I love pastoring in a small town. Really, I just love pastoring, no matter where I’m doing it. But much of my pastoring experience has been in small towns and I love the dynamics of pastoring in small town America. But here’s an interesting fact about the U.S.—most of our big cities are comprised of small towns. Most large urban and suburban areas are made up of communities averaging about 25,000 people. For instance, Atlanta has Decatur, Druid Hills, Inman Park, Riverside and many other ‘towns within the city’. Each of them has an identity, something that sets them apart, something those who live there find attractive. Even though the resident of Grant Park is from Atlanta, they enjoy the particular advantages and neighborhood feel of living in Grant Park, a small town that helps make up a city. The effective pastor in Grant Park will recognize that and won’t try to lead and feed them in the same way he/she would if they were pastoring in Buckhead.
No matter where you are pastoring, the successful pastor will learn to recognize the unique challenges and characteristics of that area and allow the Holy Spirit to mold and shape him/her to most effectively lead and feed in that dynamic.
Every small town has an identity and over the next few weeks I will share some things I have learned that will help discover that identity and pastor effectively within it:
Connect: John Maxwell says, “Everybody communicates, few connect.” Find ways to connect with your small town. There are two groups of people with whom you must connect—newcomers, especially those who have lived in the area for less than a year, and natives, those who are ‘from there’.
For instance, when Sheryll and I moved to Villa Rica we spent a lot of time deciding where to live. We took an apartment, and then began searching for the right place to buy our home. At first we looked at some attractive areas more out in the country, with more land and less people. But there was a new area being developed called Mirror Lake. It was one of those ‘planned communities’ made up of ‘villages’ offering a wide variety of price ranges and styles of homes. It would cost us more to live there, and we wouldn’t have as much property, but we would be right in the middle of the largest group of ‘newcomers’ in the area.
Choosing to live there was one of our best decisions because it gave us an instant connection to one segment of the population we were trying to reach—those new to the area. We made some good friends as we immersed ourselves in our new neighborhood, and many of those friends ended up coming to church with us. In fact, our particular street had 12 homes on it, and eventually 6 of them were occupied by people who were part of our church. But here’s the important part—we weren’t becoming friends with the agenda of getting you to come to our church. We were becoming friends because we wanted friendship, we wanted to be part of a community, we wanted connection.
The fact that we started sharing church life together was a wonderful bonus. Another vital connection is with the natives—those who have been living there most of their lives. It’s by getting to know them that you find out some of the core identities of your town.
You can read about the history of your area, research the significant events that have shaped the town, but when you connect with people who grew up there, or have lived there for quite a while, they express the emotions behind the history.
Sheryll and I didn’t know anybody in Villa Rica when we moved there and we made it our goal to become part of our new home. We weren’t just coming to start a church, we were coming to build a life in this community.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus had a home in the area where we found most of His disciples? (John 1:37-39) Have you ever wondered why He could just step into a boat that didn’t belong to Him and the owners didn’t mind? I think it may have been that He had become part of the community, connecting with the people, becoming known and gaining influence. I think one mistake many church planters and pastors make is they go to a city ‘to start a church,’ instead of going to ‘build a life that includes a church.’
If our only agenda for connecting to people is to get them to come to our church, then we aren't really investing in people or the community.
But if we will invest in people just for the sake of connection, the Lord will give us influence and He will use that influence to build His church.
So how do you connect? Every town has ‘3rd spaces’, those places where people hang out other than home or work. In our town there was a little breakfast and lunch place called the Tin Roof. It had great food and it seemed like everyone in town went there for breakfast or lunch. Again, we didn’t go there to grow our church, we went to connect and become part of our community. We became friends with the owners, who then proceeded to make sure everybody knew who we were. We became friends with the mayor and other members of the city government. We met some longtime residents who would share stories about Villa Rica with us and introduce us to other longtime residents. The key is we made friends and as we connected, those friends began giving us influence in their lives and the lives of those they influenced. And as we started ‘doing life together’ a lot of those friends starting coming to church with us. And each of them had a circle of influence that they would bring to church with them. And the Lord added to the church while Sheryll and I simply ‘did life together’ with our new community.
When we moved to Villa Rica I had to find a job. We were planting a church so I was ‘bi-vocational’. I went to work at the local hospital as a therapist for kids with behavior problems. That job became a great connection point for both newcomers and natives as I interacted with staff and patients. God used that job to make me a better pastor as I worked with struggling kids, and to give us important connections within our community. Sheryll did all the vital business things required of church planters during the week. She also looked for ways to become part of our community. She found a group of ladies who played tennis in our neighborhood and joined them. Through that connection we have made life-long friends and seen the Lord bring some of them to Christ and many of them share church with us. On top of that we had lots of fun, got some exercise and even won some team championships! Again, we didn’t do it to grow our church, we just wanted to connect to our community.
Here’s the deal—I’ve said it throughout this article—connect because you want to be part of your community and let the Lord build His church. You will have a lot of fun, make some good friends, and the Lord will bless you with getting to share church life with people you love.
One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was turning my attention to building the church.
That’s not my job and I am not good at it. That is Jesus’ job and He excels at it. My job is to connect to people for the good of His Kingdom. To connect with others in a way that gains influence for the Kingdom, not for my church. When I love people with no agenda, when I become part of the community for the sake of community rather than for the sake of my church, everybody wins. Because when we genuinely connect with people to share life together they recognize it and will give you influence. And when they come to one of those crossroads we all come to where we need to make some life decisions, then they will give you the opportunity to speak into those moments because they trust you. You didn’t connect with them for ‘something’—you just connected with them for connection. And if you have represented Jesus well in those connections, they will trust you with their spiritual decisions.