I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a city, and whether city kids grow up wishing they lived in a small town. Maybe. Probably not. But lots of small-town teens absolutely grow up wishing they lived in the big city. I can testify from experience that you don’t have to see too many television shows taking place in New York City to become convinced that the small-town with nothing open after five o’clock is lame, and the city is where you need to be.
Funny enough (in a tragic kind of way) I think small-town pastors can run into that same attitude, where social media starts to make us a little bit envious of what the Lord is doing in the cities and a little bit apathetic about our five-person prayer meetings.
If that is you, would you just stop for a second a really think about what you are apart of, and the opportunity that is before you in your little congregation? Think about those teenagers I just mentioned; the ones that will graduate and head off to university or to jobs in the urban centres.
Small town ministry is essential. I believe that. And I want to offer five important tasks for small-town ministry.
1. Be a Sending Church
Do you realize that you are a sending church? Do you realize that you have the chance to be sending out missionaries every year? Those young people that head to the city (along with any other age group moving from rural to urban) are going to be apart of the urban population that is inevitably going to affect city culture and therefore the greater culture for good or for bad.
And we as small-town pastors and churches get to train them up and send them out prepared and on mission. We have the opportunity, if we would take it, to be a pipeline of gospel transformation into the hubs of our culture. Incredible!
2. Serve the Community
I know that no small town is exactly the same, though they do have lots of similarities. I think one of those similarities is a heightened focus on the community itself. Small-towners seem to be a little bit extra spirited about their towns, probably partly because a greater majority has to be involved in taking care of the town and so there is a greater feeling of ownership and belonging. Perhaps also because many of them have lived in that one place their whole lives; it’s just home, and they love it.
That’s a significant truth for the new pastor because it means that the church’s fastest entrance into gaining respect and credibility is going to be based largely on whether or not the church displays a similar same kind of love and concern for the community.
The people in your small-town will undoubtedly watch and ask: “Is this church participating in events?” “Are the people involved in and helping out with recreation?” “Are they meeting needs in the community?” Basically, “do they care about our community or only about their church?”
Obviously, these questions should be true of any church in any setting, whether people are watching or not. Jeremiah 29.7 is our mission in every population, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf.” Still, there will be a kind of cultural currency that the small-town church gains by focusing on the community that will come in different ways or through longer processes in the city.
All that to say, be a church that is an important part of the community
3. Know as Many People as You Can
Richard Baxter’s model of ministry meant meeting every single person in his area. I don’t know Pastors who have repeated Baxter’s work, probably because it just seems impossible. It sounds awesome, but there are just too many people in our cities let alone in our congregations—unless we are in a small-towns.
I don’t mean to suggest that if you are a small-town pastor that your week should be spent knocking on doors. You decide if that is your ministry or not. But if our towns have a conceivable number of people (500, 1000, 2000, 4000, 8000), then we should take advantage of that. Why not try to know as close to all of those people as possible?
If you live in a small-town you are going to end up seeing the same people at the grocery store, at the gas station, at the ski hill and at your kid’s school. You will get to know faces. And yet it is entirely possible to live in a small town for twenty years and still never know who those faces are.
It takes intentionality to stop and introduce yourself to those faces. But if you are willing to be intentional about it and if you stop to introduce yourself enough times, before you know it you will at least be acquainted with the majority of people in your area, and they will know that you’re the pastor at such-and-such-a-church. After that, what is to stop you from inviting them to church the next time you see them?
What an awesome church multiplication method that is a unique opportunity for the small-town pastor.
4. If You’re a Home Town Kid, Use That
I have lived and served in the same town for most of my life. As a pastor now that means I am often preaching to people who knew me as a child or as a teenager or who at least know somebody who knew me back then.
I have often just focused on the disadvantages of this reality, walking around quoting Mark 6.4 “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown,” and being careful not to share too much personal information from the pulpit lest someone remember the embarrassing things I’ve done. I recently had an epiphany though, that actually my years in this community give me something that no new-comer has. I have peoples’ trust.
I think there are people in every small-town congregation who will not give much weight to your words because “you are the son of so-and-so” and they knew you since you were “this tall.” That’s the reality of it. It’s too bad. Keep praying for them. But for the majority of the people that knew you ‘way back when,’ your words are going to land that much harder because there is already relationship. They may not know you well, but they trust you simply because they know where you came from. So, you are already ten steps ahead!
And that is all the more reason for you to regularly testify from your own life. If your congregation knows you, trusts you and relates to you than your personal testimony to the power of God in your life is going to have a kind of force that no stranger in your pulpit, no matter how radical his/her story, could ever have.
If you have the privilege of pastoring in a place where you are known, capitalize on it.
5. Speak to Your People
You know, every time I preach in a place with a language barrier, I make sure I have a translator. To this day I have never refused the translator and said “well they will just have to figure it out.” Ironically, I have preached in many pulpits in North America in front of English-speaking people and refused to consider their dialect, their knowledge, their situation or anything of the sort.
It is hard to come out of seminary with a bag full of words and concepts and a passion for rich exegesis and then to think about adapting what you are going to say to the people you are saying it do. But how else will our people grow, and do they not deserve the same consideration as the congregation over seas?
Slowly I have come to see the essential need to consider my audience—that who I am preaching to matters. Pastoring in the small-town I am in means preaching to many seniors, blue-collar workers and people with no post-secondary education.
And that means for me that in order to communicate those riches of God’s Word I need to preach in language that is familiar and relatable to seniors, blue-collar workers, and high-school grads, among others. It is a challenge every week, but the fruit of speaking to someone versus speaking over someone is incredible.
Tim Keller said years ago, “they shouldn’t need a dictionary.” If you go from seminary in the city to ministry in the small-town, learn the language. Present your church in a way and preach in a way that your congregants will not only hear it and understand it, but they will be excited to invite others to hear it too!