“That’s where I come from, and I’m proud as anyone.”
I used to sing these Kenny Chesney lyrics while operating a combine in my hometown of Leeds, North Dakota. I love that small town of 447 people. The power behind these lyrics is evidenced as they still ring in my head today, even 19 years after having left. But as time has passed, it’s become apparent that small towns don’t appeal to everyone.
Perhaps this is due to the attraction of big cities in the modern world. They promise much: money, status, and the potential for success. As centers of power and influence, big cities have strong allure.
But growing up in a small farming community produces a pride and status of a different kind.
Yes, we see the big cities and all that comes with them—culture, coffee shops, hotels, media, opportunity. But small-town folks value other things—fresh air, open spaces, country roads, simplicity, and so on.
And yet the sum total of small-town life is more than just country music and big skies. What people really love about small towns is community.
When it comes to small-town community, some of the stereotypes are true. Everybody does basically know everybody. We gather around common interests: Friday night football, basketball in crowded gyms in the dead of winter, drinking at the local bar on main street, or dancing to a (mediocre) cover band on long summer nights.
But if you’ve lived in a small town, you’ll likely be familiar with the reality of this “community.” Just under the surface lie all kinds of idols. Pride, slander, and the subtle desire for power are just a few. Gossip is tossed around like a nice hobby; in the small-town psyche, it’s far from sinful.
The small-town community ideal is far from the small-town community reality.
So while small towns may boast in their “community,” we mustn’t be deceived. The small-town community ideal is far from the small-town community reality. I can testify that the nostalgic, romantic, small-town communal life promises much, but doesn’t ultimately deliver.
If we want people to experience true community, we must not point them to small towns. We must point them to Jesus. True community is found nowhere else.
True community was fashioned at the cross. The formation of God’s people required nothing less than the death and resurrection of God’s Son. This is the essence of what Jesus prays the night before his death (John 17:20–26). He’s out to create a radical community, unlike any other on earth.
But we need to be aware of this: People won’t necessarily jump to join this “new” community. In fact, most will reject it. A healthy church both subverts and fulfills the small-town desire for community. People do long for the kind of community found among the people of God, but in their sin, they rage against it.
But we have a Savior who died and rose to slay the raging power of sin. That’s why we plant churches in small towns.
A healthy church both subverts and fulfills the small-town desire for community.
Almost nine years ago, we planted a church with a small team here in Fargo, North Dakota. Years later, I met a local sportscaster named Jody, who was was shooting highlights for a postseason tournament I was officiating. We met in the hospitality room where coaches, officials, and media eat and network between games.
As I talked with Jody, I learned he was newly married. He and his wife are both from small towns, but they hadn’t been here long. He told me that as a new couple, they thought it important to attend a church, but they weren’t sure where to go.
So I simply invited them to our church and, sure enough, a couple weeks later they were at our Sunday morning service. Shortly after we invited them into our missional community group, which they started attending too.
By God’s sovereign grace, Jody and his wife eventually trusted Jesus. They had seen and experienced what Jesus said would happen: as God’s people love one another, it will be evident to whom they belong (John 13:34–35).
Three years after we first met, I baptized Jody and his wife. They now lead the missional community group that meets in our home.
This brother and sister’s experience is replicated in small towns across America, and in rural communities around the world. Far too many people, myself included, grow up in small towns that lack a gospel-preaching, Christ-exalting church. The fields in small towns truly are white for harvest (John 4:35).
(True) Small-Town Community
After a long, harsh northern winter, many rural communities breathe a sigh of relief. The snow melts, the ground thaws, and spring dawns. Farmers all over the Upper Midwest begin preparing their land. Soil is tilled and made ready for millions of seeds to be sown.
If we want people to experience true community, we must not point them to small towns. We must point them to Jesus.
Ask any farmer, and they’ll tell you of the grueling work that takes place between spring and fall. Farming is not easy. Long days result in weary farmers and weary families. But the harvest is worth it.
Church planting is a lot like farming. No wonder Paul uses farming imagery to describe spiritual realities (1 Cor. 3:5–6). This is why we plant churches in small towns: so that as more people plant and water gospel seeds, God might give the growth.
Small towns have no greater need than real community. Put another way, they have no greater need than healthy church-planting churches.