THE BEAUTY OF SMALL TOWN CHRISTIANITY
Everything about small town living is characterized by familiarity.
A quick trip to the grocery store is certain to involve multiple conversations with friends and neighbors. Social, school, and church schedules are structured around the well-worn traditions of hunting, the town’s big 4th of July celebration, Missoula Children’s Theater, and the Christmas tree lighting ceremony – events that are always the same, but beloved and greatly anticipated nonetheless. The mayor and the sheriff aren’t distant unknown figureheads, but men who most everyone in the community personally knows. Small town life is nothing if not a study of the familiar.
This tight-knit dynamic seeps into every aspect of the culture. For believers, it is especially palpable in church life. There’s a wonderful intimacy of the Christian community here. Whenever a member of my church falls ill, I’m deeply moved as many people from several other churches go out of their way to visit and pray. Three Lakes has hosted a few community events, and each time many pastors from around town have supported us in various ways. There’s genuine goodwill and cooperation among the gospel-believing congregations of Troy. This is especially noticeable at the local Bible camp which is attended and served by people from nearly every church in the area.
Where even the best urban churches struggle to find ways for individuals to be known and embraced, our entire town of Christians does this almost instinctively.
A UNIQUE CHALLENGE OF SMALL TOWN CHRISTIANITY
But it isn’t always warm and cuddly.
Wherever fallen humans occupy the same space, conflict is inevitable. Often the familiarity that makes small town Christianity so sweet is the very factor that makes it so difficult when conflict arises. In an urban congregation, a person can run from conflict by leaving their church and may never even see the people who offended them again. It isn’t so simple here. You may break fellowship with someone by leaving your church, but you’re still sure to see him in the cereal aisle on Thursday afternoon.
The charm and coziness of small town life can take a dark turn, and a wounded person can very quickly feel confined and trapped. Someone with a skeleton-filled closet has nowhere to hide and no one who isn’t intimately aware of every last bone. If a friendship or a church splinters, the entire town quickly hears the news and many rush to take sides. When this happens, even the very best of what it is to be a small town disciple is threatened. All of a sudden it becomes very difficult to sincerely give thanks for the growth of the church down the street when THAT family is going there now – you know, the family who left your church right after they slandered your wife.
So what does this feel like?
RECOGNIZE AND ACKNOWLEDGE THE CHALLENGE
Consider the chorus of Sam Hunt’s Break Up in a Small Town:
But there’s only so many streets, so many lights
I swear it’s like I can’t even leave my house
I should’ve known all along
You’ve gotta move or move on
When you break up in a small town
It can be suffocating when you cannot escape a conflict. Each time you make a little progress toward healing, there they are – the ones who inflicted such deep hurt. And before you even catch your breath you find yourself right back in the throes of unfettered pain. This reality of rural ministry can seem daunting, and it would be foolish to go into such a context unaware of this challenge. But this does present Christians with a unique gospel opportunity.
LIVING THE GOSPEL IN A SMALL TOWN
For all the inescapable awkwardness and legitimate difficulty involved with living out your faith in a place like this, it does present believers with a chance to practice authentic and christlike forgiveness to a degree that our urban brothers and sisters may not experience.
Christ’s example of conflict resolution was not to remove Himself from us and simply avoid interaction. No, He left the distant comfort of Heaven and came specifically to the ones who wronged Him. Relative to the infinite expanse of God’s domain, the incarnation is as though He came to dwell in a tiny little town where He had to make eye contact with and purchase lumber from the very people who would nail Him to the cross. He was wronged to a degree that you and I will never even begin to comprehend, yet He still came to live among us in uncomfortably close proximity. As a result He suffered even more to the point of being seized and crucified by His own image bearers.
But when He rose again in victory over death, He became the firstborn from the dead – and all who believe in Him follow His footsteps in resurrection life. At the center of that life is the ministry of reconciliation – not only declaring the gospel that reconciles man to God, but also living out the same with the person you’ve been avoiding every time you go to the Post Office.
Small town living forces us to do what Christ did voluntarily – face those who have harmed us and determine to forgive them, even if we never get anything in return.