In my 46 years of life, I have lived in 7 small towns across the United States. Each one of these little communities was unique, and yet they all have striking similarities. There is a strong sense of hometown pride. The people who live there always see it as a warm, friendly place with a charm all its own. They ooze with a sense of love for the little community that they are convinced is better than all others. Every time I have walked into these places, I have been assured how much I will love it and how one day it will be my special place too.
Let me be honest, and I know saying this may hurt your feelings and anger you. We have had a few wonderful experiences with some great people, but generally speaking, every small community has been a closed society with little friendliness toward outsiders. Usually, there is a group of people who are well-known in each city, and if you have no connection to them, you are an outsider. You don’t get invited to activities, your children rarely receive any recognition, and you are frequently reminded that you are not “from there.” Every small community my family and I have I have tried to establish ourselves has been a struggle with only a few caring people who truly welcomed us into their lives.
Let me pause there; this is not a plea for people to treat me as something special. This is just a statement of cold hard facts that no one seems allowed to say. When it is said, people quickly dismiss it as someone who has issues (which creates a further divide). This is the truth, and it needs to be said, not for my sake, but for the Church. You see, this small town thinking usually spills over into the Church and the kingdom of God is limited by our bias behavior.
With all that as background, let me say a few things to small town Churches about how to treat new people.
1. Be careful of only connecting to people you already know. When you are having a party, who do you invite? Is it only the people you went to high school with or do you think of the new family in the Church? Do you think of the people who have lived here all their lives or those who just moved into town who might feel alone? Is your circle of friends open or closed?
2. Treat everyone’s children as special. Our natural tendency is to embrace those kids whose parents we know, and we have watched grow up. I have seen people at Church walk past a new child to speak to the one they know. As a father, it pains me to watch my children be treated as outsiders, especially when it happens in the Church. People who are new to the Church are desperately looking for their children to enjoy their new spiritual journey. This will only happen when we see the new kids as worthy of our time.
3. Never assume people know anything. It is easy for us to think, everyone knows what is happening along with where and why because we have done this a hundred times. When you are new to any community, there is a sharp learning curve, and people who are willing to help are precious friends. Invite, explain, share, comment and connect with new families so that they know what is going on in the Church.
4. Stop making excuses. Both small towns and small Churches are notorious excuse makers. They blame their glaring problems on someone else and accept little responsibility. What is really sad is that in many situations everyone turns a blind eye and accepts the problems as normal. Everyone knows the towns drunks and drug houses and yet nothing ever happens to them. “Oh well, what can you do?” The Church has one mean old man who is always angry and frightens children, “Well, he is just that way.” The Church must be willing to confront problems, call people to a Godly lifestyle, make positive changes even if it makes a few people upset.
5. Don’t live in the past. Both small towns and small Churches are very proud of their accomplishments even if it was 30 plus years ago. As a new person, I am not connected to your past, at least not yet. Show me your love, service, and commitment today, and one day we can share those stories together.
6. I will only love this place like you do if I am treated like you. I am sure you love your town and your Church. I want to love it too. That means you, as a member of this community, will have to treat me with love. One of the loneliest moments in my ministry is when a group of people in the Church told me about all the fun they had on Saturday night together. Almost all the families in the Church were invited but mine. Finally, one night they invited my wife and me along, and it was truly a great night. We ate together, talked, played games and acted like one big extended family. Still, after many years, I miss that group of people and consider that one of my best experiences in ministry.
Once again, I do not write this looking for invitations and special treatment. I am writing this because I have spent most of my life as an outsider. The harsh reality is that there are several people like me, some of them sitting next to you on Sunday. They want what the Church has to offer. They want to walk the journey of faith with other believers who care about them. It will not happen if you don’t make a special effort to let them into your community or your life.