Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Church and community overlap in a small town, Part 2

As I was discussing yesterday, the evangelism efforts of a church in a large/larger city seem to be most effective to the degree that they are able to create a sense of genuine community. But the small-town church is significantly different. Why?

It’s so very different because all the things that a big-city church works so hard to create are the very things that a small town already possesses: Relationships? Most everybody went to high school together anywhere from five to fifty-five years ago. A place to be known? It’s impossible to walk down the street without someone calling out your name. Face-to-face human interactions? Every waking moment spent in public is an opportunity for personal chit-chat, to catch up with old friends. And as for caring? Why, you’ve never seen caring until you’ve seen an entire community rally around one of their own who’s fallen ill with a deadly sickness.

The hard-won sense of “community” that immediately distinguishes the church from the big city it ministers to is nearly identical in every major way to the type of community that is already—and inherently—existent in a small town. And so the small-town church unfortunately fades into the background of community life. Yes, it is generally agreed that church is a vital, appreciated part of small-town life, but the church is an undercurrent. The small-town church’s fostering of “community” does not radically stand out as being immediately and quantitatively different from the sense of community that is already found everywhere else.

And there, finally, is my dilemma. For decades upon decades, the church has been told that in order to have growth, it must be radically different from the city it is in: It must offer a genuine sense of community, of belonging, of caring. Entire outreach paradigms have been built upon this premise. An entire movement was founded upon the idea of creating small groups where community could thrive. But such church paradigms and movements do not—and I suggest can not—hope to ever rival the deep waters of community that are unique to the small town. In short: When it comes to evangelism, they do not work.

It’s time for the small-town church to have a new paradigm for evangelism. It’s time for the small-town church to understand the supporting role it plays in the community’s sense of wholeness. But at the same time, it is time for the small-town church to understand that it—and it alone!—has something to offer that the community itself never could. The small-town church offers, simply, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know of anything else that can make a small-town church stand out, to mark it as significantly different from the city it ministers to.


  1. This is a very insightful, light bulb moment kind of post for me. In all honesty, if you could channel this line of thinking and begin to think through what that new paradigm looks like you could write a book that would sell like crazy because the vast majority of pastors out there who are looking for mission strategies are reading stuff that simply won't apply in their context.

    And we already know that in the Lutheran context the vast majority of us that come to seminary come from larger home church and community contexts yet will be placed in contexts very similar to yours and will feel that same disconnect but not be able to put a finger on what it is. If a book is not on your radar screen, then your blog post should at least go to the Reporter or Around the Tower or something. I'm serious!

    Some small town pastors have reported successful connection to the community by being volunteer firemen or chaplains, coaching, etc. Those things aren't for everyone but they do have a lot to do with small town identity and help a pastor as an outsider say, "hey I care about this place and you folks more than just on Sunday."

    Well, you've sparked my interest, look forward to other thoughts you or others may have.

  2. Thanks, Rich! As always, you are an encourager!

    Stephanie read this last night before I posted it, and she asked the same question: "What's the new paradigm? How do you get the Gospel out?"

    And I had to admit that I was--and still am--stumped. It's an incredibly simple and honest answer to say that the Gospel is the one thing that the church in a small town has that cannot be had anywhere else, but it's another thing to say, "And what does that look like when it is lived out by the people?"

    I'm actively thinking about how that looks in practical terms. I'm open to more input and invite the wisdom of others who are in the same boat. And God willing, one day we will have that book, even if it means we've got 50 co-writer credits on it! :-)