When I am out of town, I am often asked where Stephens, Arkansas is located. If someone is somewhat familiar with Arkansas, I ask if they know where Camden and Magnolia are. If they do, I say that US-79 goes connects Magnolia and Camden and about halfway between them, there is a stop sign. That stop sign is Stephens.
Now the stop sign is gone.
I returned from a week in Dallas (where I gave this explanation for the location of my town about a half-dozen times) to find that the highway department had removed our stop sign. It’s the latest blow to the citizens of the town who can remember when the town boasted not just a single stop sign but a few red lights, a movie theater, and more.
So how do you minister to people in this context? What sources of hope do you have when visible signs of decline are all around? I have been thinking about this all week, and here are some of my thoughts.
The people here are valuable to God
This statement is obvious, yet it’s also something worth reminding one another all the time. I might not be able to point to a stop sign anymore to let people know where Stephens is, but God knows exactly where it is and who lives here. He has sent me here to care for these people and teach them his ways.
Disillusionment, depression, and despair can take over when people see their town (and church) dying. As a pastor in this town, it’s my job to recognize that I live among people desperate for hope, and I have the one true Source of hope within me that I am commanded and commissioned to share.
Neither the number of people who live here nor the likelihood of building a large church in this location diminishes the need of the individuals, their value to God, or my responsibility to the calling. Whether my congregation is a thousand or a dozen, the work is important and worthy of my heart’s investment.
The focus is on a future that will never look like the past
What Stephens was, it will never be again. What First Baptist was, it will never be again. These truths can be depressing to people who lived and loved the “glory days.” But nostalgia is a liar when it comes to the golden past and can never reproduce it for the future. Honoring the past can be good when it fosters gratitude for God’s work and greater understanding of the present, but it is toxic when it causes people to aspire to return to the past and then to despair when recapturing the good old days proves to be impossible.
The past is never coming back, but hope remains for the future. Saints die, methods die, churches even die, but God carries his mission forward. The question is whether we are going to be among that which dies or whether we will be part of what God does going forward. At our church, we have spent the year trying to understand how to move forward and how that will shape how, when, and where we meet and what our reborn church will look like.
In the past few years, our schools have closed, city hall has burned down, the facade of the corner stores on the main strip have collapsed, and they took away our stop sign. These visible markers don’t tell us any new information. Our small town is getting smaller. The question remains the same: are we going to be faithful to God’s call here in this town?
God has put me here in this place and this time for his purpose. The Bible promises that God has designed us for the very purposes to which he will call us. So we will continue to hope, we will continue to encourage, we will continue to point to the future… and we will yield to cross traffic.