The last thing church leaders need is another conference, but for pastors who don't have a Starbucks or Wal-Mart within 25 miles of their church, The Sticks might be something worth checking out.
Most pastors who frequent ministry conferences are well aware of the ones held by the larger and more famed churches like Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, Saddleback Church in southern California and North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.
But for small town pastors, those events may not be providing the nuts and bolts they need to simply build a healthy church community in "the sticks" – a city or town of less than 75,000 people.
Pastor Charles Hill started New Hope Community Church in 2002 in an Ohio town of 2,800 people. The church, which describes itself as casual and contemporary, quickly grew to 1,000 attendants. On Easter, the church had half the town at its worship service. New Hope expanded to become a multi-site church with campuses in neighboring towns of some 25,000 people and overseas in China.
Seeking advice from pastors who were leading large churches on where to go from there, Hill realized that he just didn't have the resources to do what the bigger churches were doing.
"They are doing things so financially out of our realm that it just doesn't make a lot of sense for us," Hill explained in a recent interview with Gabe Taviano on God's Mac Podcast.
In search for some creative leaders more in his realm, Hill found out there weren't many pastors who led flourishing churches in small towns networked together. Moreover, people just weren't talking about small town ministry.
The genesis of The Sticks conference, which launched last November, came from "an outcry of my heart," Hill said, "to gather these people in one location."
Hill held the second Sticks conference this week at Brand New Church in Bergman, Ark. – a town of 407 people. Designed to be a more intimate conference for more opportunities for conversations and networking, the Mar. 17-18 event drew less than 100 people.
Along with main sessions with such well-known pastors as Geoff Surratt of Seacoast Church and Tim Stevens of Granger Community Church, the event also featured discussions on how to start an Internet campus, how to use technology on a shoe string budget, how to build a building for $67-a-square-foot and how God grew a church like Brand New Church in a town of 407 and a county of 22,000 people.
Hill encourages small town pastors by telling them they can do everything that the big city churches are doing even with limited resources.
"One of the greatest things we do is use free tools on the Internet more than anything," Hill noted to The Christian Post. Such tools include YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace that facilitate community building.
Sometimes, a smaller budget just means buying less expensive equipment. A larger church may have $10,000 lights for its stage but New Hope's staff finds lights at a fraction of the cost and "they look just as good," Hill said.
But beyond the nuts and bolts, The Sticks aims to inspire and equip pastors in small to medium towns to make a big impact for the Kingdom.
"When I have half my town in church on Easter, I can make a true difference in culture in our town," Hill said in an earlier interview.
The goal, Hill clarified, isn't to simply build a large church.
"First of all we don't set out to build a large church in a small town," he said. "What we encourage is listen to God [and] touch hearts."
Currently, Hill is in Alabama where he will serve as a consultant at a church for the next four months. He resigned from New Hope, saying he was "being called to something different for the Kingdom."
"You hear the call of God, you go," he stated plainly.
After serving in Alabama, Hill plans to start a church in Utah, which he cited as the most unchurched region in the country. He's currently pondering a location between Ogden and Provo, setting his sights on towns of 20,000 to 40,000 people – towns that never in their history had a Christian church.
The third and final Sticks conference for 2009 is scheduled to hit Canton, Ga., on May 12. Some 500 people are expected to attend.