A Church in Every ‘Holler’

What can we learn from Clarence Greenleaf and his vision for multiplication throughout the Appalachians?

Dan Smith

In his new eBook, Sending Church: Stories of Momentum and Multiplication, Dan Smith shares the journey that his church plant, Momentum Christian Church, has taken to be a church-planting church that sends both people and money. In the epilogue of the eBook, Smith shines a spotlight on a pastor and church that mastered the art of multiplication decades ago. Listen in to Greenleaf’s story and ask yourself, What are we doing to forcefully advance the Kingdom?

Recently, I visited my alma mater, Kentucky Christian University, and popped in to see my old prof and friend, Dr. Robert Ford. As we chatted, he told me that Momentum’s story and vision of multiplication reminded him of the late Clarence Greenleaf, a preacher from the mid-20th century.

Dr. Ford explained, “Greenleaf was a minister in Grundy, Virginia. When his church grew to 550 people, he would send out 50 of them to start a new church. When they grew back to 550, he’d do it again.”

Momentum has never come close to an attendance of 550 people, but the story fascinated me. Very few people ever tell me, “Hey! Momentum’s vision for sending reminds me of another church.” I started digging. Eventually, I got my hands on an obscure biography about Mr. Greenleaf and the phone numbers of some churches in Grundy. What I’ve learned hasn’t disappointed.

Clarence Greenleaf (1915-2004) was a great visionary who ministered in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia at Grundy Church of Christ. In the early 1940s, the church decided they would not be satisfied with addition growth alone. They would multiply their church. They wanted to spread the Good News of Jesus to all areas of the county. Greenleaf’s vision was that everyone in Grundy would be within walking distance of a church. In his biography Preacher Greenleaf, he told author Joseph O’Neal, “Between Grundy and fifteen miles away, you might have three mountains to go over.”

To accomplish the vision, Grundy Church sent 25 to 50 people to be the nucleus for each new congregation.

“That’s the best way,” Greenleaf insisted. “It’s hard on the Grundy church, but the best way in the world to start New Testament evangelism and New Testament churches is to send 25 of your best members to a place down the road to begin a new church. Send the members with the most money—now, that will deflate you.”

Man, I love this guy! Greenleaf easily could have led Grundy Church to be the largest church in the area with people coming into it. Instead, he kept his ego in check and insisted they distribute their church’s resources and wealthiest people to other churches throughout the region.

One of Grundy’s members commented on their church’s sending culture, saying, “This tells you a lot about the man, Clarence Greenleaf. He could have made a big name for himself and built an empire right here in Grundy, or he could do what would win the most people to Christ.”

Grundy Church had many strategies for multiplication. For instance, they sent a bus to one target area to bring in a dozen or more people to their services. That sounds like a typical church growth strategy, right? Nope. Eventually, when the bus was full of people from that area, they stopped sending the bus and just started a church there. Grundy didn’t see the busload of people as a way to pad their attendance statistics; they saw it as the nucleus for a new congregation. Then they sent the empty bus to a new target area to do it all over again!

Grundy Church started churches in a house, a schoolhouse, a jailhouse and a bus. They also scraped bubble gum off seats and walls to meet in a theater. Does any of that sound familiar, church planters? We’re not as innovative and cutting edge as we think we are, right? Apparently “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9).

Grundy spun off Haysi Church of Christ in 1956, Vansant Church of Christ in 1957, Poplar Creek Church of Christ in 1957, Garden Creek Church of Christ in 1959, Breaks Church of Christ in 1960 and Kelsa Church of Christ in 1961—to name a few.

Mike Rife is currently the senior minister at Vansant Church of Christ, four miles away from Grundy Church. He knew Greenleaf personally and worked with him a great deal. Mike told me, Grundy Church spun off over 25 churches between 1940 and 1960. Those churches are all in the same county within walking distance from one another. You can walk out of one church building and travel two miles to get to the next. Walk two more miles, and you’ll find another.” Grundy multiplied until there was a church in every “holler.” Greenleaf’s church-planting vision became a reality.

Greenleaf went to be with the Lord in 2004, a year before we moved to Cleveland. I selfishly wish he hadn’t. I’d love to hear more of his stories. I’d ask him dozens of questions about his vision, mission and strategies. Instead, I’ll have to settle for being one of his posthumous disciples.

How many people are following Jesus—or in Heaven—today because Clarence Greenleaf led Grundy Church to send buses, money and people? How many will be in Heaven because one of Grundy’s spinoff churches impacted their entire family tree? I’d bet my Xbox that the number of people this church has reached is far greater than it would be if Grundy had relied on addition growth versus multiplication.

My hope is that God will use Momentum to be a “Grundy Church” in Greater Cleveland, making disciples and launching spinoffs. On the other hand, maybe our role is to help start churches that will have the kind of impact Grundy Church had. Maybe my children, Zion, Azlan and Journey, will be leaders in those churches and in their communities. That’s the magic of multiplication. There’s more than one opportunity to create a spark.

How about you? What is your vision for your church? What about the region surrounding your church? What is your dream for future generations? Will you release money and people to forcefully advance God’s Kingdom?

A lot of future church planters need a generous partner church. A lot of church leaders need to hear this kind of story or see this kind of example. A lot of broken people outside of your immediate area need to hear about the love and grace of Jesus. You can do something to help all of these people—something that might just ignite a culture of multiplication.

Send.

This article is excerpted and adapted with permission from the Exponential eBook Sending Church: Stories of Momentum and Multiplication by Dan Smith. 

Dan Smith is a church planter and the lead minister at Momentum Christian Church in Greater Cleveland. He also leads the “CLE Network,” a church-planting network that is part of Kingdom Synergy Partnership (KSP) and Stadia. From 2011 to 2014, Dan served as main stage programming leader and emcee/”Fungi” for the Exponential conferences. In 2012, he won an Ohio Hip-Hop Award and in 2013 was nominated for the hip-hop album North Coast Patriarchs. “Smitty” is also a comedy music writer, having written and performed the viral song/video “Baby Got Book.” His comedy albums include The Caucasian Invasion and D.E.B.’S. Kid. All of his songs can be found on iTunes under the worst rapper name ever: Dan Smith.

Dan lives in Garfield Heights, Ohio, with his wife, Shannon, and their three kids, Zion, Azlan and Journey. Together, they cheer loudly for the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Ohio State Buckeyes.

Dan’s website is whiteboyDJ.com. You can follow him through social media on Twitter: twitter.com/whiteboyDJ; Facebook: facebook.com/whiteboyDJ; and Instagram: instagram.com/whiteboyDJ