April 9, 2018—I was once on staff at a small church in the Houston area. We had less than 150 people weekly, but our property situated on a busy road where nearly 30,000 cars a day passed us by. One might think this would be great exposure for the church, and certainly for whatever we put on the church sign by the road. Not so.
There were too many businesses with too many signs and messages. We found it incredibly difficult to cut through the challenge of what sociologists and civil engineers call urban sprawl. Hundreds of thousands passed our building each week, hardly aware that our church brought sacred space into their environment. The opposite may be true in small towns, and for small town churches.
A few years ago, on a cross country road trip from Virginia to Tennessee, I couldn’t help but notice all the beautiful small towns, and all the churches. Often in rural environments, the most distinguishing architectural landmark is a church building. Even if most people in a small town don’t go to church, they are proud of their town’s church building.
I minister in a town which attracts seasonal visitors because of our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay. Many times when meeting an out-of-towner, when I tell them which church I work at, they say something like, “Oh, you mean that beautiful church just outside of town, right across the highway from the river?” To which I answer, “Yup! That’s the one!”
What if small town churches embraced the fact that they are still seen as sacred space in a world where sacred space is rapidly vanishing? A recent Wall Street Journal article examines what might be done with the property of European churches that have died. The answers vary from grocery store, to night-club, and even skate parks.
Small town churches should celebrate the fact that they are, in many instances, still seen as sacred space in their communities. Churches that fail to engage the community might certainly end up as landmarks for driving directions, or worse.
My trip to Tennessee impressed on me the significance of sacred space in rural life. No matter the small town, church buildings dominate the small town landscape. In many small towns, especially in my native Texas, churches are on the town square, right across the street from beautiful courthouses.
The symbolism of the courthouse and the church existing together in the public square of the community is rich. One is civic, one is sacred. Many times they face each other, as if in conversation, but always the space is separate. One is open Monday through Friday for earthly judges to rule, and the other is open on the Sabbath to declare the Heavenly One’s rule over all creation.
If small town churches embrace the symbolism of their structures, and engage in community, they will likely thrive in new and creative ways. How does your church embrace the fact that it provides sacred space in your town? How does your congregation engage community? Which direction are you headed in – a thriving community or a landmark of days gone by?
Jonathan Davis pastors the Beale Memorial Baptist Church in Tappahannock, VA. He is the founder of the Small-Town Churches Network blog (www.smalltownchurches.org), which is dedicated to sharing research, ideas and tools to help small-town churches. Jonathan is a DMin candidate (ABD) at Logdson Seminary, where his research focuses on equipping small-town churches for 21st century ministry. Additionally, Jonathan is a regular opinion columnist for Baptist News Global, and serves on a variety of denominational boards and leadership teams. Follow him on Twitter @jonathandavis
Jonathan Davis will be co-facilitator, with Camille Josey, of our Colloquy for Rural Church Pastors (two sessions: August 6-8, 2018 and February 11-13, 2019). Click here for the application. Join us!