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.
Small towns desperately need normal, everyday people like farmers, factory workers, and small business owners who act like missionaries to reach their neighbors for Christ
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.
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 in 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 parts of your life 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.
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-
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.
Factor #4: The “Ten and Done” Principle
A veteran pastor in a small town made a simple but insightful observation to me a few years ago about relationships in small towns. He called it the “ten and done” principle, and it forever changed the way I understood social dynamics and mission in small towns.
The “ten and done” principle is when people in a small towns typically make room for ten slots in their life for friendships, and once their ten slots are filled, then they are done building friendships. They aren’t necessarily done being friendly, but they are done inserting new friends into their slots. Each person’s slots consist of permanent and non-permanent friendships.
The permanent slots are friendships that are poured in cement. These permanent friendships usually consist of a person’s family, a few friends they grew up with, or other people they’ve grown close to along the way. The non-permanent slots may rotate depending on circumstances and stage of life.
For example, when a young mom has little kids she might have some of the young moms from her play group in some of her non-permanent slots. However, when her kids are older and play on a high-school soccer team, she might have different parents in her non-permanent slots from that group.
Keep in mind that this is only a principle, and not a rule, because it’s not equally true for everyone who lives in a small town. Some people might have a meager amount of non-permanent slots while others might have an abundance of them. Some might have considerably more than ten slots but they’re all permanent, while others might have far less than ten slots, due to their personality and social sensibilities.
Moreover, the cultural climate in some parts of the country can breed unspoken expectations for people to have higher or lower amounts of slots. But even though each person and place is different, the “ten and done” principle generally holds true for small towns across America. Many of us who have lived in small towns have certainly seen it in practice!
The “ten and done” principle creates a diversity of challenges when it comes to mission in small towns. If relationships are the foundation of mission in small towns, how should we do mission with this principle in mind? Below is a collection of thoughts that address this question.
New people tend to be the “low-hanging fruit” for mission in a small town, because not many of their slots are filled. Longtime residents need the gospel as much as anyone, but new residents are often the easiest people to connect with for the sake of mission.
Make room for non-permanent slots in your life for the sake of mission. If you don’t have non-permanent slots open, take account of your relationships and ask God how he wants to organize and prioritize your friendships. If you do have non-permanent slots open, be devoted to praying about which non-Christians God might place in your slots.
Don’t assume you know which non-Christians have non-permanent slots open. Be prudent in praying for wisdom and don’t jump to conclusions about who’s interested and available to build a reciprocal friendship with you.
For a variety of reasons, people who are single typically have more time and availability than their married counterparts. And they also tend to have a higher number of slots available than those who are married. Singles often have the potential to be some of the best missionaries in town. If you are single, consider leveraging this season of your life for the sake of mission.
The “ten and done” principle often means that being on mission at our workplaces is remarkably strategic. Many people in small towns have their extended families living in the area and they fill up each other’s slots. Consequently, some extended families in small towns could virtually be considered unreached people groups! One of the most strategic ways to reach these families is to be on mission in our workplaces, because people from these families are forced to be around their Christian co-workers for eight hours every day.
Some non-Christians have all their permanent slots filled with family and childhood friends. Therefore, consider strategically praying that God would boldly bring individual people like this to Christ so that they can be on mission to the rest of their family and childhood friends. This is one way that God infiltrates closed networks of family and friends in small towns. There are many people in small towns who have testimonies where God saved them and powerfully used them to reach their closed network of family and friends. Let’s pray that this would happen more often!
If your family takes up all your slots and they are already Christians, consider holding a family-wide discussion about what doing mission in your town should look like. Family is good and a blessing from God, but is your family’s mission focused on community with each other or are you a community that’s focused on 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.
Excerpted from Aaron Morrow’s Small Town Mission