Voices: In Defense of Small Towns

Photo by Tashka / Bigstock

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In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ story begins just like one of our modern American tales of “making it big.”

An unknown boy from a nowhere town has a big dream, so he risks it all to leave the security of home in search of something better. He meets some scrappy, endearing, and perhaps a little dopy, friends along the way, and when they get to the big city, Capernaum in this case, the kid gets his shot in the limelight, overcomes adversity, and triumphs to the amazement and admiration of all.

Then, at the height of his fame, our hero makes a foolish decision. He gets into a fight with his best friend, and the whole thing threatens to collapse.

In Mark 1:37, Peter tracks Jesus down, all alone and outside of town. He says to Jesus, “Everyone is looking for you! You’re the talk of the town! We’ve really got something going here! Come on back so we can set up shop and make this miracle business work for us! I’ve even got a guy working on a Jesus bobblehead. Here, let me show you the mock-up.”

But Jesus isn’t buying it, or selling, as it were. He replies, “Let’s go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” It looks like Jesus is wasting his opportunity.  As soon as he gets some brand recognition in Hollywood, he throws it all away to do community theater out in the sticks.

But is it really such a tragedy to use your God-given gifts in service to small communities?

Know Thy Neighbor

I don’t think so. There’s a widespread myth in our culture that bigger is better, and you’re better off starving in the city than surviving in the country. And I use the word “surviving” intentionally. Life in rural communities is hard.

Those who don’t inherit family land or businesses often struggle to find gainful employment. Services and entertainment in small communities are often hard to come by, and the definitions of growth and success are different in places with limited capital and small markets.

But in exchange for sacrifices in luxury and opportunity, I’ve found that small towns offer a truer form of community: People know their neighbors. (Whether they like them or not is an entirely different matter.)

We care for one another and are genuinely invested in one another’s well-being. The faith life of small communities benefits from this intimacy of knowledge among neighbors. It’s harder to keep secrets and easier to hold one another accountable.

The Christian fellowship that comes naturally in small churches must be intentionally sought in larger contexts. These and other gifts await those who are willing to set down roots and forego some metropolitan conveniences.

Where Community Comes Naturally

Too often though, the draw of the bright lights has proven disastrous to small towns. Visit any rural high school and utter the question, “How do you like living here?” and you’ll inevitably hear students respond that they can’t wait to “get out of this town.” Implicit in their response is the desire to move to the city.

Now, to be fair, the same response may be common in urban high schools, but I expect that few of those urban students want to move to little towns and stake their livelihoods on the price of wheat.

And that social dynamic has generally resulted in small communities being drained of all their best and brightest, with only those who lack the means to escape being left behind. Over the course of a few decades, this has resulted in deeper impoverishment and greater struggle in rural communities, which is further compounded by the fact that small towns pour so much of their community resources into young people with little return. Meanwhile, cities feed on the lives and dreams of these young people the same as they do on the commodities imported by the same rural communities.

I don’t mean to imply that small towns are any better or more virtuous than large cities. Both are inhabited by human people with all their faults and failures, but small towns carry an undeserved bad reputation in our society. Some days I wonder why my millennial peers—for all their talk of community, concern for sustainability and appreciation for minimalism—are unwilling to invest their lives in a place where these things come naturally and are simply a way of life.

Perhaps it’s because it’s hard to come home.

The Haven of Small Communities

When Jesus went back to his hometown in Mark 6, the people didn’t accept him, and their lack of faith even curbed his divine power. That’s not a ringing endorsement of small towns. But even so, in the verses that immediately follow Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, he carries on “teaching from village to village” and sends out his disciples two by two into the small towns.

Perhaps more of Jesus’ modern disciples will join me in the haven of small communities where the hurry and excess of the city are less tempting and where community life is natural and necessary.

Chris McLain is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Crowell, Texas.

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