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How to Be Missional in Small Town USA

I did my final MDiv practical theology project on rural church ministry. This is back when the whole “Emerging Church” thing was going on, so I basically took a lot of the ideas floating around and tried to contextualize it and reflect upon it with a small town in mind. Many of the questions being raised by post-evangelicals who were becoming aware of the epistemological emptiness of modernism were not only relevant for those in big cities. They seemed very relevant to the people I was serving in a town of less than 2,000 people! They weren’t necessarily the same questions, but they were addressing many of the same assumptions that seemed to dominate and shape our church cultures.

So I found myself trying to figure out how to be more “missional” in a smaller community. Missional practitioners in Detroit are throwing Christian rave parties to reach people, but that would not go over with most of the people living in a small town in northern Wisconsin. Sure, there are people that would love it, but for most people it wouldn’t translate. Now if we had a polka or a Bluegrass festival, we’d have tons of people come out.

One of the issues I’ve come to understand about the community I am serving is really challenging. If you are interested in missional theology and are concerned about reaching post-moderns and are immersing yourself in relevant literature and research, you’ll probably have read David Kinnaman’s unChristian or You Lost Me. Kinnaman (Barna) and Ed Stetzer (LifeWay Research) and others have wisely informed the church that there has been a significant culture shift in much of America. There are many people who are no longer “religious” or “spiritual” or “Christian.” This has caused many pastors and missiologists and missional-minded Christians to approach society without assuming that they have a “religious” framework, so to speak.

Thus, we have many churches attempting to remove things that fit into the “Christianese” or “churchianity” subculture. One example of this is in the removal of steeples from church building architecture. Steeples have historically been an architectural “sign post” saying, “Hey, this is a religious building,” but you’re seeing more and more churches being built without them.

I know a large number of pastors and missionaries who do this because they believe it will help further the gospel and will remove barriers to relationships that are moving towards evangelistic goals. The bottom line is that some people see a steeple and think things like, Hey, there’s a church that just wants my money, or That building is full of hypocrites ,or I wonder if that reverend has molested any children. My point may seem exaggerated, but it isn’t.

What does this have to do with small town missional thinking?

In our community, I have found that the vast majority of people are religious. As you can tell, I’m using the term “religious” rather loosely and without definition. That’s a conversation for another day. My point is that there is a foundational framework within the thinking of most people I’m called to reach. I’ve found that most people believe in God. Most people grew up in some sort of faith community, often as Roman Catholics or Lutherans. Most have even gone through some sort of catechism training.

Because of this foundational framework, the people in rural communities often have formed some very strong impressions of what is “religious.” And while I realize that what Jesus did (and does) was to expose the false “religious” views that we have in order to replace them with the “religion” of the Kingdom of God, I wonder if rural churches can think a bit differently about contextualization than the standard “become less religious in order to reach people” way of thinking.

I actually wonder if perhaps it would be wiser and missionally effective to adopt some of the traditionally “religious” aspects of the Christian subculture in order to gain legitimacy in the hearts and minds of our mission field.

I don’t know. I just have come to realize that people often have expectations of what “church” is and sometimes our deconstructions and “seeker-sensitive/seeker-aware” praxis isn’t as contextual as we would like to think.

All this is to say that what works in Detroit doesn’t necessarily work in northern Wisconsin, and I think we sometimes forget that rural communities often have a framework that gives you legitimacy before you’ve gotten all hipster.   

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Luke Geraty has been lead pastor of Trinity Christian Fellowship for the past six years and is a member of the Society of Vineyard Scholars. Interested in missional theology within the rural context, Luke loves all things espresso, hockey, hip hop, and fly fishing (what a weird combo!). He and his wife have four children. He blogs regularly at ThinkTheology.org.