Small towns are unique; they have a sense of community, of belonging that is usually unlike larger cities. While most large cities have some kind of identity or culture centered around teams, history, or interests. Small town identity is usually more about people and what brings them together.
Integrating into a small town can be difficult, so I’m sharing a few different ways I’ve learned to meaningfully engage in our town.
Participate Where the People Are
An important way I became part of my city, Brooksville, FL, was by participating in community events. For example, in our town, we have a yearly Christmas tree lighting ceremony and parade. Most of the 5,000 residents attend and there’s hardly a spot left to stand. Events like these bring our community together because the only real attraction is the people attending. There aren’t laser light shows or A-list concerts. It’s just people enjoying people.
At these events, I have met more people than I ever did living in a big city. Through the church’s participation, we have become known as an integral part of the community. Even the people who don’t attend our church know who we are because we have a float and we serve at community events.
When we love our community, it loves us back.
People I have never met greet me by name regularly. City and county employees have made comments about our contributions to the city, and festival board members have asked me to lead prayer for the planning meetings that I attend. When we love our community, it loves us back.
Find the Need and Serve
Of course, all churches should serve the community they’re in. Small towns are no different. In Brooksville, we have a large homeless population but not many public services. We decided to meet this need by feeding the homeless lunch seven days a week and dinner twice a week.
This has lead to many great stories! One of my favorites is about Don and Michael. Don came to us after years of alcohol abuse, desperate and homeless. He started attending our lunches and then joined our Celebrate Recovery group for something to do. Along the way, he kept hearing the invitation to get involved; so he did! In the process, he learned some skills working at our community center including how to lay tile. Eventually, Don started his own business and then hired Michael, one of the other guys from the community center with a similar story. Now both are walking with Christ. Don is off the street and Michael is close to it. Both have become part of our church community.
We also provide parking for numerous downtown events, open our restrooms, host diaper changing stations, and give away water on hot days to foster our sense of community.
Another great way we have found to serve our community is by serving breakfast to the teachers at the high school at the beginning of the school year. This has opened numerous opportunities to host community workshops, our local homeschool group, and other events. We have even had a few teachers become part of our church in the process.
By serving our city, we show that have the same goals of seeing Brooksville thrive.
We choose to speak love for our community.
People often speak badly of small towns, about their lack of services, jobs, and odd closing times. We choose to speak love for our community. We try to be a positive voice instead of pointing out the flaws. We love that businesses close for holidays to make time for family. We love that city leaders are available to meet and discuss opportunities and issues.
We appreciate our city by speaking blessings over the community, celebrating it, and praying for city leaders and other churches. We work to improve our property, volunteer for city projects, hold BBQs, clean yards and lots more as practical expressions of this love.
Build Relationships that Last
I learned quickly that in rural communities people have long-standing relationships, sometimes going back generations. People will lean on these old relationships over new ones with outsiders. This is not meant as an exclusion but is centered around trust. People want to know that if they invest in you that you will stick around and that the city isn’t just your stepping stone. I have been intentional about meeting our neighbors and networking at the Chamber of Commerce. Then I focus on listening to these people and continually engaging in helpful ways to build up these relationships.
Small town planting means investing for the long-haul, knitting yourself into the fabric of the town, and loving like a parent. Planting in a small town might be different, but I think it is well worth the investment.
Why Start a Church Planting Triad
Learn more about the structuring of this model of church planting partnerships.
Hal Hester serves as the Florida-Puerto Rico Regional Rep for Multiply Vineyard. He is also the lead pastor of the Vineyard Christian Church, a church he founded in 2011, in Brooksville, FL with his wife Dawn, their family, and some great friends. They have been a part of the Vineyard since 1997 and planted their first Vineyard in 1998 in Muskegon, Michigan. Prior to moving to Florida, Hal was the Discipleship Pastor at The Vineyard Church in Dayton, Ohio, where he also earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary. Hal has worked as a church planting coordinator for the Vineyard in Michigan, he was a missionary and mission director to northern Mexico, and has been a church planter in Muskegon, Michigan and Manitoba, Canada. He loves hot spicy food and great coffee, either of which he loves to share with others. He also enjoys kayaking, cooking, and of course theology. Hal & Dawn have five wonderful children and a beautiful daughter-in-law that they are very proud of.