I first encountered Donnie Griggs at a conference near Exeter a few years ago - his beard makes quite the impression but more so his diligent commitment to his small town in the USA, to love his town and build a church that is unmovable on things of first importance and flexible on other matters.
Donnie is a regular visitor to the UK and I heard him again in February 2016, again in Exeter. Those messages, along with one by Dan Romer, are worth a listen. Advance UK February 2016. Donnie was again banging the drum for gospel-centred contextualised ministry and asking his probing questions. There's a reasonable overlap between those recordings and his book Small Town Jesus.
Listening to Donnie in Febraury was another repentance moment in my life, through those sessions I got on the phone to a good friend who doesn't know Jesus to spend more time with him... decided to re-commit to one coffee shop in our city and start talking to the staff... resolved again to love people and seek to speak of Jesus... When you're prepared to do that I think you can challenge others to take the same path in their parish.
The first half of the book is an apologetic for reaching insignificant places - against the backdrop of a growing (and important) focus on seeing churches planted in big cities. Donnie's small town has a little under 10,000 people - a lot of Britian is like that. I grew up in a village of just over 5000 people - a small town in many ways. Many UK cities are made up of swallowed-up small towns, which merge into their city, but also retain a local identity within which a church has the opportunity to love people and speak well of Jesus. A lot of Universities are similar in scale.
The second half of the book focusses on understandinng your own, enaging with its mindsets - both to redeem and to challenge, landing with direction toward "being a good local." Much of this feels reminiscent of Mark Dever's The Gospel and Personal Evangelism.
"When you don't think you will ever see wait staff or store staff again, you don't naturally make any effort to get to know them... in a small town... you will find yourself constantly bumping into these people again and again. ... so take every opportunity to be kind and courteous." (STJ, p150-151)
"When considering how you can engage the culture of your small town with the gospel. please don't settle for contextualised church programs and church facilities. Love where you live and serve where you live... Let integrity, generosity and compassion be something the whole town cannot escape when they are around you or the folks in your church." (STJ, p156)Each of the chapters in the second half of the book ends with a pop quiz of questions to ponder - ideal for individuals and for church leadership teams. The questions are challenging and should probably come with a health warning - big changes to life might be called for to love our towns. Whatever answers you end up reaching, Donnie's questions are high value.
I know I've got this wrong before and I've seen churches get this wrong. There's one in our current neighbourhood. I know they're sincere Bible people. They're lovely. They put up banners. They've given their own homemade parking tickets to locals who they've said can use their car park, saying that they need the space for their events... despite the fact that they use up the parking that is there for locals to use... the same locals they probably want to introduce to Jesus but haven't quite figured out how to connect with. I can't help but feel they're missing it. Donnie can be a helpful friend.
Personally, we're about to move to a town within a city, perhaps not technically a small town, but a place that nonetheless will have its own mentalities and passions, a place I will engage with in the years ahead one way or another - how can I be a good local? How can I commit to the people I will be among - my neighbours, the school gate, a running club, getting to know people in local shops and so on.
The future of the church are the people of my town... we celebrate those who already know Jesus but the vast majority don't. What if some of the problem is that we're getting in our own way... putting up unnecessary barriers... by our laziness, selfishness, carelessness or other sins.
Donnie Griggs' Small Town Jesus is a small book, an easy and engaging read on one level, but one that I'm going to spend some time with. Donnie isn't calling for a copy and paste approach to life and ministry so this book may not give me many answers - but it asks me lots of questions that I need to answer and that I'll need to be asking of others and I get to know them if I'm to learn to love our new town.
In many ways Donnie offers an application of Jon Tyson's reflection from a big city "love people and be available." Small Town Jesus comes with a track record from the story of One Harbor Church in Morehead City, and with an eye to ask questions of aspects of life that I'm not sure rarely get examined - from the name, style, venue choices of a church through to the self-denying challenges of taking up the pursuits and passions of people in your town (in Donnie's town that means things like hunting and sailing and surfing...) even if those things initially hold little or no interest to us... but when did taking up our cross and dying to self mean just doing the things we want to do.
Donnie challenges me to become all things to all people and take obstacles out of the way. If there's to be offense let it be the cross... if there are to be places where church and town jar let it be over sin rather than the culture we've copied from somewhere else.
This book would be good for you...
- If you're a church leader or on a leadership team.
- If you're a home/community group leader.
- If you're in any kind of local / town church.
- If you're in a citywide church it'd probably speak to any geographic-level community life, and to individuals who participate in their own locality.
- If you're part of a University Christian Union then, I'd argue, you're working in a small town so this book would give you serious food for thought.
More at www.smalltownjesus.com and www.twitter.com/thecarolinadon
Buy from Amazon in paperback or kindle.