How a small town pastor can have a larger impact
“3740” That’s what a student told me when I asked for his number. My wife and I had been married for only two months, and we had left the large metroplex where I had always lived so I could be youth pastor in this town of less than 600. I was stumped by his answer, because I didn’t think that was enough numbers. My new wife, who did grow up in a small town, gently informed me that meant everyone in the town had the same first three numbers to their phone. That sounded like the craziest thing in the world to me, that there was so few people that you didn’t even need to say the first part of your phone number. It was then I realize just how small this town was, but also how connected it all was.
Growing up in a large metropolitan city, we were only sort of friendly with our neighbors. I went to school in one part of town where my dad was a principal and went to church in another part of the city. There were plenty of people that we knew through the school and through church. My dad knew everyone it seemed, and in a church of over one thousand there was lots of people to know and befriend. In a metroplex of over a million people, though, it’s not unusual to go a whole day of going to the store, filling up the car, going out to eat, or to a movie, and not ever see someone that is in your closest circle of friends.
In a small town or rural community, you constantly see people that you know. My life in the city was made up of mainly two groups of people: friends and strangers. Friends are people that you know well, and that know you. You share life with them maybe through church, school, work, or by living close to them. These are people you can trust, you can count on, and know that they will be there for you as much as you will be there for them. But the rest of the people in a large city are mostly strangers. I didn’t lack for friends, but there were far more people that I didn’t know than those I did. They had their own group of people that they knew, and unless our lives overlapped for some reason, I would never know them.
When you live in a small town you still have those same two groups of people. The third type of person in a small town is the largest of all, and is often much large than the same group in a city.
- Friends - These are people at your church or work, people that you know well and that know you well. You don’t think twice about calling on these people help you out in a bind, or calling to check on them when they have been sick. This group is probably the same size as it would be if you lived in the city.
- Strangers - This group is smaller than it would be in a large city, because there is less people. Leaving a city of over a million to move to a town of 3500 means that there are far less people that I don’t know. Depending on the size of the town, it might be unusual to meet a person that you have no connection with at all.
- Acquaintances - This group is much larger in a small town than in a large city, for you will find that you have at least some connection to almost everyone. You know that the bank teller is the niece of a church member, or that the school secretary has a daughter in your child’s class. When you go to high school football games you will see the city manager, county officials, the city judge, the owner of the feed store, employees of the lumber yard, the police chief, and music leader from the church across town. In one place you can see many people in town that you know, not as fully as friends but not quite as strangers either.
What does all this mean? It means a pastor in a small town might be more closely connected to more people than a pastor in a larger town. Peter tells his fellow elders to “shepherd the flock of God among you,” (I Peter 5:2), and in a small town that can be more than just the people in your church. The pastor in a small town might be connected with more people that he can minister to than the pastor in the large city. This expanded group is acquaintances, of people that you know but don’t fully know either, can be larger for a small town pastor than it is for a large one, and it means three things.
- There are more opportunities for ministry than just the people you know well in your church. I traveled three states away for a conference and was able to make a hospital visit to a woman from another church having a surgery by a specialist in that city. I don’t know her as well as her church does, but I know her well enough to minister to her in a time of need. When I go to the bank I can ask the teller how her grandfather is doing, because he was mentioned into our prayer meeting, and at a parent teacher conference I can tell the school secretary that our church prayed for her through a difficult time. The connections you have in a small town expand your opportunities for ministry far outside the walls of your church.
- A pastor is never off duty in a small town. Everywhere a pastor goes in a rural community he sees someone that he knows from church, or that he heard about at prayer meeting, or that he can invite to a church event. At football games, at school plays, or at the Christmas parade the small town pastor is always looking for people to connect with in order that he might show Christ to them.
- People are watching. It’s impossible to be anonymous in a small town. The way that a person lives their life can be an important gospel tool in a small town. The way I treat the waitress at Dairy Queen, the way I yell (or don’t) at the refs at the game, or the way I interact with the cashier at the grocery store are all ways that I can point people to Christ through my actions. The lack of anonymity can be difficult sometimes. Your opportunities to live out the presence of Christ in your life increase greatly in a small town, and God can use even your mundane activities to draw people towards Him.
I’m still a city slicker at heart, and some part of small town life I’ll never understand, like why people feel the need to wave at everyone as they down a dirt road. This small town is bursting with chances for ministry. Don’t think you have to wait to make it to the big city before you can have a chance for a real effective ministry. The small church pastor can have just as many, if not more, opportunities for ministry as a pastor in a large town. Opening our eyes to these types of relationships means we can open our hearts to all the ways that God has for us to minister, no matter the size of the town.