Home Christian News Mark Clifton Brings Vitality to Rural America Church Landscape

Mark Clifton Brings Vitality to Rural America Church Landscape

Mark Clifton
Mark Clifton preached at the 2022 SBC Pastors' Conference in Anaheim, Calif. Photo by Karen McCutcheon

LINWOOD, Kan. (BP) – You might be rural if you call Dollar General the mall. You might be rural if you don Carhartt work clothes on special occasions. Or, you might be rural if Third Street is at the end of your town.

Mark Clifton smoothly slides the quips from his tongue on a recent episode of The Rural Pastor Podcast with fellow rural Kansas pastor Andy Addis, a volunteer rural strategist for the North American Mission Board replant team Clifton leads.

Clifton admits to having a slew of Jeff Foxworthy-esque rural America teasers.

“You know it when you see it; you feel it when you’re in it.”

Seriously, Clifton sees an overlooked mission field among the 35 million to 60 million residents of rural America, an expansive estimate says depends on your definition of rural. He recently added the title of director of rural strategy to his duties as NAMB’s senior director of replanting.

“Outside of the deep South, rural America is as unchurched as many of our urban core centers in our major cities,” Clifton said. “And even in the South, where we have a great number of rural churches, many of them are really struggling to connect to the culture as it changes around them.”

Clifton is drawn to small towns. He and his wife Jill sold their home in Kansas City, Mo., and rebuilt in Bashor, Kan., to be closer to Linwood – population 400.

Back in May 2020 as America was wrapping its head around the COVID-19 pandemic, Clifton and his wife Jill felt called to First Baptist Church of Linwood. The church had dwindled to three active members.

Clifton loves rural churches and thinks every small town should have at least one.

He’d like Southern Baptists to know that rural churches “are critically important, that they are in places where there is a lack of churches, that they really need to reach the next generation in those communities.” He’d like larger city congregations to view rural churches “as tremendous opportunities for a platform for ministry where, relatively speaking, small resources can make a huge difference and a huge impact.”

The town of Linwood sits on a small blacktop highway about 10 miles west of metro Kansas City, Mo., and about 10 miles east of Lawrence, Kan. Most people work in nearby communities or telecommute – that is, when strong winds aren’t interrupting internet service. There’s an elementary school. The lone Methodist church had already closed. Linwood Baptist was about to close its doors and donate its property.

“It was First Baptist Linwood,” Clifton said of the 111-year-old church. “We now just call it Linwood Baptist, cause there’s no second church there.”

Clifton met with the three members to discuss an alternative future to closing the doors.

“I told them they didn’t need to pay me any salary. I do believe this, that Jesus has a plan for every church,” Clifton told Baptist Press. “And I think sometimes we’re way too quick to give up on a church and just say it needs to close down.”

Clifton began with “Experiencing God” Bible studies on Wednesday nights. He posted community outreaches on the handful of Facebook community pages serving the town. He worked with the elementary school across the street to host outdoor movie nights. Free garage sales, doorknocker bags with fresh-baked cookies and Gospel tracts, free school supplies for teachers, and free garage sales engaged the community. Linwood Baptist brought Santa Claus and the Kansas City Chiefs mascot to town.

“We just immersed our self,” he said. “The reality in a small town is you can make a huge impression with really very little money and effort. It would be hard in Kansas City to make an impression on a whole city. But in a people of 400, you do a few of these things” and achieve optimal impact.