Donnie Griggs on Vibrant Ministry in Small Towns
One Harbor was planted eight years ago in the small coastal town of Morehead City. It started small and then grew quickly. The church became multi-site four years ago and now have locations in Swansboro and Beaufort, with a third location starting soon.
Donnie is with us today to talk about the challenges of starting a new church in a small town.
- Everywhere needs the gospel. // Suburban and urban areas have done a great job of creating these successful churches among a large population, but Donnie feels that this success within the cities may have overlooked the small towns that also need the gospel. God wants everyone, even the small towns, to hear His Word. Donnie admits he went into church planting in a small town with a very small view of what God could do: “I thought, hey, we’re in a small town of 9,000 people so what could possibly come out of this?” The church grew more than he had imagined and he soon realized that he and his staff needed to really develop the significant theological conviction that God wanted them to reach this small town and get serious about it.
- The size of the town can’t limit what God can do. // One Harbor started in a living room, then moved to a gas station. Within six months the congregation had grown to 180 people. From there, they moved into an abandoned restaurant. In a small town, there aren’t a lot of options for available space. Finally they moved into a building in Morehead and then started their first offshoot in Beaufort and then another in Swansboro, both of which are also small towns. In a town of 9,000 people, it’s a significant part of the population to have 900 people regularly attending on Sunday. It’s become such an impact within the community that Donnie says they can really feel the shift in the culture and the way that God is using One Harbor to reach the people there.
- Get to know the culture. // In large cities, there are many different cultures all mixed together. You could almost follow any culture and reach out to them to draw a large group of people. In a small town, the culture is much narrower and in order to reach out to everyone you need to get to know the culture there first. Donnie suggests that you ask yourself how you can do ministry that makes sense to them and works into the culture of the town. There are the unchangeable things in the Gospel itself, but there are ways to present it that draws people in. That may even be just the look and feel of the building you use.
- Start with a subculture and build from there. // In developing One Harbor, Donnie focused on the subcultures within Morehead City. He grew up surfing, so he reached out to the other surfers. From there, he began to reach out to the other subcultures that defined the town.
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00:29 // Rich introduces Donnie Griggs and welcomes him to the show.
00:51 // Donnie introduces us to One Harbor Church.
02:11 // Donnie talks about planting rural churches.
04:18 // Donnie talks about the growth of One Harbor Church.
06:52 // Donnie and Rich discuss the challenges of doing ministry in small towns.
12:14 // Donnie talks about the impact the internet has had on small towns.
15:19 // Donnie gives an example of effective ministry.
18:12 // Donnie talks about his book, Small Town Jesus.
20:54 // Donnie offers his contact details.
Helpful Tech Tools // Google Docs
Ministries Following // Frontline Church based in Oklahoma City
Influential Book // The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher Wright
Inspiring Leader // Tim Keller
What does he do for fun // Spearfishing, Wreck Diving, Hunting from his boat
Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich, the host here and I am honored that you would take some time out to listen this week. You’re going to love today’s conversation, we’ve got Donnie Griggs from One Harbor Church in Morehead City. This is going to be a great conversation, I hope you lean in and listen because there’s going to be some really good stuff, some good takeaways here for a lot of people that are listening in. So Donnie, welcome to the show.
Donnie – Thanks so much for having me man.
Rich – I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about One Harbor Church, give us a sense of your ministry.
Donnie – Sure, we planted One Harbor going on eight years ago in Morehead City, which is a tiny town, about nine thousand folks on the coast of North Carolina, it’s actually where I was born and raised.
Rich – Oh, nice.
Donnie – Yeah, so planted there and God just added tons and tons of people and it grew pretty quick and we ended up going multisite about three or four years ago. Started with one other location, now we’re two other locations and we’re about to start a third additional location. So we’ve kind of now just sort of stepped back and gone, “Man, if we want to effectively reach our region, we’ll have to keep multiplying.” So it’s busy, it’s crazy but it’s a lot of fun.
Rich – Now, I’m interested in kind of leaning in and hearing, I think a lot of thinking, a lot of leadership comes from church leaders that are in suburban areas or in urban context, large centers with hundreds of thousands of people. I love that you started with, “Hey, One Harbor Church is nine thousand people,” Morehead City is nine thousand is that what you said?
Donnie – Yeah.
Rich – So not a huge community. I’d to hear about that, let’s talk about small towns, what is it like to reach out into a small town, you’ve obviously then multiplied, let’s dig into that, what’s been your conviction on that front?
Donnie – Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it, I think you have to start with like a theological conviction that there’s this big God who wants to reach the whole world, he wants to do big things and even if that’s in a small place, he wants to do something big. I’m so thankful for the way that the urban centers have been really prioritized for gospel ministry and church planting over the last decade or so, but I feel like maybe for some folks we’ve over-slung that pendulum and we really lost sight of the fact that everywhere needs the gospel, so that includes small towns.
I really went into the church plant with a very small view of what God could do, because I thought, “Hey, we’re in a town of nine thousand people, I mean, what could possibly come out of this?” So shamefully it was me as well that was really taken aback along this journey, just seeing God consistently bring hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of folks. So, along the way we started going, “Man, we ourselves have got to get a theological conviction for the fact that God wants to reach this place that we’re in, that’s why he’s put a church here and we’ve got to start thinking and taking this seriously.”
So I think, for myself and for other guys who may find themselves in small towns or rural areas, I think that’s a first step, is getting a real kind of theological conviction for the fact that God wants to do something significant where you are, he wants to reach lost people, you know?
Rich – Absolutely, I think there can be an allure, I think sometimes we could be driven by like, bigger is better and we think like, “We just need to go the biggest market we can find, the most number of people,” as opposed to saying, “There are a lot of people that live in small town and they still are looking for thriving ministries,” and obviously a thriving ministry like One Harbor to reach out into that.
Give us kind of a bit of that story, the arc over those years, as you’ve kind of planted out from like a size point of view and impact into the various campuses, what does that look like?
Donnie – Yeah, just kind of a brief storyline. We started in a living room.
Rich – Nice.
Donnie – Yeah, early 2009 and then moved into a gas station which is super conventional, most people do.
Rich – I was going to say, was that a step up or a step backwards?
Donnie – I don’t know.
Rich – That’s a sideways step.
Donnie – Yeah, I don’t know, it was fun though. We moved to a gas station, it was free. So we were there for three or four months, ended up going to two services. It was pretty small so within about six months we were at a hundred and eighty folks and we had to ask, it was a fun season, we asked the wives to sit on their husband’s laps because we were out of chairs.
Rich – Oh no. Okay.
Donnie – There’s not really a playbook for that.
Rich – No exactly.
Donnie – Then we moved into like an old abandoned restaurant and I think one of the things that small-town guys will face is that you don’t have like tons and tons of buildings to pick from, so you have to be creative. So we were in that old abandoned restaurant and we put our kids in an abandoned hookah bar next door, which smelled great.
Rich – Yeah, exactly.
Donnie – It smelled like raspberry. Then from there we moved into a building over in Morehead and grew to three or four hundred folks and then from there started multiplying.
Rich – That’s amazing.
Donnie – So we planted the first multisite in Buford, which is the next island over, was twice voted the coolest small town in America, so it’s a good place to start. Once they got to two services, after about a year or so, we started working on the next location, which is in a town called Swansboro, about thirty-five minutes away and within three weeks they were at two services and they were running about three hundred and fifty on a Sunday.
Rich – That’s amazing.
Donnie – The town size is a couple of thousand folks, it’s a pretty significant portion of people, so Morehead now, we’re running eight hundred or so on a Sunday, but our town is only nine thousand.
Rich – That’s incredible.
Donnie – You feel like you’re making a sizeable dent in the community.
Rich – Absolutely.
Donnie – You feel like when you walk around, everywhere you go you kind of feel the way that God’s using the church in the community and helping shape culture.
So anyway, I think that’s one of the most exciting things about doing ministry in a small town is, you really can make an impact pretty quick, you know?
Rich – Absolutely. Now, give me a sense of how… obviously each of those communities have their own culture, they have their own something that makes them tick, how is it that you’re kind of getting the pulse of that community to be able to reach out into those various communities?
Donnie – Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I think small towns, it’s a smaller contingency of people just by default, whereas if you do ministry in an urban center, you’ve got this giant sort of variety of all kinds of subcultures. You could go into a large city and you could just about do ministry however you wanted and you wouldn’t necessarily make the biggest impact but you could attract a small crowd to a medium sized crowd, because across a big city there’s at least a contingency of people who already agree with you. I think the challenge of doing ministry in a small town is, that window of what you’re working with is so much smaller, you really have to get to know the culture and find ways to do ministry that makes sense to sort of the narrow representation.
So for us, it’s really just getting to know local people and spending lots of time figuring out what makes our town tick, what are the real felt needs, what are the things people love and celebrate, what are the things that they mourn and how can we do ministry in a way that makes sense to them?
There’s unchangeable things like the gospel and so on and so on, but there’s a lot of ways that we do ministry that we found we can change to make more sense here, even just the way that our buildings look and feel. They feel very unique to the town they’re in, the difference between our Morehead building and a Buford building, they’re only seven minutes away from each other but the look and feel of them is drastically different because the two towns are really different.
Rich – Right.
Donnie – So I don’t think that a church planter in a large city can afford to just do ministry however they want by any means. I do think if you’re in a small town, your failure rate is going to go up if that’s how you act, it’s going to be much higher, you know?
Rich – Yeah, is that because, maybe in a larger context you can narrow cast the kind of cultural expression of your church and they’ll just be frankly more people, so you can find them, but obviously when you’re in a smaller community, the fact like by percentage wise, the fact that there’s eight hundred people at your church in a community of nine thousand, I can’t think of any church that has that, like that’s a huge percentage of your community, so you’ve had to kind of say, “Well what’s the kind of broadest cultural… what unifies all of the people that are living here and how do we kind of aim our programming towards that?” Is that kind of what you mean?
Donnie – Yeah, I think yes and no. I think you’ve got to do church in a way that makes sense to like the rich and the poor, the various ethnic, like you’ve got to try to do church in a way that it at least makes it comfortable for the most amount of people possible. So, we’ve kind of had to walk a tight line there, even with the facility, going, “Hey, we want as many people as possible in our town to come in and feel comfortable to some extent,” but I would say the other side of that is, I think you’ve got to really target subculture after subculture, sort of one at a time, individually.
For me, I started with the surfing subculture in our town because I grew up, that’s all I was good at, I was never good at any sport with the ball. I’ve got two boys, if they grew up wanting to play football they’re going to have to rent a dad, I don’t know anything about that, but I was good at like stuff in the ocean.
So we planted the church, we went after the surfing community and just by the grace of God, those folks are getting saved and baptized and coming onto leadership and now it feels like we really penetrated that subculture and then I being to work with those guys who I’ve met in the water and say, “Hey, what is it you do for a living? How can you reach the people?”
Rich – Yes.
Donnie – So I think there is sort of the broad strategy of how you do ministry on a Sunday, but I think it’s also understanding that you’ve got to navigate the nuance of different subcultures within even a small town, you know, to reach everybody.
Rich – Absolutely. Now, there definitely is a cultural trend towards, you know, people are leaving small towns and are moving to larger contexts, that’s just true, right? Like that trend continues. Now, there’s an interesting thing and you’re the expert, I’m not the expert on this, but there’s an interesting trend where there are people that are choosing to go the other way, they’re saying, “Actually, I would prefer to live in a smaller center,” for whatever reason.
In fact, I was just speaking with a guy who, probably about two weeks ago, who was on one of those like top CEO lists, he literally could live anywhere in the world, his company have locations in twenty six countries, a pretty big guy, but he lives in a small center on purpose because he’s like, “Listen, I can manage my entire company from an internet connection and I have meetings with people, I’ll jump in the car and go and see offices or get on the plane and go somewhere, but I’m choosing to be in a small town.”
What is it about people, and obviously this is like super dangerous to ask a question like this, what is it that you’re seeing in that trend, why are people making that choice, and then what is it, how can the church kind of meet that culture, how does the church meet the group of people that are saying, “You know what, I don’t want to live in a super large center, I want to choose to live in a small town”?
Donnie – That’s a broad question.
Rich – Yes.
Donnie – I’ll take a swing at it. I think what you brought up is probably the biggest changing factor is the internet.
Rich – Yeah.
Donnie – When I grew up in this town that I’m in now, you know, I went to high school, I graduated in ’99, so we still felt like the internet was like this thing that may or may not stick around back then, you know?
Rich – Yeah, true.
Donnie – I didn’t have an email address or anything like that and people just instinctively, there were two groups of people, you either stayed and worked for your family’s business, or you left and went to college knowing that you’re hopefully never going to come back, except for the holidays, you know?
Rich – Right.
Donnie – Because the jobs, the good restaurants, good concerts and all the stuff was going to happen in big cities, for us like Raleigh, Durham, that sort of area. Whereas now, with the internet, really we’re finding lots and lots of young professionals are staying here and moving back here because they can work from anywhere in the world.
Also, we’re finding a lot of folks who lived in Raleigh, maybe they were an older generation like my parents’ generation, and they owned homes in Raleigh and that’s where they lived because of business and they vacationed where I live, more and more of these folks are moving, now that they can work from anywhere and they can live anywhere and they can live where they always like to vacation and a lot of these guys are getting really excited about there now being a church here that they really enjoy. So we’re finding more and more of those really high end professional folks moving here, living here permanently because they can do everything they need to do.
So I think that’s really changed. Additionally I think, I don’t know if it’s like, I don’t want to say like the hipster kind of thing, but that vibe is really alive and well in small towns, that sort of authentic, local, farmers’ market, folk music.
Rich – Lots of artisanal things.
Donnie – Yes, that’s becoming vogue and really that’s what small towns have always had, there’s always been a real genuineness. Still to this day, the chain restaurants really just come and go in our town because…
Rich – People don’t go to them.
Donnie – People don’t want to eat there, they want to eat the local stuff. Now that that’s becoming cool, I think it’s becoming an attractional thing in a lot of small towns.
Rich – Interesting. Now, changing direction a little bit, one of the interesting kind of trends, I would imagine, in a smaller center is, or dynamics maybe in a smaller center is, if something goes wrong there’s kind of the stereotype of like, in small towns news travels fast, it’s like if there’s the town gossip and all that stuff, but then the flipside of that, which I would imagine you’re leveraging is, gosh, when there’s something really positive happening at a church people can find out really quickly and news spreads and kind of word gets around. Can you kind of give me a sense of those dynamics that you’re experiencing?
Donnie – Yeah, it’s absolutely true. It’s such a dangerous and helpful thing at the same time. There’s lots of times, surfing for example where I know someone has just consistently really been a jerk in the water and the natural thing to do would be to, kind of mouth off at him. I know if I do that one time my entire town will know about it before I get home and I’ll just have to move and start over somewhere else. Like I can’t even write a bad review about a restaurant on Trip Advisor, because I’m sure people would find out it was me.
So that way of living, you can sort of get away with… I lived in Los Angeles for a while and you can kind of get away with, maybe you shouldn’t but you can get away with treating people a certain way, you just can’t do that in a small town because it will ruin your reputation over night, but on the flipside, you’re right, if you can leverage that, the word of mouth thing is powerful and that has really been the thing. I liken it to the women at the well, where Jesus meets this woman and she goes and she tells us these people who knew her really well and they go, “Man, we want to come and see for ourselves because we know you, we know who you really are.”
I think in a small town, everybody knows everybody by and large, and our second week the church met… I’ll give you an example. A guy showed up, said he had ten minutes and he had to leave and I was like, “Well it’s church, it’s going to take longer than that,” and he stayed the whole time. He kept coming back, he kept coming back, he kept coming back and a few weeks after he came over one time, he showed up at my house and he said, “Hey, do you want to know where I had to be that day where I said I had ten minutes?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” He said, “Well, I was on my way to kill myself.”
Rich – Oh my goodness.
Donnie – He said, “I’ve been a heroin addict and they told me if I got clean I’d be happy and I’ve been clean for five years and I’m still miserable”, so he was like, “I was on my way to kill myself…”
Rich – Wow.
Donnie – This was the second week we were meeting, he said, “I was driving and I drove past the house where somebody said a church had started and I thought, I’ll pop in and I’ll give them ten minutes.”
Now that guy is married, he’s clean, he’s got a job, he’s in our Eldership Development program, I think he’s going to end up planting a church, but he went and told everybody he knew and I mean, he dragged people every single Sunday, he’d pick up hitchhikers, he’d call drug addicts he knew and tell them that he had work for them and bring them to church, so he had to work through the ethics of that. That kind of thing can happen, I think, in a small town and really work in your benefit, you know?
Rich – Interesting, that’s really cool. Now you’ve pulled together a book, Small Town Jesus. I’d love to hear about that, tell us about, why did you write that book, what motivated you, what are you hoping people will benefit from that?
Donnie – Sure, I wrote the book really because I couldn’t find anything that… it was hard to find resources that I think really helped explain the rationale, the why behind why we should do ministry in small towns and really started to look at how we should do that, how we should plant churches, how we should revitalize churches in small towns? I felt like there were some book that had taken a stab at that but they were kind of dated or for whatever reason.
So I want to try to do something that helped inspire a generation of guys to do ministry in small towns in a way that was really effective. So we take the first half of the book and really address the why, so that theologically why, you know, looking at Jesus of Nazareth, he’s from a small town, sends his disciples to small towns. We’re really looking at the theological emphasis for it.
Then there’s a real sociological reason as well. I think a lot of people still have a very euphoric kind of stereotypical view of small towns that feels like Mayberry, you know, like the Andy Griffith show?
Rich – Right.
Donnie – Like there’s no crime, everyone’s doing great, fresh pies all the time, when really the modern small town, in America at least, they’re hubs for human trafficking, they’re meth labs, I mean, this is where a lot of really bad crime is happening in our country.
Then, sort of, so spelling out all of those rationales, you know, 33.7 million people live in towns under 25 thousand people in America, how we reach those guys.
Then the second half of the book then kind of deals with the how to, so that’s stuff we’ve talked about, like being a good local, it’s doing ministry in a way that makes sense, it’s understanding small town mentalities, it’s confronting things like racism and these age old, really just anti-gospel issues that small towns just seem to harbor.
Then at the end, even like talking through, you know, something that’s really helped me is working with churches in big cities and learning what we can and reformatting and partnering together. So how to do that and how to learn from and partner with churches that are in much larger contexts and how we can serve each other. So that’s kind of the emphasis for the book.
Rich – Very cool. Well I’d encourage people to pick up a copy of that and I actually just ordered it this morning when I was doing a little research, I was like, “This looks great,” so I look forward to reading through it.
Donnie – Good man.
Rich – So I really appreciate that. Anything else you want to share before we jump on to the rest of the episode?
Donnie – Yeah, I want to say again how thankful I am for this opportunity and I feel like we’re at the beginning stages of trying to help with revitalization in small towns and church planting in small towns.
I’ve got a website, smalltownjesus.com, we’ve got a blog on there and we’re going to really try to work together and collaborate with other pastors around the country and hopefully just continue to resources guys. So if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, I’d just say check it out.