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.
Jesus was all about connecting with real people. What if he would have "Facebooked" the Woman at the Well? She'd have checked her email and found: "Woman at the Well: Jesus has written on your wall." The email would say, "Heard you were at the well today. If you ask me, I will give you living water." It kind of loses its meaning. When we read the story in John 4, it's clear that a big part of Jesus' impact was the fact that he was sitting in public talking to: (1) a woman, and (2) a Samaritan. He was risking being seen with her, and he was taking time from his busy life to sit and talk with her. Jesus' life was about people—up close and personal—genuine connection, not counterfeit connection. Technology is a great thing, but overusing it can rob us of real relationships.
Small Town Secret #2: Avoid Overscheduling
Small town people have more time to cultivate friendships because their schedules aren't overbooked with activities. In my hometown, our social opportunities consisted of high school athletic events, church activities, and the occasional community festival. We spent the rest of our time driving back and forth on Main Street waving at one another.
When I moved to the big city, the contrast was mind-boggling. There were endless opportunities for entertainment, sports, lessons, and culture. We quickly filled every space on the calendar with great things and then wondered why we were having trouble getting to know people. Between guitar lessons, drama camp, traveling soccer, and pottery for beginners, who has time for hospitality? I learned that I have to be intentional about investing my time in the people around me. Otherwise, life flies by in a flurry of activities and I miss out on the truly fulfilling things—like laughing with another family over dinner.
Small Town Secret #3: Treat the Church Like Family
The faithful people in my hometown church rallied in prayer when a heart defect threatened the life of my baby sister. They welcomed us into their homes and gave us clothes to wear after our house burned on Christmas night. In each one of our eight moves, God provided a small group of believers to be our family and support us through each transition. The church wasn't meant to be a country club where everyone has their act together and relationships stay on a surface level. Church should be a place where we can be ourselves and be loved, accepted, and cared for by the other members of God's family.
In Matthew 12:47-49, someone told Jesus, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." He replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
I've learned that it isn't human blood that binds us; it is Christ's blood. God has given us the body of Christ so that wherever we go, we'll have family—our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Small Town Secret #4: Mix It Up
Small towns need all kinds of people in order to survive. Every village needs a doctor, a carpenter, a librarian, and an auto mechanic—and together they create a community with a unique mix of personalities and experiences.
When we lived in the suburbs of the big city, most of the population came from a similar socioeconomic and cultural background. Living in that kind of monoculture meant that our friends all fit a certain stereotype. But the apostle Paul wrote, "All of you together are Christ's body, and each of you is a part of it …. If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part!" (1 Corinthians 12:27, 17-19).
Working moms can be friends with stay-at-home moms, older women do have things in common with younger women, and college educated women can enjoy women who didn't finish high school. Unless I'm willing to mix it up and let go of my preconceived notions about potential friends, I'll miss out on a lot of interesting relationships.
Small Town Secret #5: Be Authentic
Most small towns have a city swimming pool that becomes the social hotspot on summer afternoons. Most pools have two kinds of girls: The girl who sits on the side, trying to preserve her image by protecting her hair and makeup from splashes, and the girl who does a belly flop off the high dive and confidently steps out of the pool with her hair plastered to her head and mascara running down her face. If we want to go deeper in our friendships, we have to be willing to take a risk, get our hair wet, and get real with each other.
When you grow up in a small town, people already know your flaws and mistakes. We went to prom with the same boys who used to eat paste and vomit on their Big Chief Tablets. The problem happens when we try to hide our flaws. We put up a façade, pretend to be perfect, and then tear down each other in an effort to elevate our own worth. I realized that if I can be secure enough in God's love to be honest about my flaws—I won't need to point out the flaws of others to make myself look better. If I evaluate myself according to the world's standards of power, money, men, or beauty, I'm never going to feel secure, and that insecurity will keep me from loving others like I should. If I have to compete, I want to compete for authenticity.
Small Town Secret #6: Be Intentional
People in small towns don't wait for an invitation—they reach out. It was an adjustment for me to move to the city where play dates had to be booked in advance and friends never stopped by unannounced. I learned that the best way to cultivate deeper friendships is to put myself out there. I joined a small group at church. When I went to the pool or the park, I asked another mom and her kids to tag along. I organized a neighborhood block party and progressive dinners. I hosted a casual coffee and prayer gathering one morning a week. And I ordered a pizza and invited another family over to share it.
God has promised that he "knows the plans he has for us." Whether his plans lead us to a big city or a small town, I realized the best and surest way to gain authentic, meaningful relationships with God and others is to dive in and get my hair wet. To be intentional and just do it.
Jenni Roney is a writer and frequent speaker on friendship. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and three boys.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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