It’s been a little more than six years ago now that I was first contacted by the First Baptist Church in a little Arkansas town called Stephens. We had a common interest: they needed a pastor and God had called me to be one. Other than that, it wasn’t easy at first to see the fit.
Stephens is a town of about a thousand people. I had lived in the suburbs of Kansas City, Houston, and Fort Worth my whole life. The schools I attended had more people than this town. I didn’t really even have any idea of what a town of a thousand people even would look like.
Small towns in America are struggling, and the church in small-town and rural America is struggling, too. Churches are declining, budgets are shrinking, and churches large enough to call a full-time pastor are getting fewer. Meanwhile, the missions talk and vision being cast is (understandably) focused on the booming urban centers of the U.S. and foreign countries. But then who will answer the call to reach the towns and villages of the United States?
Often that call is answered by those who grew up in these settings. They understand small-town life, and God calls and equips them to minister where they grew up or in a similar situation. But since churches in small towns are in decline, fewer churches are raising up these types of leaders. That means it’s going to take some people who were raised in urban and suburban churches to answer the call to care about and to go to America’s villages.
But the answer is not for people like me to go and ‘endure’ but to go and love. Most people who remain in small towns live there because, while they may have some mixed feelings about the town and its direction, at the heart of it, they love their town. And no one is going to get anywhere in small town ministry unless he can demonstrate that he loves the town, too.
Here are a few insights I have received over my six-year relationship with Stephens on how a suburbanite can learn to love his small town.
1 – Look for what you can love. The first time I drove around Stephens and the surrounding areas, it honestly reminded me of the Fifth Ward in Houston; the houses were old and worn down, people seemed to sit outside and stare into space, unoccupied buildings sat in decay. In suburbia, everything is new, and everyone is in motion. New construction is everywhere, and if one business fails, another pops back into its place, complete with fresh paint and a fresh look. In Stephens, some places have been revamped and repurposed, but ‘new’ is exceptionally rare. It took a while to get used to seeing caved in houses that hadn’t been occupied in years.
But beyond the facade of decay, there is life and there is much to love. You don’t move around among faceless crowds but instead encounter familiar faces everywhere you go. Having to wait for a car to pass before you cross a street is the closest thing to traffic you’ll find. There is beauty here; there is warmth, and there is a pride and optimism that you don’t see at first glance.
The same idea goes for the people, too. We can see people for their faults or see them for what is lovable in them. God’s image is reflected in each face. In a small town, you have opportunity to really see people in a way that a crowded city does not allow. If you listen, you can hear God speak His love for each person.
You can get here and allow yourself to be oppressed by the lack of restaurant choices, by the people who seem to be stuck in their ways, or by the brokenness that fills every small town. But God loves these people and loves this town, and he will show you why.
2 – Invest your heart in the town’s success, not just your church’s success. As a pastor, you are called to shepherd and lead your church, but if your community consists only of your congregation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of selfish ambition (which is a sure recipe for discouragement in small church ministry).
Learn to join local causes, to cultivate passion for the things that will benefit the city, to root for the school’s teams (if you have a school), to rejoice when something good happens in the town and mourn at the town’s setbacks. Although you shouldn’t consider yourself to be in “exile,” the words of Jeremiah 29 seem appropriate:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah 29:4–7
Your prosperity is tied to the town’s prosperity: “if it prospers, you too will prosper,” particularly if you heed the prophet’s words and…
3 – Stay. Much of what I have learned (and tried to pass along in this blog) about small-town ministry relates to longevity. Things just don’t happen quickly in small towns, and your heart will not fully embrace the town just because you think you should. And you’ll never love any community if your eye is wandering and you have one foot out the door.
It takes a long time for a place to feel like home, especially for a pastor and family that has to endure the culture shock of moving from a highly populated area to a small town. Give yourself time. Allow people to drop their guards so that you can see who they really are. Allow God to do the slow work in your heart that moves people from the category of a ‘job to do’ into ‘people to love.’ I think this work is one of the main reasons that this type of ministry just takes time.
As I type this blog, I look up to my bulletin board at a pin I acquired a few years ago at a Chamber of Commerce banquet. It’s a simple white button, about two inches wide, that says, “I [heart] Stephens.” I thought it was true for me then, but now I realize that my heart only was aspiring to love at that time. I think I am finally, truly getting there, by God’s grace. May God continue to open wide my heart as long as He has me remain.