Going Missional in Rural America

If you go to the website for Northstar Church, you’ll see images of rolling hills and grain silos. This is Pulaski, Virginia, a rural town about an hour southwest of Roanoke. The town is the seat of Pulaski county, which has around 100 people per square mile, one of the lowest population densities in the nation. You wouldn’t imagine a church here would abandon the traditional church ways and opt for a cutting-edge missional model. But that is exactly what’s happening in this small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Dave Farris, the planter and pastor for Northstar, says it didn’t start out that way. The church was launched in 2013 and grew fairly well for a rural church plant. For the first four or five years it was around 50–60 people, which Farris says is typical for churches in the region. 

“In 2017, we started shifting our focus to making disciples and investing in the spiritual vibrancy of people, and things really started growing.” At the time, they were meeting in a local elementary school and later the YMCA. During the summer they shifted outside to a lakeside state park and a Christian campground. “There were some practical things we wanted to try to be and do differently. But [the model] was very, very traditional. We did welcome, announcements, a few songs and a sermon.”

The church leadership would soon be challenged by the attitude and large mission field in this rural county. “Around here, it’s more common and culturally accepted just to call yourself a Christian. Talk to someone on the street, they’re all Christians. They all believe in God. And yet, it’s a very stagnant, apathetic lifestyle.” Dave says his heart was fixed on the hurting people he saw in front of him. “There are a lot of addiction issues here. There are a lot of low income [people]. I don’t know the numbers, but we’re on the lower end of the spectrum as far as being one of the poorest counties in the state.” The church began to think and pray about reaching more.  

A New Idea

“Coming into the COVID-19 [pandemic] I would have said we were a really healthy church. Disciples were being made. People coming to know Jesus. Our community was very open and receptive to new people.” Farris says. Then, like most churches, the stay-at-home orders forced Northstar to go online. But he noticed a problem: “We did all these things, and nobody’s showing up. Within two weeks, everybody has zoomed out. And they’ve heard enough messages for the rest of their lives, because every church service is now online. And it really took me to a place of like, ‘goodness, where is everybody?’” He calls this his spiritual crisis.

Searching for answers, he went to prayer and the Scriptures, and connected with trusted advisors. Over the course of a few months he and the leadership team began to develop a vision for becoming a more missional, microsite-driven church. This would be a full-scale renovation of Northstar. Farris had the staff pray about the changes, and soon they began to cast the vision for the church. Members were asked to join the leadership in prayer, and to give it three months. This was the summer of 2020, and, amazingly, they lost only one family in the process. 

In November of 2020, Northstar formally launched what Dave referred to as the “Big Bang Theory” of the church. “We took 125 people, including kids and adults. We started with six microchurches the first year.” They also had a seventh, online group for people who weren’t ready to gather. Some groups met in the same home, others rotated homes. Most stayed together, but a few of these microchurches never got off the ground. 

Taking Stock

As the church was doing previously, they planned to gather again at the Christian camp by the lake in the summer of 2021. It would be the perfect time to reassess and answer some of the big questions that were coming out of the groups: What do we do with kids? What does multiplication and leadership development look like? “There was a lot of equipping and training that is still there to this day, and will be for a long time.” Farris says.

The microsites relaunched in the fall of 2021 with a renewed enthusiasm. Farris says the goal for the group leaders was, “We need to build relational capital. These guys need to enjoy gathering together. They need to love one another. They need to really practice the ‘one anothers’ that we see in Scripture. So, that was our primary goal for that fall season.” The groups took off and thrived.

Each group operates differently, but there are certain key elements that remain the same. “What we typically like to see is a meal together. Whether that’s breakfast beforehand or lunch after, there’s always that communion space.” Worship music might be led by someone with a guitar or through YouTube. Some groups may have no music at all. Of course, there are times of prayer and Scripture reading. The groups use the Discovery Bible Study as their core teaching. There is always a lot of sharing and discussion. 

But, how does this way of doing church play out in a rural setting? Farris says that some have viewed what they are doing as “cultish,” but many people think it’s new and exciting. “We’ve seen the Lord starting to draw in dechurched and unchurched, primarily people who were in a place where their own experiences in church weren’t healthy. They’re reading Scripture, and they’re seeing this picture of the church that did not correlate with anything they had ever experienced.” Northstar is expanding sites beyond the town of Pulaski. Recently, they had a new group form meeting in a doctor’s office.

Is the Microchurch a Model for Your Church?

Dave would be the first to admit that the microchurch model is not for everyone, but he does have some advice for groups considering a church reorganization and a microchurch model. “You can’t underemphasize the prayer and fasting aspect of it.” That’s where it all began for Northstar’s transition. 

Next, he would recommend that you ask some hard questions like, “Have you ever read through Acts and wondered why it doesn’t relate to anything you’ve ever experienced? Do you wonder what it could look like if it did?”  He also recommends reading some of the authors who advocate a missional approach to church like Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, Hugh Halter and Frank Viola.

Finally, Dave says that when you go against the grain, you will face opposition and criticism. You have to be prepared for it, but you can’t allow it to make you play the “us” versus “them” game. “The Lord’s called us here for a reason and we’re not better than anyone. We’re not trying to perceive ourselves as better than. We just want to see Jesus transform lives and turn this culture upside down for his glory.” He adds, “My intention is not to be critical of the prevailing model. I mean, I’m here largely in part because of the formation that the Lord put in me through the prevailing model.” Farris also has worked to build bridges between Northstar and other congregations in the county.

Northstar currently runs seven groups scattered throughout the county, and they are seeing God move in great ways. They are not looking to go back to their old way of doing church. 

To connect with Dave or to find out more about Northstar Church, go to the church’s website at NorthstarPulaski.org.

Jeff Chaves
Jeff Chaves

Jeff Chaves is pastor of CHRCH Online based in North Las Vegas, Nevada.