The Truth About Small Towns and Their Churches

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.

Fourteen Meaningful Conversations

Yesterday morning our Church worshipped together. We came together as a group of people to sing God’s praises, pray together, share in the Lord’s supper and listen to instruction from the word of God. Interestingly enough, most of those things we can do by ourselves. You can now listen to the best worship music in the world on your phone. You can spend time alone in prayer with God. You can take communion with a simple piece of bread and a cup of juice. Not only that, the internet is full of sermons by the best preachers in the world, and you can even listen to me anytime you like through our Church website.

There is one thing that happened yesterday that you cannot get alone. You cannot have fellowship with other believers.

The Church is not just people who worship God; it is a group of people who come together. We are a community of faith. We care about one another. We speak kindly and encourage one another. The Church is composed of people connected in their faith.

Yesterday as we came together, I had fourteen meaningful conversations. I spoke with dozens of other people where I exchanged “Good morning” and “How are you today?” But fourteen times I talked for several minutes about aging, health struggles, my children, the future, football, deer hunting, prayer needs, and spiritual issues. These interactions occurred before, during and after worship. They all were unique, unplanned and uplifting.

Yesterday I was blessed by the people with whom I worship. In a society where it is easy to see faith as a personal project we do alone, don’t forget the conversations you miss when you are not present.

Why I Still Blog

Every time that I take a short break from blogging, I have this internal discussion about whether I should return to it. It takes about an hour every day to come up with an idea, type it, proofread it and publish it. Most days only about 60 people read what I write, so is it worth the time?

Here is why I returned this time and will keep doing so in the future.

1. I Enjoy Writing. If I could make a living as a writer, I would do it. I enjoy capturing thoughts and thinking of phrases. My creative writing teachers in high school and college would probably not believe this to be true since I was such a terrible student back then. Now I enjoy spending the time writing, even if I am not the best at it.

2. It Truly is Like a Journal. When I wrote my first blog years ago, I started to tell people about it, and the most common response was, “I don’t want to read your journal.” A few were nastier in their attitude and stated, “I don’t care about your diary.” I tried to explain blogging to them, and they were hostile no matter how much further explanation I provided. Now, as I look back over the years, I can see that in many ways this has been a journal or diary of sorts. It has been a way to record my thoughts at the time, to preserve experiences and to work out my thinking. Many of these posts gave way to sermons, series, and lessons.

3. It is Timeless. Every year the posts that attract the most attention are ones I wrote long ago. I wrote one about a family in Alaska and one about a pastor’s Christmas card that is viewed hundreds of time each year. They were momentary reflections that have been viewed and used over and over.

4. I Hope to Help People. I live with the dream that one of my posts will prove truly helpful to at least one person. I hope that my writing can impact one life for the kingdom of God. If that happens, then I will be satisfied. A blog is free, and my only investment is time. I want to use this incredible resource to help people in my congregation and Christians all over the world.

Finally, I want to say, “Thank You” for reading. This is the sixth year of my blog, and by Thanksgiving, this will be my best year ever. Every year I have had more visitors than the year before as I keep posting whatever God lies on my heart. Thanks for reading, and even if you quit, I will probably keep writing.

Five Rules That Guide My Parenting

I am the father of four boys. My youngest just turned 16 and my oldest is almost 21. I have spent the last two decades of my life as a parent, and I have learned a few things along the way. Here are some of the most significant rules that my wife and I decide would govern our parenting, and I thought you might find them helpful.

1. We Will Raise Our Children. Before our children were even born, we had a clear idea that when we had children, they would be ours to raise. If possible, we would never send them to a daycare, a grandparent or babysitter to be raised. Those people and groups have their place, but the primary responsibility would fall on us.

2. Church and Christian Service are Not Optional. My children were all in Church from the first Sunday of their life until the day they left for college. They did not miss for sports or school unless it was totally unavoidable which happened about ten times in their lives. Not only did they attend worship with us, but they also were required to serve in some way. They helped with set up and tear down when we lead a new Church. They have run computers and lead worship as teenagers. The people of God are a priority in my family.

3. Love is spelled T-I-M-E. Gifts, vacations, and electronics are great but true love is spelled TIME. Children of all ages want attention more than anything else. Sure they may act like they do not want you around in those teenage years, but it is just a façade. Save your money and clear your calendar if you want a deep connection with your kids.

4. Teenagers Need As Much Attention as Toddlers. Somewhere along the way, parents started believing the lie that teens do not really need their parents. You can drop them off at the mall or with their friends, and they will be happy. I have found that your impact is just as significant with teenagers as when they are younger.

5. Love Your Children, But Don’t Trust Them. We understand this concept when they are little. They are playing in the next room, and it gets quiet. You know something mischievous is happening. You ask, and they act like you are crazy about your inquiry. A few more questions and the truth comes out. Then they become teenagers, and you ask them what is happening, and you are greeted with silence. You can believe that or do some investigating. The truth is often only obtained with thoughtful questions and solid inquiring.

These are five of the biggest rules that have guided my parenting. Other factors have impacted what we do, but these are the big ones. My wife and I have not been perfect parents but in spite of that God has allowed us to have some great kids. Truthfully, they became that way through hard work, time and the grace of God.

Revisiting the Precious Moments Chapel

In the fall of 1990, I moved to Joplin Missouri to attend Ozark Christian College. Just a few short minutes away in the city of Carthage there was a new attraction that had opened to the public called “The Precious Moments Chapel.” Since I was new to the area, I went over to see this chapel that was painted inside with murals by Samuel Butcher. My first trip included a tour that lasted over an hour with detailed descriptions and interesting facts. The site quickly became a place that everyone must visit when they were in the area. By my second year of college, they had added new buildings, expanded the parking lot and saw thousands of visitors. I took every person family member that visited me out to show them the chapel.

As my visits increased, there were noticeable changes at the chapel. The parking lot was expanded, and you could expect a long walk and often long waits for anything. The tours were dropped to 30 minutes or less, and people were moved quickly from place to place. I cannot tell you how many times I have visited with family and friends to see the chapel with its new paintings and peaceful setting. Then in 1996 I left the area and had not returned.

Then last week my wife and I were able to take two days away together. Without much time for travel or much extra money to spend I suggested we make a return visit to our college days including a stop by The Precious Moments Chapel. When we arrived, the parking lot was nearly empty. Granted, it was a Monday in the middle of October, but that had never slowed the crowds in the nineties. We walk through the facility where we noticed empty buildings, closed shops, and very few workers. There were three people in the gift shop, one in the chapel and one guy mowing. It was a shell of the place we had adored 20 years ago.

Always thinking about the Church and the Lord’s work I made a couple of mental notes for the local Church to consider.

1. Fads Come and Go Quickly. The Church needs to be careful with the passing interests of the time. Precious Moments figurines were a huge hit, but with recessions and the internet, things changed. It reminded me of Church bus ministries that flourished and then died, along with a host of other things that worked at one point in history. A Church walks this fine line of holding onto an ancient message while using modern methods. We must be wise in evaluating our approach to ministry and not keep offering programs that no longer work.

2. Lack of Leadership. The tour told us that the last time Mr. Butcher added anything new to the chapel was in 2009. He now lives in the Philippines and rarely visits. It seems he has no interest in what happens in Carthage any longer and it shows. Every thriving organization needs strong leaders who believe in what they are doing.

3. Lost Passion. The woman who gave us our tour could care less about her job. When she asked us if we wanted to hear the tour and we responded with a yes, she was clearly disappointed. She then proceeded to gives us less than 15 minutes of poorly rehearsed information that she had no enthusiasm to share. If you have no fire for the work of the Lord through the local Church, it is clear to everyone who knows you.

4. Survival Mode. It appeared that no one wants to shut down the chapel, so their solution is to do the bare minimum. They have very few staff which I am sure make near minimum wage. They have closed buildings and have “off seasons” when other areas are closed. I actually drove across the road to the parking lot they added in the nineties. It had limbs on it with leaves and untrimmed grass. I know Churches exactly like this in their approach. They do just enough to keep the doors open and wonder why no one comes to visit anymore.

My wife and I enjoyed our time at the Chapel. We took selfies and held hands. Together we walked down memory lane and marveled at what used to be a great attraction. I learned a little that day too. The Church must always be careful to serve God in the present and not survive on fond memories of the past. If we do, one day we will have eight people in attendance and wonder what happened.

Back from a Break Reflection

This past week I took a vacation for only the second time in 52 weeks. It was a much-needed break for me from the duties of ministry. My wife was able to join me for two days, but the rest was just me away from the Church. I never want to glorify the paid role of a pastor over the volunteers who compose the Church, but I do want you to know a few things about my chosen profession.

1. Caring for Souls is Emotionally Demanding. As a pastor, I believe that my work involves things of eternal significance. Heaven and hell hang in the balance. I desperately want people to know Jesus as both their Savior and Lord. I want them to start strong in their faith and continue to grow in it. I want people to spend their lives in the will of God until we are welcomed in the arms of Jesus. Every person who walks away or drifts aimlessly tears a pastor’s soul apart.

2. Decision Making is Emotionally Draining. I once read an article saying the most draining mental activity to a person is decision-making. Anyone in a leadership position understands this concept. All decisions come with an amount of stress, especially in Church. The songs I choose will be scrutinized. The sermon will be dissected. Every decision will be analyzed in detail and I know I frequently make the final choice that will help bring the Church together or divide it.

3. Creative Thinking is Mentally Tiring. Every week I try to create the best sermon possible. Ultimately it is a work of the Holy Spirit, but I still desire to put together my best effort. On top of the sermon, I teach a Youth group lesson at least three times a month, and I blog five days a week. I am always working to create, and it gets exhausting.

4. The Forces of Evil Hate Christian Leaders. I just finished a series on the devil and his attacks on the heart and minds of believers. I often think the work is much more intense on the leaders of the people of God. Destroy the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter has been a theme repeated throughout the Bible, even into the life of Jesus. As a leader, I battle pride, temptation, anger, depression, loneliness and every kind of emotional high and low. There are days I want to quit and days I desire for people to sing my praises. I know that my life affects more than my own faith, and so does evil, and the struggles are hard.

5. Ministry Has No Boundaries. Every pastor dreams of a 9-5 job. In my week of vacation, I had emails and text from people needing and wanting help. There was even a guy who showed up on my doorstep asking for assistance. It can be very draining to be on call every day and all the time.

These are some of the reasons I needed a break. In fact, I am planning a break every other month for the next year. I feel myself slipping into the cynicism that comes with burnout. I love my Lord Jesus, my job and the people I lead. I pray that an occasional break will keep me fresh and help me to minister long into the future.