Pastoring a Small Town Church?

John Goodell

I am a small-town pastor in my ninth year pastoring full-time in a small church of 51 baptized church members in a town of 1,200 people and I love my ministry.  It seems to me that the trend today is that if you want to do pastoral ministry the “real way,” you need to go to a larger city and pastor a church.  I certainly understand that strategically, pastoring a church in the city is a wise choice.  So I am in no way saying we should not pastor in the city.  I must admit that at certain times in my ministry I have dreamed about going to a larger city to pastor, like Omaha, where I was born.  During those moments I think about all the people there are to reach with the gospel.  Yes, fishing in a big lake, as opposed to a small pond, is sometimes attractive.  But the Lord has sheep in all sizes of towns, even small towns, we should not dismiss the idea of pastoring in a small town if we are called to do so.  The Lord calls qualified and gifted men as gifts to these churches to shepherd the flock (Eph 4:8-16).  Pastoring in a small place is not contrary to kingdom principles and purposes.  Our very Lord identified as being from a small town:  “I am Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 22:8).  What I hope to communicate in this article is that pastoring a church in a small town is important pastoral work with some differences, advantages, pitfalls and challenges. 

Differences and Advantages

At the end of the day pastoring a church—is pastoring a church, regardless of the size of the town and congregation.  But there are some differences between pastoring small-town churches and city churches.  For example, in a small town pretty much everyone will know you as the pastor of that church.  Every time you go anywhere and have interaction with people it is very important.  Every time contact is made, people in your community are forming opinions of you, your church, and ultimately of Jesus.  In a large city, this is not necessarily the case.  I am not dismissing that every encounter is not important in the city, but there is a difference.  Evangelism in a small town can sometimes look different than in a city.  In a city, you could go to a street corner and preach the gospel to a lot of people.  The next day you could move down a bit and reach a whole new crowd.  Try that in my town and it won’t take long and you will be looked upon as a raving fanatic.  I think a wiser approach would be to engage folks in a more personal way and steering the conversation toward the gospel.  I realize that sometimes we are going to be viewed as fanatical and this is fine in many contexts but in a small-town context when you are taking the long-game approach, there may be wiser and more suitable methods.  I will be rubbing shoulders with the people of my town regularly.   I need to be sharing the gospel, and sometimes I do when I first meet them.  But the point is that I get to know the people of my community and evangelism can come in many opportunities of just doing life in a small town.  Giving away a “How to get to heaven from Grant Nebraska” tract I had made up to a person at the post office that I know is more personal and a lot more effective than getting on a soap box on the street corner in a small town.

In my small, conservative town I get to regularly write articles in the newspaper.  I have addressed many topics you would never be able to in a larger city newspaper.  Such as abortion, homosexuality, disciplining children, and of course the gospel and a biblical response.  I have 4 children still at home and raising children in a small town is a blessing.  My 9 and 12-year-olds can ride their bikes across town to their friends with my wife and I having no worries about their safety.  Although we mostly home-school our children, we do have the children take some classes in the older grades and have found the school system to be friendly and still pretty conservative, unlike what we hear is happening in many larger places.

Studies have shown that small-town people view people in their communities differently than people in the cities do.  Small-town people place a higher value on community involvement when evaluating their fellow citizens.  This places more importance on the pastor getting involved.  In understanding this, I have tried very hard to get into the community.  I help coach wrestling in our school system, coach baseball, umpire, etc.   My church understands the importance of such volunteering in our community and supports my efforts.  I think this is good for any pastor, but is especially important in places where the people place more emphasis on such involvement.  The point I am making is that there is a difference between ministering in a small town and a larger city and some contextualization must happen.

Pitfalls and Challenges

Because there needs to be some contextualization in small-town ministry a pitfall is to over-contextualize the ministry.  At the end of the day, pastoring is pastoring.  We are called to shepherd the flock, reach the lost, and live godly lives regardless of our location.  Since the glass house effect is much stronger in a small town than in a city, pastors are tempted to compromise to please people.  Again, every step for a pastor in a small town is being watched, so misunderstandings and misrepresentations can really affect a ministry.  A church discipline case can create a lot of problems in small-town communities.  Pointing out damning errors in another teacher in the community can quickly and highly affect the town’s outlook on the pastor.  I have been in situations where I have been tempted to keep my head under the pillow and ignore an issue, rather than deal with it biblically because the ripple effect is so strong in a small pond and a lot of pain can follow—I know.  In some ways, it is harder to take a stand for biblical truth in a town of 1,200 than in a city with a million.  It is very easy for small-town pastors to over-contextualize and let the culture of the town dictate ministry rather than God’s Word.  Pastors are tempted to try and have a popular ministry that is well-liked in the town’s eyes, rather than a faithful ministry that will please Christ and truly help people know Him.

Go Where You’re Called

I find it difficult to understand why so many pastors would not even consider pastoring in a small town.  Despising small places isn’t a new thing as it has always been an issue.  Remember when Nathanial was told they had found the Messiah and he was from Nazareth?  And he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Surely an important person like the Messiah would come from an important city, right?  Although it is inevitable that many will look down upon small-town ministry, I hope we realize that biblically it shouldn’t be so.  While I say this, I am not discounting that calling and gifting in pastors may differ.  My friend and faithful small-town pastor, Brent, would not fit well in a mega-church in the city, and John MacArthur’s gifting wouldn’t suit him best in Brent’s very rural setting. 

I recognize there are some advantages to pastoring in a city setting.  But from a different angle, there are many blessings in pastoring in small places.  Consider this article headline by the Washington Post, “People who live in a small town and rural areas are happier than everyone else, researchers say”.  It goes beyond the purview of this article to sell you on why, but I do hope to convince pastors and aspiring pastors to not overlook small-town ministry.  The Lord calls real, live, qualified pastors to pastor His churches in small places.  Following a call from the Lord to a small place isn’t second-class ministry.  If you take such a call, you may find that you and your family are happier for doing so. 

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