Editor: We are excited to announce our newest GCD Book title Small Town Mission: A Guide for Mission-Driven Communities written by Aaron Morrow. You can buy for your Kindle today. It will be available in paperback shortly.
Small Town Mission is a practical guide for gospel-centered mission in small towns. If you haven’t noticed, people who live in small towns have limited options for restaurants, shopping, and books about mission. Small towns desperately need normal, everyday people like farmers, factory workers, teachers, secretaries, and small business owners who think and act like missionaries to reach their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and extended families for Christ. This book aims to help local churches in small towns do that. After all, mission isn’t just something that must be prioritized globally and in big cities; it must also be prioritized locally and in small towns.
Michelle and Karina were second-grade teachers in town. Todaythey were grading their second-quarter papers together in the empty teacher’s lounge. They often chatted there and had gotten to know each other quickly from being on the same teaching team at school. They also went to the same church, which was a few minutes down the road. Michelle had just asked Karina how their town compared to the place where Karina had just moved from a few months earlier.
“I bet the grocery store is a lot less crowded than the big city you moved from,” said Michelle.
“Yeah, but I think some of the differences go beyond just the population,” Karina explained. “Even being a Christian is different in some ways, as weird as that sounds.”
“What do you mean?” asked Michelle, as she leaned in with interest.
“Well,” she answered, “in my last church they really emphasized that if you’re a Christian then you’re a missionary wherever you are, like here at school. I don’t know how to put it into words, but there are just some things about living and working in this small town that confuse me when it comes to being a missionary.”
“Tell me more about it,” Michelle asked as she grabbed another stack of papers to grade.
Karina was on to something. Significant differences exist between small towns and larger cities when it comes to being on mission. Below are four factors that significantly affect mission in small towns. Some of these have a positive effect on mission; others, a negative effect. This list isn’t comprehensive, but it’s a good starting point for analyzing and discussing the unique factors that affect mission in a small town.
Factor #1: Religious Non-Christians
Not many people in small towns are atheists, Muslim, or new agers. Instead, small towns tend to be loaded with religious non-Christians. They may not go to church very often, but they generally believe that God exists and the Bible probably has something to say about him. Small towns tend to attract and retain people who are more traditional in their outlook on life compared to those in larger cities.
Religious non-Christians are generally receptive to talking about God and church but it’s fair to say that they are also inoculated against the gospel. When a person is inoculated they receive a vaccine that is a weak strain of a virus. The body’s immune system then proceeds to adapt so that when it comes in contact with the real strain of the virus, it can easily fight it off. Similarly, religious non-Christians grow up in churches that give them a weak strain of the gospel and, consequently, they build up an immunity to the real gospel. That’s why conversations with them about the gospel and faith often end with them nodding their head in agreement with everything you say, even though they don’t truly understand what you’re talking about.
Mission can never be done in the absence of prayer, but you’ll especially realize this when you’re on mission to religious non-Christians in a small town. Patience, taking a long-term approach to mission, is important. You won’t typically see many “microwave” conversions among religious non-Christians; instead, you’ll usually see “crockpot” conversions because it typically takes a long time for them to realize they have a weak strain of the gospel. But take heart, because the Holy Spirit is sovereign over the crockpot! This is why it’s wise to avoid relying too much on short presentations of the gospel. More often than not, mission among religious non-Christians takes extended examinations of the lordship of Christ and the nature of the gospel before those concepts start to click in a meaningful way. This is why you should consider inviting people to your church, your small group, or to go through an extended one-on-one or couple-to-couple evangelistic Bible study. As we discussed in chapter 7, people are often starving for a place to belong before they believe. This belonging kind of environment should be a safe place for religious non-Christians to enter into community and see—up close and personal—how their weak strain of the gospel contrasts with the power and abundant life of the true gospel.
Religious non-Christians also tend to have a high regard for the Bible. That’s why they’re generally not freaked out by opening the Bible at church, reading it in small group, or talking about it casually. However, even though they have a high regard for the Bible, the vast majority of them don’t know what it says because they’ve rarely been encouraged to read it for themselves. Therefore, don’t be afraid to conversationally use Scripture to discuss the gospel and faith. You’ll be surprised at how effective this is!
Factor #2: Change and Conformity
For a variety of reasons, people in small towns are not typically open to change in comparison to people who live in larger cities. But this isn’t necessarily bad, because when people actually do change, they aren’t likely to change back to their old ways. This is often the case when someone becomes a Christian in a small town: they aren’t likely to turn their back on Jesus after they’ve switched their allegiance to him. Similarly, the lack of change in small towns often leads to a high degree of conformity. For better or worse, there is a relatively narrow range of acceptable behaviors, choices, and ideas that people are generally expected to adhere to in a small town. And the smaller a town is the narrower the range! For people who have odd personalities or embrace non-traditional behaviors, it’s often difficult to be respected in the goldfish bowl of a small town. In fact, Christians like this might even have a reputation that is ultimately at odds with their mission.
A veteran pastor in a small town once told me, “You can’t be weird in a small town. You need to be normal. You can’t scare people and expect to advance the gospel. You can maybe get away with being weird in Seattle or Chicago and still be great at evangelism but that doesn’t work in a small town.” If you think this might describe you, I would suggest talking with your pastor or a trusted friend and get their advice so that mission can advance your spheres of influence.
Factor #3: Reputations Are Hard to Shake
It’s often said that newspapers in small towns don’t report the news, they confirm the news. That’s because people know who you are and there are parts of your life that are common knowledge around town (which wouldn’t be the case in a larger city). In fact, many people who live in small towns end up being celebrities without trying, and for all the wrong reasons. Even your police record will be common knowledge because all the citations are listed in the newspaper! For better or worse, people tend to know about the details and integrity of your marriage, family, and business. That’s why reputations are hard to shake in small towns and they tend to follow us around like our shadows.
Again, for better or worse, the reputation of the gospel is strongly tied to the reputation of our marriage, family, and business. This is especially true in a small town. This reality can be a helpful asset to your mission, or an incredible liability. If you are committed to being on mission in your town, it might be helpful to sit down with your pastor or a trusted friend and reverse-engineer your marriage, family, and business. In other words, if you want the reputation of your marriage, family, and business to point to the gospel, then you’ll need to decide on the series of steps you may need to take to make that happen. However, as you go through this process, don’t accidentally make your reputation into an idol. If you do, you probably won’t take meaningful risks for the gospel, because your deepest desire will be to protect your reputation instead of advancing the mission.
Aaron Morrow (M.A. Moody Bible Institute) is one of the pastors of River City Church in Dubuque, Iowa, which was planted in 2016. He and his wife Becky have three daughters named Leah, Maggie, and Gracie.