Why We Need Small Towns
The New York Times released a documentary film this summer that captures a place and its people. The film features residents from a wide range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and jobs. Their disparate stories are knitted together by their affection for their city. In many ways, the film captures a love of place and holistic mission that has captivated many evangelicals as of late. There's one major difference: The place is McDowell County, West Virginia, population 21,729.
The residents of McDowell County remind an American church intent on doing and being more that sometimes, the best life is given to quiet, simplicity, and smallness. It's a lesson that also appears in a marvelous recent book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Part memoir, part biography, part meditation, Little Way is the story of journalist Rod Dreher's younger sister, Ruthie, who at age 40 was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Watching her community rally around her, Dreher awakens to the beauty of life in a small town. More than that, it alerts him to his fixation on big cities and their big dreams and big projects, and how he has disdained the ordinary pleasures of life in his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana. Dreher writes of his sister's home and how it shaped her affections:
The love that had sustained Ruthie through her cancer, and that now surrounded and upheld her family, came from somewhere. Like Ruthie, my mother and father had cultivated it, in this little patch of ground, all their lives. They had no grand gestures of philanthropy or goodness to their name, but rather they were always faithful in small things.
Dreher notes that his way of life—as an accomplished editor and religion columnist—had failed to create the commitment, fidelity, and long-term community found in Ruthie's. To the world, Dreher was the noteworthy sibling. But as he watched Ruthie's town love her, her life seemed to offer depths that were unknown to him.
Stickers and Boomers
Of course, American Christians know something of the little way. The evangelical movement has always had its share of what novelist Wallace Stegner famously called "stickers." In the words of Wendell Berry, a student of Stegner's, stickers are people who "settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in." America's first great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent much of his life serving in a single small parish. Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield spent nearly his entire adult life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the university and cared for his sick wife. The late Dallas Willard taught and ministered in the same philosophy department for nearly five decades. Just recently, my pastor interviewed a dozen fellow pastors who have served in Lincoln, Nebraska, for over a decade. All of them are committed to staying at their churches indefinitely.
But, like so many Westerners, we don't always practice the virtues of the little way in our communities. Evangelicals are a people of megachurches, national conferences, city-centric thinking (which often comes with derision for small-town life), and ever-expanding religious empires, be they church-planting networks or the Twitter feeds of celebrity pastors. Consider just one example: the rise of video preaching and podcasting, and the cultlike following they have generated around certain leaders.