What I’ve Learned From Preaching in a Small Town
There’s plenty of advice for ministers available, but I have noticed that most of it comes from successful ministers who lead large congregations, often in large cities. Although their advice is often helpful, it is not always practical for the minister in a small town at a small congregation. I love small towns. I grew up in one. I’ve spent most of time as a minister in small towns, and I’m raising my family in a small town. Successful ministers who lead large congregations can offer some helpful advice, but here are a few things I learned from ministering in a small town.
Most People in Your Congregation Have Read the Bible All Their Life – They will probably know the Bible stories you are trying to teach them better than you do. Take advantage of this and learn from them, but also keep this in mind when you are preparing your sermons. Preach the text, but bring something fresh to it. Stay true to the text, but try to get them to see a familiar Bible story from a different perspective. Point out things they may have missed. This is often easier than it sounds. With just a little bit of study you will see things in Scripture you didn’t know were there.
It’s Helpful to Know the History of the Congregation - Find a member who has been at that congregation for some time, and ask them to tell you the history of the congregation. They will love telling you the story, and you will benefit tremendously from it. Knowing the history will help you understand the congregation and the people better. It will benefit you in your preaching, counseling, and other areas of your ministry.
Get Involved in the Community – Small towns are quite different from large cities. Community is still a big part of small towns. People pitch in, get involved, and help others out. Find ways you can be a part of the community. In small towns ministers are still highly respected. Take advantage of this.
Educate Yourself, but Keep it Simple – A minister always needs to be educating himself. This is beneficial for you and your congregation. Just because you are educated does not give you the right to show off. Don’t use big words you learned in grad school. Don’t talk above other people. Most people in your congregation are highly intelligent, especially when it comes to the Bible, even though they have not read the same books you have read, or know the terminology you know. You were not hired to show people how smart you are. You were hired to teach people the Bible, and show them what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Stay Away From Politics – In every congregation I have preached at the members have consisted of both Democrats and Republicans, and they both have Biblical reasons for voting the way they do. Like it or not you are the face of the church in a small town. Don’t go political and alienate half your congregation. If you want to vote, that’s fine, but keep it to yourself.
Sometimes a Little Bit of Tradition Isn’t All That Bad – You will quickly discover that the congregation you are at has been doing some things in a certain way for many years. They may not even know why they do it the way they do it, but that’s the way it’s been done. Occasionally it’s good to get people to change their traditions. We never want to equate our traditions with God’s commands, but at the same time some traditions are better left alone. Don’t seek to change a long standing tradition unless you have a good reason for doing so, and make sure you explain your reason to the congregation. If at all possible work within the traditions the congregation has already established.
Most People Just Want to Follow Jesus – Most people do not know or care about the debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright over justification. Stay away from the latest controversies. Stay away from church politics. Teach people to be followers of Jesus, not people who can go out and win an argument.
Don’t Try to Do Too Much – You are a part of a small congregation in a small town. You do not have all the resources that a large urban congregation has. Introduce new projects and resources, share your ideas, challenge your members, but also know what your limits are. Don’t get discouraged when you don’t have the staff or budget to do what you want to do.
Love the People and They Will Love You Back – Remember that you got into ministry because you love people. Sometimes people can be weird, grouchy, stubborn, and many other things. As a minister you have been called to love both the likeable and unlikeable. A little bit of love will go a long way. Once people find out you love them and care for them, they will most likely return the favor.