I was recently in the New England area of the U.S. I have been pondering lately the unique aspects of doing ministry in smaller population areas like that. There are many aspects of doing outreach that are universal – as we step out to serve others we are going to find that people are pretty much the same everywhere. At the same time, there are unique features present when we are aiming at people in these areas. What do we need to keep in mind as we reach out in to rural people?
There are six basic questions we must be answer well before we are able to deeply connect with smaller communities. These are the pressing questions we will be asked when we approach the small town audience.
“Are you here to stay?” People will ask if you are doing something that is just going to be a “ship passing in the night” or if you are going to commit yourself to this area. You will be dinged effectiveness points if you come across as someone who is doing things in order to just connect initially but not at a deeper level. It is important that you connect with people in a way that is going to be perceived as lasting and deep versus light and passing. We tell our community we are here to stay partly by the atmosphere we create when we are doing outreaches. Each time you go out to do SE you have the opportunity to tell people “We are planning on living the rest of our lives in this town. We love this place!” We communicate this message in a variety of ways. At a practical level, put on your “friendly face” and you will do well at connecting with the small town audience.
“Do you love me or are you just trying to build your church through me?” If people think you are trying to use them as building blocks of your church they are less likely to warm up to you. You will be evaluated by how you connect with others. Most people who live in smaller towns feel a sense of pride about what they have accomplished in making a living for themselves in that context. There is a sense of accomplishment in these people you won’t find among urban dwellers. If you honor that sense of smaller town USA you will come across as a friend, an ally in the fight for meaning.
“How do you treat people?” In the smaller town context the way we connect with people will be under the microscope more than when we are in a larger context. The good news about doing servant evangelism in a smaller context is that people will take more notice to the way you connect with your city. That is, there is the possibility that you will make an even more enduring impact upon people than if you were merely connecting with people in a larger city. In big cities we are doing virtual stranger-to-stranger outreach. In small towns we are connecting with people who likely consider themselves friends or at least acquaintances.
“How do you see the future?” People who live in smaller communities see the future in a unique way. It is common that they view what will take place in the future through the lens of staying put in the current community. That is different than the way people in larger communities see things. Since they have typically lived in the larger context all their lives the notion of city or town size as a flexible factor in evaluating moves. Most who live in a smaller community have committed themselves to the notion that they will persevere in staying in a smaller setting. When we are doing outreach in these settings it is important that we convey that we are going to be here for the duration. Those in smaller communities will plainly ask what we plan to do if we grow as a congregation. The fear is that growth will compromise the quality of the church. If we do grow as a church it is important that we convey that are going to continue to hold strongly to the value of putting people first. We don’t plan to change.
“How do you relate to money?” Money is viewed a bit differently in smaller contexts. Servant evangelism is all about doing things for free. This important concept will have even more impact in smaller towns than in bigger cities. People are generally impressed with the notion of serving for free. When we serve for free in small towns we have the opportunity to literally amaze people.
When doing servant evangelism we sometimes are approached by people who attempt to pay us for our gift or services. We generally make it a point that we never accept these attempts at giving back to us. We are going to be approached more often in smaller towns by people who wish to give to us when we serve. I recommend you have a standard response to those who are flabbergasted at our project. It is good to spin people a bit with our projects. It isn’t good to leave them overly frustrated. One possible response to those who are blown away is to recommend they give to one of the children’s sponsorship programs that are typically seen on TV on Sunday evenings.
“Are there projects that work especially well smaller settings?” Yes, there are projects that work well in a smaller context. In general, anything that can impart the value of the individual will help get you better mileage. Doing give away projects is a hit no matter where you are located, but this approach seems to work better in larger cities. In a smaller context it is important that we convey to people that we are in the business of serving. Projects that allow us to connect with the value of the individual will make a bigger impression.
Some projects that connect well include:
- free carwashes(I would stay away from the dollar carwash in a small town setting – that is a bit over the top and might come across with too much pizzazz),windshield washingis an amazing project that can touch a lot of people in a relatively short time
- restroom cleaning teams(stick to gas stations, restaurants and fast food joints and other public venues)
- feeding parking meters(make sure you are able to actually feed parking meters – you may need to attach a quarter to your outreach card and place that next to the drivers handle)
- shoveling snow
- giving away deicer to residents(provide a one gallon plastic milk container that is cut away – then return to fill the salt or deicer every couple of weeks)
- window washingat homes and businesses.
The best is yet to come! God is on the move in small settings. If you live in a rural setting you might find that you have special blessings resting upon your outreach efforts. There are unique challenges that accompany a focused outreach in a smaller context. It is not impossible to be effective in this setting. My advice to you is to take heart. It is encouraging to learn the ropes and then to reach out with effectiveness. In some ways it is easier to reach out to a smaller town. Once you have paid your dues, so to speak, you will find it is in fact easier to reach out in this context versus a larger city. You will find it is possible to create an atmosphere that will grow to envelop your entire town. In a smaller setting it is possible to set attainable outreach goals that will see you touch every person in town more than once. Ultimately the name of the game in outreach is your ability to connect with many in a repeated fashion.