This is going to be a bit more “personal” in scope, but I think there is theological twist, as well as touching sociological and political themes too. So let’s drive right in.
I observed an interesting phenomenon the past couple of weeks. Some friends of ours own a large dairy farm and a world-class Gouda cheese shop. Full disclosure: my wife is also employed by them, but we consider them good friends. At any rate, they have decided to move their ever-expanding business from their current location (a few miles outside of town) with the hopes of building and opening right off of the highway. My personal opinion is that this will be great for our community and will offer nothing but positive benefits for everyone around. But that’s not the opinion of everyone and my point here is not to debate whether or not it is a good idea. After all, of the hundreds of readers of this blog, less than 3% are from the area I live in (ha ha!).
We’re a small community. This city is less than 2,000 people, so you can imagine that we’ve got the “small town” vibe going on. Word spreads quick, gossip is an issue, and people take things way personal when dealing with city issues. This is especially true when the local culture is challenged. I could write pages on that issue, but that too is not my intention here. I simply want to give you the impression that most of your assumptions about a small town are pretty much true. But I love living here. Wait… did I just type that?
So in a small town, you’ll always have people that disagree with people. They are just… well, they are just disagreeable. It doesn’t matter whether you are building a farm or doing construction or making additions to someone’s house. They are going to disagree with you no matter what. Someone could offer to give away a million dollars to every entire household and they’d disagree. Why? On the principle of the matter.
When the announcement came that our city might rezone in order to accommodate this new business, people began to quickly take sides on the issue. It was a decent “talking point” around the community. At first, there seemed to be an equal share of support and an equal share of opposition to the idea of this business expansion.
But something turned the tide.
Low and behold, someone put together an “informational flyer” and started distributing it throughout the community. It was placed on the windshield of people’s cars, handed out at businesses, and even mailed anonymously to a city council member. This “informational flyer” was all over the community; in fact, it made it’s way to Facebook too.
This was a monumental mistake on the part of whoever made this flyer. As the week passed by, people who were either concerned or on the fence about the rezoning issue took an immediate turn towards supporting the proposal. People who were already supportive became even more so. In fact, tonight’s Planning Commission meeting had record attendance. There were a few naysayers (and by “few” I mean the couple ladies who fall into the “disagreeable” camp). However, the vast majority of people were extremely supportive of the proposal. Farmer after farmer, neighbor after neighbor, and citizen after citizen stood in support. As an advocate for the proposal, that was cool to see. Clearly the community is supportive of this opportunity.
As much as I believe the proposal offers a truly positive opportunity for the community, I don’t believe that’s the major reason why the community became extremely supportive, and aggressively so. I believe the deciding factor in the support was actually directly from the naysayers. The disagreeable to be disagreeable backfired. That flyer was probably the best thing to happen in order to encourage people to actually support the proposal’s cause. Here’s why:
(1) The flyer was full of misinformation which led to misrepresentation. People don’t like being misinformed, and when it’s obvious (which it was), it ticks them off.
(2) Insulting the agricultural community in an agricultural community is a bad idea. You’re stirring up the hornet’s nest. You can’t insult dairy farmers and not expect all other dairy farmer’s to join their ranks. Bad planning.
(3) The flyer and many of the naysayers on Facebook have repeatedly suggested that the proposed business will harm our children. The facts have been stretched to support this idea, and statistics and alleged research has been offered to support it. Yet none of these concerns were based on any actual facts. And it was so obvious that people quickly understood that our children were being used as a political tool, and people don’t like that. No one wants to harm children, and when you use them to further your agenda, people will go from neutral to quite opinionated quickly.
(4) Americans like free market capitalism, especially in a rural community surrounded by dairy farms. If you come across in any way, shape, or form as opposing that, you’re the enemy. Seriously, as I was reading (and interacting) with some of the people opposed to this proposal, it was amazing to feel like I was standing up for the underdog… just because of the way they came across.
(5) Denying people’s freedom, or even coming across like you are denying people’s freedom will also stir up the cage. This is similar to the previous observation, but when you come across like you are keeping people from following their “God-given rights,” you stand the chance of quickly forming enemies, especially in rural communities where everyone likes to think they are “good” Americans.
How in the world does this connect theologically? I’m not entirely sure. But here are some further observations as I attempt to “think theological.”
I think this may give us some insights into leadership, especially within the church. We don’t need to misrepresent people’s theology in order to “win.” In fact, when we do that, we don’t honor God and we do not actually “win.” Sure, people might walk away thinking our view is the correct view, but in reality they don’t have a real reason to support why they believe that view. After all, they don’t really understand the opposing view. They just understand a straw man version of it. We don’t need to misrepresent and misinform people. It never works and it always backfires… eventually.
I also found it interesting to notice that people like to take issues on things. Rarely are we neutral, and rarely do we remain neutral when we can take a side. This can be used positively or negatively.
Freedom and “being American” are tied pretty tight. That’s pretty obvious, right? I mean, the United States is the “land of the free and home of the brave,” right? This may be one reason why the concept of Total Depravity and the Reformed opposition to “free will” may be strong in American theology. I wouldn’t use this as an argument for or against Calvinism, but it’s certainly a possible cultural influence that shapes our understanding of these theological concepts. The concept of freedom is powerful.
It was an interesting night.
What do you think? Do you notice trends in American culture that you connect to theology?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
Loved the article!
Growing up in a town of about 2000 myself, and pastoring on one of about 3500 now, I was able to put faces of people from my past or present on everyone you mentioned.
I think that living in a small town is one of the greatest learning tools there is to church leadership. I find the inner workings of small towns and rural communities to be mirrored images of local churches. Every church has some folks who are forward looking and trying to find better solutions to problems for the fellowship. They also have grumps and folks that are against change in any way, shape, or form. The grape vine and gossip are normally alive and well in most churches.
Your reporting of the misinformation on the flyers illustrates another layer of local church leadership. Given time the truth will come out. Nothing is so precious or easily lost in a church, or small town, as credibility and a good reputation. It must be guarded constantly or it can soon disappear.
Why send anonymous letters? To be unaccountable for the content. Few people are afraid to be known for simply sharing the truth. However, if it is tinted to a perspective that is not exactly true then it is almost always “anonymous”. That is true in churches as well as small towns. I am not sure I can count the anonymous letters I have been sent over the years of ministry. I am sure a city council person in a small town could say much the same!
It seems to me that it would pay great dividends to any potential minister to spend part of their life learning the ebb and flow of life in a small town. The parallels between life in that type community and church leadership are vast. Understanding how one must work within those unwritten and cultural structures to successfully live in a small town is much the same as working within those unwritten and cultural structures in a local church. If a person violates those unwritten but locally well understood values, laws, and attitudes in a small town they will be quickly ostracized and made to feel at arms length. It isn’t much different in a local church. Many young on fire pastors have found this out the hard way. They may have had great ideas, lots of enthusiasm, and plenty of focus. However, their inability to work with the people in that faith community took them down a road of trouble. It need not to be that way. They could have taken that same set of ideas, zeal, focus and enthusiasm down a different path of implementation and been a tremendous blessing to their church and community. The only difference between the guy who helped the people and the one who went down in flames is that one understood how to work with people within their culture and the other didn’t. It seems to work that way whether we are talking life in a small town or life in the local church. The city council meeting you mentioned is a great example of how it can turn out to be a win/win for a community or a church.
A basketful of good lessons in that experience with the local rezoning for the cheese company.
Hopefully those of us leading ministries are wise enough to see them.
Once again, a fun read. I enjoyed it very much!
I liked how you made the theological connection. I find these types of teachings very helpful.
I’m glad to have ‘met’ someone with a cheese connection … it may come in handy in the future. 🙂