Thornapple Valley Church is a big church in the small town of Hastings, MI. The Unstuck Group team has been working with Pastor Jeff Arnett and the TVC team this year on strategic planning. We’ve been impressed by how well they know their customer.
So, how does a church grow large in a rural community? I asked Jeff to give us some insights into the TVC story.
TONY: Could you give us some background about TVC and Hastings, MI?
JEFF: Our church started in 1979 with a handful of people. We began meeting in an old Grange Hall (This is where farmers gathered to play cards). The only bathroom facilities were attached outhouses. Amazingly, the church began to grow and we were able to move to an older school building in a year—complete with indoor plumbing!
Through the decades, our passion has been to be an accepting and authentic church that speaks in a way that un-churched people can understand.
TONY: You are a large church in a relatively small community. What’s been your biggest hurdle getting to this point?
JEFF: We spent some years being a large church and trying to do ministry the same way we did when we were small. Learning to think like a large church has been somewhat slow and arduous for this blue collar pastor.
Also, because we are a in a rural area, incomes are not as high as more affluent suburban areas, and per capita giving is simply lower. We have adapted and have never been in financial trouble; however, it has meant a higher percentage of church income goes towards staffing.
TONY: What’s an opportunity your church has in a smaller community that churches in urban and suburban areas may not experience?
JEFF: Because of our commitment to serving, we are well-known and valued in our community. We have learned to partner with local community service organizations and have a great relationship with them. We receive many calls for help from those agencies. The size of our campus also provides unique opportunities to host large events in our county.
TONY: In recent years, you’ve opened a second location and have plans to expand into other rural communities. What prompted that multi-site initiative?
JEFF: We simply believe it’s the best way to expand the message of the gospel, as well as the accepting and authentic spirit that hopefully makes TVC what it is. We initially thought we should expand into more suburban communities—but we have learned that we are blue collar rural people, and that’s where we resonate the most.
TONY: What are you learning about implementing multi-site in a rural setting that may be different from other churches engaging in this strategy?
JEFF: It’s ok to be smaller. Each campus doesn’t have to be a thousand people. Every single decision for Christ matters!
TONY: You started the church over 30 years ago. Was there ever a moment when you considered throwing in the towel? How did you persevere?
JEFF: Like everyone, I’ve considered throwing in the towel plenty of times. Often I felt like if I had started pastoring in a suburb we would have so much more (oh vanity!). Each time I have seriously contemplated leaving, God has checked me. This is where I am called. This is who I am. More than that…I love these people with all my heart. This is my family.