There’s a piece over at TGC I want to flag for a couple reasons. That said, before I get into some reservations about it, I wanted to note that the author is a pastor in Fargo, ND and he’s reporting on some very encouraging things God is doing through his congregation in that city.
None of what I say should be taken as criticism of all that—we need more pastors out here in middle America and I’m grateful to hear of such stories coming from places that many city-centric church planters neglect or forget about entirely. Even granting that Fargo is hardly a small town, it’s also not the sort of place a lot of today’s young church planters dream of going to, in my experience, and so I’m grateful that Pr. Moses is there and particular that he is a North Dakota native now pastoring a church in North Dakota. We need more stories like that. Moreover, I’m grateful for his call at the end of the piece to plant churches in small towns. That is another great need of our day.
That being said, there are two concerns I had with Pr. Moser’s piece.
One of them is around terminology. We both want the word “community” to do a ton of work for us and we aren’t entirely clear on what we mean by it. As it is often used in evangelical language, “community” seems to simply refer to a group of people who like each other and maybe help each other out when someone has a baby or needs help on a home repair project.
But this isn’t really helpful because it isn’t how people work. We don’t just throw a dozen people into the room, tell them “hey, you’re all Christian and now you’re each other’s community.”
I cannot think of a single group of friends I have been part of where we formed simply by being tossed into a room together and told to spend one hour a week together and become each other’s “community.” We met in college when we were bound together by shared work and a shared place—and a place small enough we could actually influence it in some direction. Or we met because we all liked the same soccer team and enjoyed talking to each other about it. Or we met because we worked on some major project together and spent tons of time together dedicated to doing the work associated with the project. Every single friend I have that I can think of meets this description.
A community is not just a gaggle of people; it’s a group of people bound around a specific good. And that good can be the good of a city, the good of a certain sort of work, or the good of study and reflection. But the point is that there needs to be something for the community to do.
This first point leads in to the second: One of the besetting sins of many young evangelicals that I read—and I’m not sure if this is because we’ve all ingested too much Hauerwas or we’re all basically Baptist or something else—is that we routinely confuse the good of one sort of community for the good of another or we act as if distinct goods are somehow in competition with one another when in reality they are not.
The problem is right there in the title of Pr. Moser’s piece: the (false) promise of small-town community. The title sets up the argument of the piece, which is that the greatest longings we have for community cannot ultimately be fulfilled by small towns.
So while small towns may boast in their “community,” we mustn’t be deceived. The small-town community ideal is far from the small-town community reality. I can testify that the nostalgic, romantic, small-town communal life promises much, but doesn’t ultimately deliver.
Small towns can’t do it. But local churches can:
Small towns have no greater need than real community. Put another way, they have no greater need than healthy church-planting churches.
Note the explicit identification of “real community” with “healthy church-planting church.”
This is a category mistake. A small town offers certain sorts of communal goods—thick cultural practices that get passed on across time, ties created more by material necessity than simple relational desire, and help to provide for the material and social needs that everyone has. These are all goods that come to us via civil society rather than ecclesial society and all of them are real goods that result from human beings living together and fulfilling the cultural mandate of Genesis 1.
The local church congregation, meanwhile, is where we hear the Gospel preached, receive the sacraments, and encourage one another in Christian discipline. This will, ideally, create close relationships over time. But those relationships should not override or consume the other relationships and structures I participate in as a citizen of a small town—or a large city, for that matter.
Maybe two illustrations can make the point to close: Every year on Memorial Day our family goes to a service held at the cemetery where my great grandfather Constantine, a Greek immigrant and World War I veteran, is buried. To be sure, I do not mark these occasions in the way many Republicans would, given their idolatrous vision of our nation. In my conscience, I do not feel right placing my hand over my heart during the pledge of allegiance, for example. But the abuse of a thing does not negate its proper use and patriotism is still a great good. Indeed, if Chesterton is right the only way of making your home place better is to be a patriot:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing– say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
There is a joy I feel when I stand next to papa’s grave and I know that I still belong to the same city where he spent his final years, where he took my young mother to pro wrestling events, where he was a chanter in the local Greek Orthodox church, where he was a key member of the local Greek immigrant population. That joy is not wrong or misplaced. It is natural, human, and the thing that allows me to serve my local place in what small ways I can in order to make it better.
We also take our kids to church every week. We gather with a local congregation of believers to hear the Gospel preached and to receive the body and blood of Christ. We go to an education hour where we learn more about the faith and discuss it with others. And throughout the week there are other things we can attend if we wish that further promote the work of the church.
As simply as I can say it: My concern is that much of what is standing behind Pr. Moser’s post—and what is behind a ton of contemporary popular political theology amongst young evangelicals—is an inability to recognize that both of the things I just described are necessary, that they need not compete with one another, and that they are realizing separate goods, both of which are a part of the good life.