I love small towns. I’ve lived most of my life in towns of 100k-150k people. My wife and I lived 5 years in Dallas, Texas. I currently live and minister in a town of about 7,000 souls. Every place is different, and each place I’ve lived has had its positives and its negatives. But yesterday being July 4, my small town was at its best, and it got me thinking about life and ministry in a small town.
I really enjoy going out in public and seeing people I know, and who know me. As an extrovert, I love this. I love sitting on the street watching Independence Day parades go by, and waving to friends and neighbors in the parade. It is just good ole’ fun. When we go out to community events, we’re not going out to be among strangers. We’re spending time with people we know, our kids go to school together, and you can see just about everybody at the soccer fields in the spring and fall.
I love small towns because local government and the school board aren’t made up of wannabe politicians, they are people with names you know like Cathy and Reid. You buy pastries from one of them, and the other drives a school bus. The local coffee shop is owned by a young guy who grew up in Argentina as the son of Bahai missionaries. Who ever knew there was such a thing? I buy coffee from that guy, not just because he has good coffee at a good price, but because he is part of this town. He has something unique in his cool coffee house with its easy vibe. I want him to be successful. Working and doing business with people in a small town isn’t just about commerce, its about being part of a team and knowing that if one part of your community does well, the whole is affected positively. There is something about the community feeling you have in a small town that is lost as a town gets bigger. Not completely lost, just different.
Small towns have characters in them too. Our town has an elderly gentlemen with severe OCD. It is always a little sad to see him out and about dealing with his compulsion to organize and pick up trash. My first encounter with him was when I caught him on the front porch of my house neatly placing the newspaper next to my door. It was 11 PM. I happened to be behind him once while driving down the street and he hit the brakes, got out, and picked up some trash on the sidewalk. He’s known to go into people’s yards, pick up their kid’s toys, and stack them neatly on the back deck. Of course, he has to do this at night to avoid the embarrassment of not being able to stop.
Life in my small town isn’t all roses. It has problems. I’ve been told by local law enforcement that our town has an above average non-violent crime rate for a town its size in our state. We have a drug problem that lies just under the Mayberry-like facade. There is a shop just down the street from my office that sells various odds and ends. It is a poorly kept secret that you can buy drugs there, and I’ve seen an occasional high-flying patron dancing in the street out front.
Ministry in a small town, like ministry everywhere, has its challenges. We live in a very religious community. Being “christian” is just part of being a good American. Civil Religion is very alive. There are feelings about patriotic holidays, and how the church should be overtly patriotic in worship. It isn’t unusual to hear people bemoan the loss of patriotism in churches. While I’m sure the loss of Civil Religion in the church is a good thing, it doesn’t make dealing with the issue any easier. I know this problem is present in large towns too, but the diversity in larger communities means you have a wider range of opinions which allows you more wiggle room in how you deal with something like this. The lack of cultural and ethnic diversity can make us somewhat parochial and myopic.
Being in a very religious community, it seems that most people have just enough religion to be inoculated against hearing the message of Jesus. The “been there done that” attitude is really strong. Religion is treated as the thing you do to make yourself a well-rounded citizen. The radical nature of following Jesus is lost on most because Jesus looks like a really good version of a small town person. We’re all guilty of remaking Jesus in our own image, and small towns are no exception.
It really is difficult for new people to become part of the fabric of things in a small town. While my church has come a long way in this, and I think does a pretty good job of being welcoming and open to new people, this is something we’ve had to work on. We are known as a welcoming and loving church, and this has been a good working of the Holy Spirit.
Still, and maybe this is because I’m a pastor which carries extra social baggage, it has only been in the last two or three years that my family and I have felt as if we really were a part of this community. We’ve lived here eight years, and the first few were very lonely for us. Our experience in larger towns, or a big city like Dallas, was very different. City people are used to diversity and a transient lifestyle which makes them more open to new people. This is more difficult for people in a small town.
So, there it is, my July 5th musing about loving a small town. I’ve lived in six states (my wife has lived in seven states) and numerous cities, and I love this one. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s hard to explain it. There is something special about our small town.