Small towns are unique; they have a sense of community, of belonging, that is usually unlike larger cities. While most large cities have some kind of identity or culture centered around teams, history or interests. Small town identity is usually more about people and what brings them together.
Integrating into a small town can be difficult, so I’m sharing a few different ways I’ve learned to meaningfully engage in our town.
Participate Where the People Are
An important way I became part of my city, Brooksville, Fla., was by participating in community events. For example, in our town, we have a yearly Christmas tree lighting ceremony and parade. Most of the 5,000 residents attend and there’s hardly a spot left to stand. Events like these bring our community together because the only real attraction is the people attending. There aren’t laser light shows or A-list concerts. It’s just people enjoying people.
At these events, I have met more people than I ever did living in a big city. Through the church’s participation, we have become known as an integral part of the community. Even the people who don’t attend our church know who we are because we have a float and we serve at community events.
When we love our community, it loves us back.
People I have never met greet me by name regularly. City and county employees have made comments about our contributions to the city, and festival board members have asked me to lead prayer for the planning meetings that I attend. When we love our community, it loves us back.
Find the Need and Serve
Of course, all churches should serve the community they’re in. Small towns are no different. In Brooksville, we have a large homeless population but not many public services. We decided to meet this need by feeding the homeless lunch seven days a week and dinner twice a week.
This has lead to many great stories! One of my favorites is about Don and Michael. Don came to us after years of alcohol abuse, desperate and homeless. He started attending our lunches and then joined our Celebrate Recovery group for something to do. Along the way, he kept hearing the invitation to get involved; so he did! In the process, he learned some skills working at our community center including how to lay tile. Eventually, Don started his own business and then hired Michael, one of the other guys from the community center with a similar story. Now both are walking with Christ. Don is off the street and Michael is close to it. Both have become part of our church community.
We also provide parking for numerous downtown events, open our restrooms, host diaper changing stations and give away water on hot days to foster our sense of community.
Another great way we have found to serve our community is by serving breakfast to the teachers at the high school at the beginning of the school year. This has opened numerous opportunities to host community workshops, our local homeschool group and other events. We have even had a few teachers become part of our church in the process.
By serving our city, we show that have the same goals of seeing Brooksville thrive.
We choose to speak love for our community.
People often speak badly of small towns, about their lack of services, jobs and odd closing times. We choose to speak love for our community. We try to be a positive voice instead of pointing out the flaws. We love that businesses close for holidays to make time for family. We love that city leaders are available to meet and discuss opportunities and issues.
We appreciate our city by speaking blessings over the community, celebrating it, and praying for city leaders and other churches. We work to improve our property, volunteer for city projects, hold BBQs, clean yards and lots more as practical expressions of this love.
Build Relationships That Last
I learned quickly that in rural communities people have long-standing relationships, sometimes going back generations. People will lean on these old relationships over new ones with outsiders. This is not meant as an exclusion but is centered around trust. People want to know that if they invest in you that you will stick around and that the city isn’t just your stepping stone. I have been intentional about meeting our neighbors and networking at the Chamber of Commerce. Then I focus on listening to these people and continually engaging in helpful ways to build up these relationships.
Small town planting means investing for the long-haul, knitting yourself into the fabric of the town, and loving like a parent. Planting in a small town might be different, but I think it is well worth the investment.
This article originally appeared at Multiply Vineyard, and is used by permission.