Mark Clifton brings vitality to rural America church landscape

By Diana Chandler

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.

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

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 he 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 Basehor, 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.

Two years later, Clifton puts Linwood Baptist’s average Sunday worship attendance at 65-70, and counts eight baptisms since October 2020.

“I enjoy the simplicity of it. I enjoy the absolutely uncomplicated nature of church,” he said. “I think sometimes we make church far more complex and complicated than it needs to be. I just enjoy the sweet fellowship, the fact that we’re focused entirely on making much of Jesus and loving our community.”

Linwood Baptist is among the latest in a string of dozens of churches Clifton has planted and replanted in the decades since he was 18 years old.

Replanting is a passion of his.

“My passion for replanting came when God brought one thought to my mind, and that was this: ‘What about a dying church brings glory to God? What about a dying church says our God is great and His Gospel is powerful?’ And then I realized that trying to reclaim dying churches was not primarily a mission endeavor, or an endeavor to help the Convention (SBC).” Clifton said. “It was an endeavor to reclaim God’s glory. So it’s really an act of worship.”

Between age 18 in 1978 and 2005, he planted 10 churches.

“I was all about church planting. That’s all I did was plant churches.”

In 2005, he went to Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., realizing that if a church of its stature, founded in 1921, closed its doors, it would say something improper about the power of the Gospel.

“This church has been saying for 90 years when I went there, that we believe the Bible, we believe in Jesus, we have the hope of the world, but we can’t keep our church open,” he said.

“That’s when my whole heart changed and I ran toward dying churches. From that point on … my ministry has been in replanting, reclaiming dying churches so that they don’t die. And then rural America is the same way. I do it for God’s glory.”

In the days when he began, Clifton would plant a church and look for a leader to designate as a founding pastor, ready to lead the church as he moved on to plant the next church.

Even today, he spends about 10 hours a week at Linwood Baptist, traveling frequently to train, mentor and empower others in church leadership and replanting. Linwood has a fulltime associate pastor, with Clifton serving as senior pastor.

Clifton loves encouraging associational mission strategists and state conventions.

“I find the greatest joy in my life is just encouraging those men and cheering them on and giving them any resource I can,” he said. “I speak in churches. I speak in associational meetings. I speak to state conventions. I speak on seminary campuses. I just try to encourage as many people as I can to help rural churches, to help replant dying churches wherever they find them.”

He leads a team of eight replanters at NAMB. He has authored “Reclaiming Glory” and co-authored (with Kenneth Priest) “Rubicons of Revitalization: Overcoming 8 Common Barriers to Church Renewal,” and he joins Thom Rainer on the weekly Revitalize and Replant podcast. He began The Rural Pastor podcast in May.

Clifton believes every community, no matter how small or isolated, needs a church.

“There needs to be a sacred space in every community. There needs to be the people of God in every community,” he said. “That’s the strength of who we are as Southern Baptists.”

Published July 7, 2022

Diana Chandler

Diana Chandler is senior writer for Baptist Press.