association, and our many partner churches. We cannot do this alone, nor are we meant to! If I would have said no to God, He would have sent someone else because He loves these people. I would have missed the blessing. I’m glad I obeyed Him.

It’s His church, calling, and plan. It may be a small town, but we have a big God!

Published April 29, 2024

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Mike Feliciano

Mike and Julie have been married for 36 years and have been in full time ministry 36 years. They both grew up in Ohio and have four adult children, a grandson and a granddaughter on the way. Pastor Mike has pastored in Ohio and Indiana.  The Felicianos have been missionaries in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Mike's first rural church plant was in Wellington, OH and the second, where he is currently serving, is in Rowsburg, OH. When Mike is not serving, he enjoys walking, hiking, riding his Harley, attending Guardians game and spending time with family on Lake Erie.