Two weeks ago my family and I left small town Wisconsin and headed south to Chicago for a family vacation. In addition to getting Chicago deep-dish pizza, going to a Cubs game at Wrigley field, and visiting the zoo, we had the pleasure of visiting the South Suburban Vineyard Church. SSVC is, as her name implies, south of Chicago and pastored by Geno and Shannon Olison.
I want to take a moment to share how much we enjoyed our time with SSVC and to share with you some observations that Small Town church planters/leaders could incorporate. It is my opinion that SSVC needs to have some recognition for the extraordinaire work that God is doing in their community.
Geno and Shannon, the lead pastors of SSVC, are a great couple with three handsome sons. God has used them to shape a missional multi-ethnic community that, as you can likely tell, really impressed me. It wasn’t just the fact that I love seeing multi-ethnic churches and I love when churches are welcoming and friendly. It also wasn’t just the fact that their music team is one of the best I have heard either, though that was a huge plus. It also wasn’t just that Geno is a great preacher and I loved what he spoke on (you can listen to his sermons here). All of those things were true, but what impressed me the most was how intentional SSVC is in regards to their identity and mission.
And I think Small Town people can learn from that in specific ways. Here are a few of them…
(1) Small Town leaders need to be intentional. That may sound a bit silly to list because it seems so obvious but I’ve seen numerous leaders over the years exegete their culture so well and embrace their culture so well that the small town vibe takes control and nothing ever gets done.
What I mean is that small towns often have a culture that is slow as molasses and snails. If leaders aren’t careful, they can fall into a trap that renders them somewhat useless. If you aren’t intentional, things likely won’t get done. If you aim for nothing, you’ll hit your target every time.
Geno, Shannon, and the rest of SSVC are intentional in what they do. The way the set up their meeting space and design their liturgy (order of service) are intentional. Not once did I have any question about the fact that they care deeply about evangelism and discipleship. They embody those commitments and everything they do reveal that they are intentionally doing those things (and doing them well!).
So small town followers of Jesus need to ask themselves some questions. What is the goal? What is the purpose? How is it going to be done? What will it take? Questions like those, and many more, require a sense of intentionality that may challenge a person becoming just like the community one is working in. Sure, you need to contextualize. But if contextualization becomes an excuse for either no planning or poor planning, you might need to ask some hard questions.
(2) Kids matter. No matter what size city I’ve been in, people in church assume that kids are a priority. It probably has something to do with Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14).
The small town ministry that you are a part of (or being called to!) needs to take seriously the fact that Jesus loves kids and that the surrounding community is watching. You want to become like the Northwoods Vineyard in Tomahawk, WI — known for loving kids and providing a safe place for them to experience God.
Geno and Shannon Olison, and the entire SSVC, made it abundantly clear…children are valuable. My kids loved their classes and my wife Dawn and I appreciated that our kids were included in the worship. And SSVC doesn’t just value kids in church; it’s clear they are actively reaching out to adults and children.
So your small town missional activity could easily incorporate an intentional focus on children. When you do give aways, bring things for the kids. My friends Ben and Jen LaFrinier of Community Vineyard Church (White Bear Lake, MN) do an annual school backpack give away, which is a huge blessing for both parents and kids!
(3) Speak for, to, and against that which needs to be addressed. What I mean by this is that you need to think as an advocate for those in your small town context that are voiceless. You need to speak to the people in the Small Town and not those in New York City. You also need to, at times, speak against certain cultural assumptions that are, quite frankly, hurting people.
People have serious challenges so how are you going to address them? Geno’s sermon series’ appear to have a healthy balance of these three components. That’s why you’ll feel a mixture of becoming more informed, encouraged, and challenged. They are balanced and contain the appropriate focus on these different ways of speaking to our culture.
As an example, one issue I’ve seen especially challenging in Small Town USA is related to what is often called a “work ethic.” What is often called a good “work ethic” in small towns is simply being a workaholic. But did you know that no matter how much lipstick you put on a pig, she’s still a pig? There’s often a free pass for parents who have a good “work ethic” in small towns, but the sad fact is that families are often suffering.
So a leader needs to learn how to speak for the benefit of the family (both the workaholic parent and the children!), to the families in need, and lovingly and graciously against an unhealthy way of viewing work.
Thanks, SSVC. Those of us in small towns can learn a lot from you and I’m thankful that I was able to join you for a day of worship.
What would you add and what do you think?
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.