Simple Gifts | Small-Church Values: Place, Belonging and Heart

Small congregations frequently embody uniquely rural community values of continuity, belonging, and practicality. An urban transplant with an open mind may find it’s just what they are looking for.

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The arrival of fall often brings a certain kind of visitor to the rural, Appalachian churches where I am a pastor.  I am always pleasantly surprised by the diverse array of visitors who continue to show up on Sunday mornings in small but noticeable trickles.  The September and October visitors are often some of the most determined and committed types. 

Professional folks and retirees work on their dream homes in the mountains during the summer.  They build on the lakes or high up along ridges and sometimes on the river.  They come from the suburbs of northern Virginia and places like Raleigh, Richmond and Rockville.   The mildly interested wait until Advent or Christmas to poke their head into one of these little brown churches in the vale.  But the autumn visitor who has chaired their large suburban church Christian Education Committee comes early.   

I am extremely grateful for their interest, but I also must start translating a new culture for them immediately.  They are discovering a new part of the world.  And many of their quick questions come from their old world.  “Do you have Wednesday night programs for different age groups?”  “How many services do you have on Sunday?”  “Have you thought about putting up big video screens in your sanctuary and getting rid of your hymnals?” 

My aim is to help them adjust to a new part of the world because it is not just about church.  They experience a similar cross-cultural dissonance at the library and the high school and the grocery store.  The new arrivals who seek to make Allegheny County into Alexandria come away frustrated and fed up.  But curious pilgrims who take on the adventure of discovering a new home often learn that what already exists here is the very thing they were looking for. 

Churches are always embodied in culture, and this is true in the city, in the suburbs and in the mountain holler.  This is a good thing.  But it means that faith communities are going to construct life together in different ways in different places.  There’s nothing like singing the hymn, “For All The Saints” in a downtown cathedral with the aid of a powerful pipe organ.  But there is also nothing like joining voices together to “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” with a piano in the little white clapboard church.  There are people who prefer the small-group dinner clubs offered in abundance at a large suburban church.  But there are also folks who prefer the intergenerational experience of the potluck supper after Sunday worship.   

The size and scale of any group has a tremendous effect upon the kind of community that people construct together.  The size of a community also shapes the values of a group.  And when I use the world value, I simply mean what a community considers to be important, things that are a priority.  Let me share a chart of cultural values that I have observed over the years that are a spectrum of priorities based on the size of a church community.  All these values are good and positive priorities.  The point is to reflect upon what is a priority for people as individuals and for the communities of which they are a part.   

 

Large-Scale Community               Small-Scale Community
Mobility Place
Change Continuity
Professional competence Personal commitment
Achieving Belonging
Organization/planning Intuition
Technology DIY
Individual Community
Youth Intergenerational
Reflection Practicality
Mind-centered Heart-centered
Present with eye to the future Present informed by the past
Spirituality of personal balance Spirituality of group flow

These are just a few values that are almost reflexive of each other based upon the size and scale of a community.  In the village it is possible to know all the people and also be known by all the people, which makes it a very different place than the metropolis.  The scale of a community therefore shapes not only how people relate to each other but what they think is important.  It needs to be said that this values spectrum is no rigid certainty for any community but rather broadly it often resonates with churches I have served or assisted.  Let me also say that individually most of us are a mix and combination of values from all over the spectrum.  Different individuals may find that their preferences lean in one direction or another.  Small-scale values reflect the character of many rural congregations.  But small-scale values may also be found in any kind of village such as the urban neighborhood church or the small, close-knit suburban congregation.    

So, if you are migrating to the mountains from the city, watch and attend to the gifts already at work in the small rural church.  Don’t let the cultural preferences that you learned in a large-scale community deceive you into thinking that any set of cultural preferences is absolute.  None of these values is absolute.  All of them are important.  All of us gravitate to each of them in some way even as we hold our own preferences.   

Thankfully congregations of different size and shapes proclaim that their core values are much greater than their cultural preferences.  There are transcendent values to be found in every church such as faith, hope and love, especially love.  Love helps us see and appreciate the spectrum of cultural values woven into the fabric of a local congregation.  Love builds empathy and helps us to value the diversity of different churches in different places and know that this diversity is a good thing.   

Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.  

 

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