There’s no doubt that the US is becoming increasingly more secular. Many people discuss how (and why!) we’re living in a postmodern culture and depending upon who you listen to, you might feel like either being totally depressed because our culture is so “lost” and there is no hope or we need to dig our heels in and go into hiding.
Of course both of those feelings can’t be options for followers of Jesus who believe that Jesus may still say “I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10) and if we take seriously that we’re commissioned to make disciples till the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20). In fact, via my reading of and agreement with James K. A. Smith, postmodernism may actually be more of a “gift” than a “problem” for the church. In his excellent Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, Smith demonstrates how postmodernism opens many doors for missional engagement, as well as invites us into a deeper appreciation for the historic Christian faith.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. What does this have to do with Small Town USA? That is a great question, so bear with me.
I want to talk about this opportunity for missional engagement through our deeper appreciation for… *drum roll*… tradition. Many rural communities are a few years (decades?) behind city centers. There’s no doubt that with the spread of social media this gap is fast closing… but the gap still exists. For example, in many small towns there is still a sense of respect for religion and tradition. In fact, some communities still observe all of the religious holidays and you’ll find schools and businesses closed on days that New Yorkers would scoff at! This is largely due to the fact that in some of these communities the church still serves as a “center” for the community.
It’s safe to say that many, if not most, rural communities are not explicitly postmodern. Instead you have a combination of modernity and postmodernism all squished together. In a rural community you’ll likely find stronger ties to the church; you’ll find a sense of respect and honor for things that are considered “religious” or “spiritual” or “traditional.” This should cause us to think long and hard about how to implement and contextualize what we learn from the variety of missional leaders speaking on the subject. Here are a couple observations on why you may want to become more traditional and more religious to better contextualize and be effectively missional:
First, in rural communities churches have an amount of community “credit” that simply does not exist in larger cities. People don’t automatically assume that you are a hypocrite who only cares about money (though some do!). Instead, people likely assume you “exist” to help people and to be there for weddings and funerals (both incredible missional opportunities!). They likely assume you have some things to say about Jesus and will turn to you when they need to.
Second, you don’t have to spend as much time “dechurching” or “unchristianizing” all of your ministry work. Though having a steeple on a church building in a large city might say something like, “Please do not come here,” having a Christian icon displayed in a rural community may actually be viewed as an invitation and sign of validity!
Third, we may need to spend more time reflecting on how we “do” Vineyard church in a small town or rural community. Don’t get me wrong here. We still need to read Alexander Venter’s Doing Church because it’s just plain good. But we do need to do and apply what is found in Doing Church while being deeply aware of the fact that some of the previous church/religious/traditional experiences that small town people have had are not viewed with contempt but with value. James K.A. Smith actually suggests that this is relevant for postmoderns too. He writes,
“I will argue that the postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient, that the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition, and that the most effective means of discipleship is found in liturgy.”
Now you need to take these observations with a grain of salt. As I’ve already acknowledged, small towns are not monolithic cultural and sociological contexts. You have a fair amount of modernity as well as a fair amount of postmodernism, with the likely existence of something that some people call post-postmodernism. Ouch… does your head hurt yet?
My point is that don’t be so quick to reject all of the traditional and religious things that are so often ignored. You may, in fact, be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
About the author
Luke Geraty is a young budding pastor/theologian who serves at Trinity Christian Fellowship. 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.