In a small town context, it’s important to read the culture well and discern how to best contextualize it in order to do effective ministry.
Here are five principles for small town ministry:
Become a localized regular. Proximity makes a huge difference in small towns and shopping local cannot be overlooked. Small town leaders that avoid and ignore local businesses often do far more damage than they realize. Plus, they add more years to the process of being accepted in the community.
Of course, the greatest model we have for this concept is in Jesus himself. The Incarnation is the glorious example of Jesus leaving the realm of heaven to be localized as a “regular.” Sure, thirty plus years seems like a drop in the bucket compared to Jesus’ eternalness, but it certainly counts as becoming a local!
The most basic and fundamental reason as to why you should become a regular is because of relationship. If you go to the same coffee shop, the same hair salon, the same hardware store, and the same place for groceries, you slowly build relationships. And the people who own those business and who work at those businesses will slowly see you as a committed part of the community… someone they can eventually trust. So become a regular at local places of business.
Have patience. Anyway, small towns do things slowly. So be patient. The relationships that you develop may take a long time to develop and building trust may take a lot of time and effort. God can obviously do some great stuff naturally supernatural, but often times our ‘fast food’ Christianity is challenged in small towns.
For example, I have been going to the same local businesses for nearly eight years now and I’ve made some great friendships over the years and some of those friendships are developing into relationships that center around Jesus. None of them happened overnight and most of them took at least four years.
Invest in local events. Most small towns have events throughout the year that you could participate in. Fairs, parades, and cleaning days are all excellent opportunities to put missional theology into practice. And again, you gain trust. Additionally, you learn about the people and their needs and can often gather people to join you in the Missio Dei.
Volunteering in your community for fundraisers and school events says a lot about serving, generosity, and community… so go to it!
Hang out with non-Christians. Yes, I realize this isn’t simply a “small town” principle but applies to all Christians everywhere. However, in small towns it is pretty easy to do because small towns are generally more relationally driven than larger city centers. Why not invite your neighbors over for dinner? Or hold a neighborhood event? If you do, people will come.
This coming fall my wife and I are planning on hosting the first annual Thorp Chili Contest at our house. We’re going to invite all of our neighbors to our house and have tables set up in the yard where people can both bring chili and taste chili. And what’s really cool is that one of my neighbors is going to help us do this. This is a great place to meet people and develop relationships.
Take advantage of the small town by walking. Over eight years ago I moved to a rural community after living in several large city centers (San Diego, San Francisco, Minneapolis). It was, quite frankly, a night and day difference. After two weeks of living in a city with a population of 1,500, my wife and I realized that there was nothing to do after 7pm because almost everything was shut down… literally.
So my wife and I went on walks. It was nice being able to walk around a quiet town without having to worry about getting robbed. The only thing we had to worry about wasn’t being hit by cars but horse and buggies (we live in a large Mennonite community). Life was really slooowwwww… so we walked. And as we walked around the town, we began to meet people. The more that we walked regularly, the more that we saw those same people and met new people.
If you live in a small town, you’d be wise to hang up the car keys and purchase a pair of walking shoes. Not only can you pray for the community when you are walking, but you can meet a lot of people. Plus, it’s a great way to stay healthy and hang out with other people too.
What principles would you add?
Luke Geraty is a young budding pastor/theologian who serves at Red Bluff Vineyard Church. Husband of one, father of five, and deeply committed to proclaiming Jesus and the kingdom, Luke contributes regularly to ThinkTheology.org, VineyardScholars.org, and Multiply Vineyard. Follow Luke on Twitter, Facebook, or send him an email.