IMB, Graham Center focus research, resources on rural churches


A man pedals a bicycle down a dusty road in a village in Chad. Whether in North America or Africa, rural church planters face unique challenges. A new partnership between IMB and the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College’s Rural Matters Institute aims to provide resources for rural churches. IMB/Special

By Julie McGowan

WHEATON, Ill. — The International Mission Board and the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College’s Rural Matters Institute have launched a five-year research project that aims to arm the rural church with resources needed to advance the Gospel within and beyond the United States.

“The idea is to provide information that will benefit rural practitioners in the United States and around the world,” said Jeffrey Clark, director of rural missiology and research for the IMB.

“This will involve research, writing, and training for rural practitioners. The goal is to provide information that will help rural practitioners be more effective in reaching their field for Christ.”

John Brady, IMB’s vice president of global engagement, signed the five-year memorandum of understanding with Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and Dr. Josh Laxton, director of the Rural Matters Institute. RMI is an Institute of the Billy Graham Center that serves as a hub to bring together rural leaders, ministries, denominations, organizations, and advocates to resource and inspire those serving or praying about serving in rural ministry.

“Rural peoples are vital to the 21st century,” Brady said. “They will continue to be producers of the food and other products that sustain life. Their spiritual health matters. We must seek effective avenues to reach rural peoples with the gospel and help them form healthy churches. This will change the spiritual health not only of our rural areas, but our cities as well.”

Laxton said he couldn’t be more excited about the partnership.

“Rural Matters Institute will partner and work with Jeff and the IMB on research that we believe will benefit and bless the pastor and church leader across the globe for greater Gospel impact in rurality,” he said.

“This joint work will benefit Southern Baptists as leading out in high-level, high-impact missiological, theological, and practical research to help craft the mission and vision for rural ministry in this generation and the next,” he said. 

‘New Samaria’

“We often fail to realize that just because the percentage of urban dwellers is increasing, the overall rural population (at least outside of the U.S.) also continues to rise, as the global population exponentially rises,” said Wilson Geisler, IMB’s director of Global Research.

“I am also convinced that we should not overemphasize the urban at the expense of the rural. Both are extremely important for the spread of the Gospel, as there will always be necessary and mutually beneficial connections between them,” he said. “While there are often familial connections, there will always be transactional connections, as urban populations depend almost exclusively on rural products (produce, meat, etc.) for survival.”

Laxton said that in recent months, he has been told that rural ministry is the “new Samaria,” referencing Acts 1:8.

“It seems that no one wants to go and make such an area their home and, more importantly, their ministry,” he said. “And there is a great need to not only have leaders sent and plant their lives in forgotten places, but there is also great need to create a robust missiology for rurality. Therefore, our hope through this partnership is that God would use both the Billy Graham Center and the IMB to help spark and shape a flourishing future for rural ministry.”

In a recent article, “Redeeming Rural,” published by Christianity Today, Laxton contended that when strategic leaders and church-planting initiatives focus their resources on cities, those efforts create a vacuum of leadership, resources, and ministry-aid for rural areas.

“It’s important for the church to reverse engineer such a negative mindset towards rural areas,” he said in the article. “Rural places do not need to be seen as places of inopportunity, but prime locations for opportunities.”

Clark, who joins the project from IMB’s Global Research Department, will work part time for IMB and part time for the Billy Graham Center for the duration of the project. He brings experience from the international mission field, the Montana Southern Baptist Convention, and the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists, along with church planter experience in Tennessee, Florida, and Michigan.

As the project progresses, the data for the United States will be published on the Rural Matters Institute website. The project coordinators will continue to evaluate the most strategic outlet for disseminating the data for the rest of the world.

Julie McGowan is associate vice president for communications & PR for the International Mission Board.

International Mission Board, Wheaton College