I'm a small town girl. I love connected communities where the beauticians know everyone's business, where men ride their lawn mowers in the 4th of July parade, and where the mayor is also the school bus driver. So I experienced a huge culture shock when I had my first baby, and ten days later moved to the big city for my husband's new job. Four months later, just as I was beginning to adjust, the company moved us to Switzerland. I know that many women would have grabbed their fondue pots and jumped on the plane with glee, but I was devastated. I'd moved my parents' first grandchild to the big city eight hours away—and now I was taking him to a foreign land across the ocean.
I didn't know it then, but those moves were only the beginning. After 25 years of belonging in my small, familiar hometown, I was embarking on a moving adventure that would include eight moves in nine years. In less than a decade, we lived in five states, seven cities, and one foreign country. I also gave birth to three boys in four years during that time. Through all those stressful transitions, I learned a lot about the importance of cultivating meaningful friendships.
As small towns are overtaken by suburban sprawl, we're losing our sense of connected community. Depressed and lonely people are everywhere—even in the church—and heartfelt friendships are becoming as scarce as hen's teeth. Many of us have an abundance of only shallow, "smile and wave" acquaintances. And we carry a void in our hearts that can only be filled by deep, authentic relationships with God and others.
In Matthew 22:36-40, someone asked Jesus, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus answered that the law and the prophets hang on two commandments: loving God and loving your neighbor. We all have a longing for belonging because God has wired us for relationship.
In the midst of all my family's moves, I discovered that small towns hold a secret or two about the power of living in connected community.
Small Town Secret #1: Minimize "Counterfeit Connections"
Small town people know that we were meant for more than just virtual friendships. Rural life is often a bit behind the big city when it comes to technology, but the people there don't mind because they know that electronic communication is a poor substitute for true face-to-face relationships. Although technology can make our lives more convenient, counterfeit connections are one-dimensional. We can have "friends" on Facebook, email pen pals, chat room buddies, and text messaging conversations—but none of it is real communication. The words are there, but the deeper meaning and intimacy are lost.