Yes, Missional Matters in Small Towns, Too

Just because you represent a church does not give you credibility.

This word missional has morphed into many different meanings dependent upon your background, theology, etc. As I have talked with various church leaders over the years, this word missional is one that scares them, excites them, but also baffles them since there is no real definition for it. I mean, in and of itself, it means to act like a missionary … but what does that really mean, especially for those of us in small towns throughout the United States?

So with that said, I thought I would share with you my personal definition of the word missional:

Living as God’s people sent on mission to make the Kingdom of God tangible in lives around us, our communities, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools or any place we are at. 

At the core of being missional are relationships with people, with communities, towns, villages, etc. As someone who has been a missionary, one of the very first things you have to do is to build a relationship with the very people you are called to love and make the kingdom of God real to. How you do that depends on the place that you have been called to be missional. In a small town this is crucial. I have seen this play itself out in the mountains of West Virginia and here in the cornfields of Central Ohio.

When we were missionaries in West Virginia, the people of the community wanted nothing to do with the mission team there since none of them“knew what it was like to be from here!” It was not until I arrived and word spread that I was from West Virginia and the grandson of a coal miner that the door opened. People actually started to trust me and our team, which was the beginning of building relationships with that community. Currently, my wife and I have started a missional community here in Ohio.

While I have lived in the area off and on for years, and my wife graduated from the local school district, I did not have much voice at places like athletic booster meetings. Why? Because they did not know me and I had not built a relationship with any of them. I was the outsider. It was not until I began to hang out after meetings, talk with the other parents at sporting events, and engage with them while out and about that they finally started to accept me. Since then they’ve asked me to oversee their capital expenditures, and now I am the vice president of the athletic boosters!

When it comes to being missional, most of the resources that are out there today are specific to large urban centers. There isn’t much out there from a rural small town perspective. But you can look to the Bible for some direction on this. In Mark 10:10, Jesus tells the disciples to enter a house, stay there until you leave that town [my paraphrase]. You can’t stay some time in a person’s house without building and developing a relationship with that person, their family, their friends, their circles of influence, etc.

Let’s be honest though, this does not happen by just going out doing servant evangelism, doing targeted outreaches, etc. While those are door openers, they cannot be the only things you do and expect to build relationships in small towns. In Breaking the Missional Code, Ed Stetzer says that every community and every people group have their very own DNA that we must learn in order to be able to effectively communicate and share the Gospel [again my paraphrase].

There is the old adage in ministry that “people don’t care how [or what] you know until they know how much you care.” This is extremely true when it comes to building relationships and being missional in a small town.

Being missional is not easy. Being missional in a small town is not easy. You see people everywhere, especially in small towns, that don’t trust anybody. You have to break through walls and barriers just for people to be open to having some sort of relationship with them. But when you do build a relationship with them, that relationship is built on love and they realize that you don’t have some kind of agenda. They know that they are not just another project, which is the beginning of a relationship that can last a long time.

As most of you know, just because you represent a church does not give you credibility. You have to have a relationship with the people. The thing about relationships is that it takes some time to develop, build and strengthen those relationships.

The other thing about a small town that scares people away is the challenge that everybody talks! I have told my community, and other churches, “let’s give them something to talk about!” If we are out serving the needs of the residents, kids, the elderly, those with needs in the community, doors will open within our towns and villages. Imagine if we went around praying for people and people started being healed? Just think about how people are going to start talking about that!

People will want us around and they will want what we have as those that we have built relationships with go and tell others about what is going on for us! They will tell others how our missional communities can be trusted and it will start to spread, for good reason. This is part of the reason why I believe the Vineyard, as a missional movement, is uniquely gifted to be able to reach Small Town USA in order to make a difference … our kingdom focus, our priority on relationships and people over and above programs, makes a huge difference.

Not everyone will understand our passion for small towns, but that’s OK. We are here to make the kingdom of God real in the lives of our neighbors. When we do that, the people in our small towns that we have built relationships with can’t help but tell others about what God is doing in our missional communities.

Malcolm Lanham

Malcolm been an outreach/missions pastor at a megachurch, served in West Virginia as the missionary leader to the fifth poorest community the U.S. and has led the outreach ministry at the Lancaster Vineyard (Ohio). Currently he is laying the groundwork for a missional community in rural Eastern Fairfield County. He and his wife Emily have a passion for expanding the Kingdom of God to small towns, to the poor, and building missional small groups.Together they have two children; one is a college freshman and one is a high school senior. They reside in Eastern Fairfield County in the village of Bremen.