December 2, 2020

A New Missions Field

Have you ever thought you might have a calling to missions?  I have a suggestion for you.

I won’t try to convince you that this new field is more deserving or better or more desperate than a hundred others.  All mission fields are important.  People might get competitive about missions, but how can God compete with himself?  He calls different people to different jobs, and it could be that one of you might find your calling here.

“Here” is in rural and small-town America.  But don’t come to do vacation Bible school or build a picnic shelter or even start a church.

Most small towns have a church and VBS, and we can build our own picnic shelter.  What we need is a grocery store.  A doctor’s office.  A hardware store.  A co-op to package and sell locally grown produce.  We need the necessities of life and meaningful employment in a place that feels like home.

My family and I live outside a town of a thousand people in western Indiana.  A hundred years ago our town still had a thousand people, but it also had a theater, a grocery store, a general store, two hotels, a high school, an elementary school, a grain terminal, a Carnegie library, and a hardware store.  The last four remain.  A few years ago the state tried to shut down the little library, but our petition drive was at least temporarily effective.  The grain terminal will stay in business, I guess, and so will the elementary school – although several nearby have shut and some children now spend an hour each way on the bus.  But our wonderful hardware store, that smells of old wood and nails and oil and paint, with the window display of 19th-century implements and the mannequin legs sticking out of the claw-footed bathtub – it may close when the proprietor gets old.

That’s what happened to the grocery store.  It closed a few years ago when the owner needed to retire.  No one replaced him, so the building is now sitting empty.  I don’t know whose fault it was that no one replaced him, but in any case we no longer have a grocery store.  Now there’s a gas station convenience store.  It has twenty shelf-feet of chips and pretzels and five of macaroni and cheese packages and canned tuna, but it doesn’t have a meat counter or fresh fruits and vegetables.  We have to drive twenty to thirty minutes to get to a real grocery store.  Oddly, the meat and vegetables in that “real” grocery store travel a whole lot farther to get there than we do – some from other hemispheres.  The delivery trucks smoke through some of the most productive and fertile farmland in the world to deliver lettuces from California, grapes from Chile, and lamb from Australia.  And the people around here who might grow lettuces or grapes or lambs are working part-time at the tanning salon or collecting food stamps.

Well, but be practical, you say.  No one can make a living in a little town.  It’s true that the few businesses we have are mostly run by older people who, I presume, have their mortgages paid off and a Social Security check to help out.  The cost of living is very much cheaper out here, so long as you don’t have to drive an hour to shop and work; nonetheless, it would be hard to support a family by running a store in a town of a thousand people.  That’s why I say it’s mission work.

Where are the wealthy churches willing to back a small business operator in a rural area as their mission project?  How about those city churches with lots of professionals – could someone help to get grants for rural development, not just to keep open a necessary local store but to employ local people in local businesses?  Mission work is not just church planting.  Yes, rural people need a good church, but nowadays even good churches are filled with retirees; younger people, if they work at all, work an hour away, late shifts and early shifts, and become disconnected from their community.  Many young people don’t work; it’s cheaper to live on food stamps out here than in the cities, and frankly, people can do pretty much anything they want in their old trailers in the woods – meth labs are competing with farming in most Midwestern rural areas.  So yes, if you want grittiness and drama on your mission field, you can find it here:  drug problems, broken families, teen pregnancies, hopeless lives – there is work for missionaries in these little towns and scope for active churches to get involved.

I know that running a doctor’s office or grocery store in rural America isn’t typically considered missions by many Christians.  But if caring for people’s daily needs is a means of mission work in Burkina Faso, why not here?  Many of the needs are the same, and rural Americans, like Burkinabes, will respond to people who are humbly serving as the face and hands of Christ.

Picture this example.  You open your grocery store.   (We’ve got an empty building available for a good price.)  You provide the basic necessities, and a few extras, too.  You begin to get a name around here for having the freshest produce and meat, because despite the labyrinth of government regulation, you’ve found a way to buy from local producers and sell to local consumers.  In fact, some city folk disillusioned with produce from the other side of the world are driving out this way to visit your store.

If you do use our old grocery building, there’s a room in the front with tables and chairs, where people used to play euchre and have community meetings.  You line the room with display cases of local handicrafts – I can introduce you to some up-and-coming spinners, knitters, basket makers, carpenters, painters, and others.  People can buy the crafts from you or pick up the craftperson’s business card after the community guild lunch or handicraft workshop or recipe exchange for seasonal produce.  If you’re creative with your insurance you could even have a seasonal food-preserving kitchen, although maybe one of the churches would work with you on that.

You accept food stamps and WIC and have the time to chat with young parents about recipes and healthy cooking.  You have some high school interns working at the store who carry groceries for those who can’t or deliver groceries to people without cars.  You can’t pay them much, but you’ll find every year that they ask you to write them recommendations for college and employment, and you’re happy to help them out.  As soon as the business is off the ground, you take on a young person as an apprentice – not just a minimum-wage slave, but someone you invest in.  You’ll have several apprentices over the years, because some will use their experience to go on to other things; but when you’re old and ready to retire, there will be someone in place to keep the business going.

People will start asking you why you moved here:  They’ll probably say “way out here” or even “this dump.”  You’ll have the perfect opportunity to start talking – slowly at first, because country people take a while to warm up.  But after five or ten years, they’ll be used to you.  They know your family; you go to the Fourth of July Popsicle parade and the Halloween cake walk with them.  You don’t idealize or condescend to them.  You’re their neighbor, and they’ll share their lives with you in a way that most of them wouldn’t with the pastor.  People who have never seen a stable family – or a contented single person – will have you to look at, and a few young people will stay and farm their grandfather’s land since they now have a market for their goods.

As gas prices get more prohibitive, these small towns will have a choice they haven’t had in a hundred years:  they could once again become true communities, with stores and schools and jobs and churches people can walk to and neighbors who know and care about each other; or their residents can give up the struggle and move to the crowded, faceless cities, shop at Seven-Eleven stores, and never know a plant or animal personally.  You could be a part of that choice.

This mission assignment would be long-term, even life-long, not a two-year trip with most of your time spent fund-raising and at conferences.  You would be leaving behind the culture of the cities, the museums and private schools and stimulating ethnic mix you were used to.  You would be taking on a job seen as low-brow and dead-end.  You’d hear a lot of “You went to business school and now you’re running a junky little grocery store?” from some of your educated city acquaintances.  You’d hear a lot of “I can’t wait to get away from all the losers in this place!” from some of your new neighbors.  But even today, in our rich, spoiled society, there are Christians who are willing to sacrifice, to give up comforts, to go to strange places and serve alien people.  Some Christians are even brave enough to do all that an hour down the road and forgo the glamour of newsletters filled with tropical photos and exotic stories.

And you know how it is – those who are called to the work don’t deem it a sacrifice, ultimately.  You might find, after a few years on the field, that you’ve never been happier.  Sure, your rural route gets snowed in every winter, but your neighbor with the Harley and the pit bull comes at six in the morning to plow you out.  Your children are learning patience and responsibility raising livestock, and nothing can beat harvesting your own garden every summer.  The wood stove smells great in the winter; it’s the magnet that draws your family into the living room of the big old house that cost a third of what an apartment would have cost you in Los Angeles.  And best of all, you’re a genuine Christian presence in a place that needs what you have to offer, living proof that to Christians like you community is more important than making money and getting ahead.

You may be asking why I don’t do this myself.  I’m not a businessperson; I’m no good with money.  But I teach at two community college campuses nearby, in rural towns.  I hope I’m providing encouragement and dignity to people who aren’t much appreciated by the mainstream of American society, not to mention by American employers.  My students and neighbors deserve a real community, with a doctor who knows them, and a grocery store, and a school, and things to do that are not contingent on the internal combustion engine.   They deserve to see God’s love in action in a way that Paul the tent-maker and James the advocate of charity would approve of.

And hey, I promise you we’ll all shop at your store and even come in for the euchre games if the ice tea isn’t too sweet.

Any takers?




  1. Damaris, what a timely post – at least for me!! My husband and I moved to a town of about 6000 people (more in the summer) in Wisconsin for me to practice medicine. For the last five years, though, we’ve been living in a nearby smaller town of 2000 people because I can’t practice medicine any longer because of headaches. However, my husband and I are in the process of opening a yarn shop on Main Street in our little town. We don’t anticipate that it will make much money. One of our major goals with a yarn shop is to facilitate community in this small town. Needle arts are a wonderful way to relax, especially when you can sit and do it with friends. The best part of practicing medicine (and what I miss) is the people. I hope our business is successful, not just because it would be nice to make some money from it, but because it can be a wonderful way for people to connect.

    So, I very much agree with you. Investing in small-town life isn’t easy, but it is rewarding.


    P.S. And you’re welcome to stop in and knit a bit when we open.

    • I would come at the drop of a hat! My daughters and I can’t resist a yarn shop. Good luck with your venture.

    • Where will your store be? My wife and I have wanted to do the same thing (she knits, crochets, spins etc).

      • @pcNielsen, This is Catherine’s husband. We live in (and will be opening our shop in) Weyauwega, WI. It’s a little west of Appleton on Hwy 10. We would love to have you stop in. We are hoping to be open by the time fall starts to hit and people start to think of knitting again.

        • For our 10th anniversary we plan to visit numerous yarn outlets, so to speak (along with some ceramic oriented places for me), but we’re heading west from Nebraska. Was wondering if you were in our path, but guess not for this trip. Maybe another time! We’ll keep you in mind. Have a name or website for your shop yet?

    • David Cornwell says

      And small town and rural people love to spin “yarns,” swapping stories and just talking. Where I live periodically we have a sighting of a black panther on the loose. A search party goes out, supported by the Sheriff’s Department, the local paper runs stories of the sightings, and tall tales are born, repeated, and amended.

      The panther has never been caught, so I’d bet it’s lurking in the woods waiting to make another appearance just when it’s needed.

      Speak the language of these people and you become one of them. Your yarn shop is perfect.

      • Thanks!! We’re going to be two doors down from the coffee shop where lots of “social life” happens. And, there are two bars on the block – where the rest of the “social life” happens!

        As an aside, we tried to come up with a shop name that incorporated the idea of yarns as stories as well as yarn as fiber. We couldn’t make anything work that also let people clearly know what the shop was about so we’re going with The Knitting Nest.

        Hunting is big around here, so I want to really capitalize on that. People don’t necessarily understand that a hand-knit hat or pair of socks is often warmer than what you can buy at Fleet Farm. I’ve got a couple of boys in the elementary school knitting club who are learning to knit. Since my husband knits, he’s a good role model. The first weekend of gun season is traditionally a big time for women to get together and craft or make the rounds of the craft shows. And, if the men get their buck early, they can come tell us all about it!

        • FollowerOfHim says

          A friend of mine took an engineering job in north-central Wisconsin right out of college. A non-hunter himself, he told me that he realized he’d nonetheless picked up something of the local hunting culture when he found himself counting the points on a buck standing in the middle of the road — even as he was slamming on the brakes to avoid it.

          • This is pretty off-topic, but your comment about the engineer becoming part of the culture even without hunting reminded me of it. When we moved to town, I was working as a family physician. On one of my very first call nights, I was called in to deliver a baby. I lived only about 6 or 8 miles from the hospital. I decided to drive the back roads to the hospital and then again back home after the baby was delivered. As I was driving home on the back roads, I saw several deer in a field and told myself that I should go through town to the hospital so I wouldn’t hit a deer. About 5 minutes after my head hit the pillow, I was called back in to help another pregnant patient. This time, I drove through town, and, wouldn’t you know it, there were three deer walking side by side down the main road. And they didn’t speed up or run off when I drove up behind them. They were clearly in “their” territory. When I got home, I told my husband that if a moose walked down main street (a la Northern Exposure), I wanted to go back down South!! Well, we’re still here, along with the deer, but no moose!

  2. What a wonderful essay and idea. Thank you so much for writing this.

  3. Building community is a tall order in a country where we meet for two hours (or less) a week, listen to rock music played at deafening levels, sit staring at the back of a stranger’s head while someone else does all the talking and gives no one else the opportunity to contribute, on a schedule that allows no opportunity to interact — and we call it “fellowship.”

    If I knew the first thing about running a store, and Indiana wasn’t so far north (my wife could never handle the winters there) … Damaris, I’d be on your doorstep before the middle of June.

  4. Anna Anderson says

    The common sense of this post gives me joy. I’m often uncomfortable supporting missionaries–I can’t figure out what some of them DO, and can’t really tell you what I did on short term missions trips as a kid–but subsidizing a necessary small rural business is something I could support.

    Thank you.

  5. But if caring for people’s daily needs is a means of mission work in Burkina Faso, why not here? Many of the needs are the same, and rural Americans, like Burkinabes, will respond to people who are humbly serving as the face and hands of Christ.

    I don’t post here very often for a number of reasons (I’m not an American post-evangelical being the biggest one, probably (more of an English neo-Calvinist)) but I have been greatly blessed by many of the things posted here – particularly an introduction to me of Luther’s doctrine of vocation. It has been one of those mental toffees that I have been chewing away at for the last couple of years. So why am I posting now, you might ask?

    Well the last two and a half years have been spent in West Africa (Benin, Togo and Sierra Leone) and this has provided the context for the mental chewing. I am a school teacher, teaching the children of families that come to West Africa to serve some of the poorest people on the planet.

    I can see two different sides to the comment I copied above from your blog. Firstly, in line with a sound doctrine of vocation, serving people in whatever country, and in whatever role, is a calling of the church. Christians ministering through their jobs as they serve coffee, teach a class, iron a shirt or whatever else have opportunities to dispense God’s grace that are uniquely given to them. On the other hand, I don’t agree with the statement above that ‘many of the needs are the same’ between Burkina Faso and rural America. Here in Sierra Leone, for example, there are 5 main hospitals for the whole country. My wife works as a midwife here. Last week a baby died soon after birth because it needed a ventilator and there isn’t one – anywhere! She works at the best birthing unit in the country and they have babies die every week – almost all because of lack of access to things taken for granted in the developed world. They had their first maternal death for over a year just last week – a miracle here where the lifetime risk of dying during childbirth is around 1 in 20.

    So I wonder whether the needs are the same? I recognise the shared needs of every person on the planet to ‘respond to people who are humbly serving as the face and hands of Christ‘. But is that need for a community grocery store the same as the need for someway to reduce the number of children who never make it to their fifth birthday? I really don’t know.

    Please accept these as honest questions that come out of my mental chewing on this topic, and I hope I have offended nobody. I am also very aware that there are no simple solutions to the problems of poverty etc…

    • Please accept these as honest questions that come out of my mental chewing on this topic, and I hope I have offended nobody. I am also very aware that there are no simple solutions to the problems of poverty etc…

      speaking for myself, i think many sincere Christians living here in America, especially those born+raised here, have a nagging sense of ‘standard-of-living’ guilt…

      in spite of the modern conveniences that are available to even the poorest of the poor here, the needs Damarias is speaking of are those human needs of community outside the life-saving emergency ones. however, there is a very great disproportional distribution of technology & supporting infrastructure to make it widely available to many.

      since we do not have to look beyond our own Jericho road’s to identify needs, we react with compassion & sensitivity to those we come in contact with daily. yes, we live today in a global-awareness sized Jericho road, but the practical needs around us do not automatically become 3rd rate because it is an American need, while conversely, 3rd world needs become elevated to top tier in the eyes of the Lord…

      i happen to support a child thru World Vision. something i decided to do when encouraged by others that also do so. she was already identified as someone needing support, however, the organization was already taking care of her. she will benefit from the small monthly $ sent. i am blessed to be a small part of the financial role, but really, it is those teachers & support team actually there being the hands+feet of Jesus that deserve all the glory. i do believe no matter where we live very real needs can be discovered right where we are. the human element cannot be ranked as being more deserving or less deserving. the scope of the problems can loom large as you have described. so yes, a modern ventilator for every hospital in Sierra Leone a very small financial hurdle compared to the vast wealth of America. how could we help? in a very practical & effective way? i am sure the responders here would be very willing to help now that we are aware of what is happening on your section of the Jericho road…

    • Your point is a good one, Tommy. I don’t mean to make ridiculous comparisons in levels of suffering; certainly the physical need here is nowhere near the same as in West Africa. However, like you I’ve worked in Africa (Liberia) as well as in Central Asia. In many ways I see my life and work here in Indiana as directed toward the same goal as it was when I was living among the desperately poor.

      Perhaps the greatest things all these peoples share is a need for hope, for a vision of how things could be and how they can get better, on both an earthly and an eternal level. Ultimately neither a grocery store nor a maternity hospital provides an ongoing hope — a person does. But before a person can offer hope to his neighbors, he needs to make sense to them and to acknowledge their physical needs. The grocery store and the maternity hospital give a place for the person to make sense, to provide for needs, and to offer hope — first the physical, then eternal. That’s as true in Indiana as in Sierra Leone.

      My point in mentioning Burkina Faso was also to challenge Americans and other wealthy people to consider what “true religion” is: according to James, it’s partly to look after the needy. We tend to intellectualize domestic missions in America — we think people need conferences, Bible camps, youth groups, or buildings, when what they — we all — need are daily relationships that acknowledge each other’s human dignity. In one place those relationships will arise from saving mothers and babies, in another from providing honorable employment, but the need is the same.

      I’ll pray that God will bless you and your wife and the work you’re doing.

      • Thanks for the replies Joseph and Damaris. I have been thinking about it more – and in dialogue with the other comments posted.

        If the mission of the church is to reflect God to the world then all of the missions mentioned would count as that. Whether we focus on reflecting the relational nature of God, or his care for the poor or whatever. I think it matters more that the church realises that we are all called to this mission.

        It also seems to me that the question raised in this essay about what to do about small communities with society changing at such a rapid pace is maybe as complicated as how to best reduce poverty. Ideology and political views may be just as influential in our thinking as anything else. Just ask development workers whether sending your old clothes to Africa is a good thing or not…

        • Dolores F Wiens says

          I have appreciated this thread as it has worked its way to a truthful conclusions . . . that both developing small communities in our society and reducing poverty wherever it exists are vital missions. I do, however, want to acknowledge the pain that rose out of Tommy Farell’s first post . . . the pain of watching little babies slip away when one knows they could be saved with the proper equipment. That moves the discussion out of the realm of the intellect into the heart. I do not mean to minimize the important need that Demaris suggests as mission, I just want to recognize the pain that Tommy and his wife face weekly.

  6. Great post, Damaris! I live in a town of 1500 in Maine and we have two general stores which also serve sit-down food. and these stores are larger than the store you mention with the 20 feet of shelves. Fifteen miles away where I work is where the large grocery store is found. So for me, that is fine, since I work there anyway.

    The town I live in has a hardware store and a post office, a doctor’s office and a wood pellet mill. Other than that, there are individuals who do some work out of their homes. Over a hundred years ago, though, this was a bustling little town. When transportation was not so easy, you needed things like granaries and blacksmith’s shops. There was even a hotel in town. We still have the same two churches here. To find a Catholic church though, I need to travel to the town where I work.

    Your idea of a new missions field is a good one! Good luck getting someone to reopen the grocery store.

  7. Thank you Damaris! This is our town too, except it is only about 500 people. We are in Eastern Arkansas just twenty minutes from Memphis, TN. And we need missionaries!

  8. I read this article shortly before I went to bed. I couldn’t fall asleep.

    I live in Denver, Colorado, not a huge city by some standards, but I certainly don’t want to live here the rest of my life.

    Yesterday I had said to my husband, “I want to scrape the ceiling in our bedroom (popcorn/accoustic), paint and get new carpet. And I want to do it badly!” Later in the day I was watching Celebrity Apprentice and watched John Rich at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, TN. I cried. If I could make a difference in someone’s life, I don’t care if I ever get new paint or carpet. It was a powerful uprising in my soul like I wanted to shout it from the mountaintops! I don’t want the trivial things to matter! I don’t! I don’t! I don’t!

    And then, I read this.


  9. Damaris, you’ve described my town and nearby towns too. I live on an island in Maine with fewer than 100 people year-round (swells to 500+ in the summer) and it’s a boat ride to a nearby town of about 1000 that sounds a lot like your town—similar changes since the 1960s and 70s, with shops closing or going into the tourist trade, and people now driving 30-40 minutes to super-supermarkets, and Wal-Mart, and Home Depot. And we also shop on-line, because the mailboat will bring Fed-Ex packages right to the dock.

    We have a lot of pressure also from out-of-state homebuyers who want a piece of the coast of Maine, so property values are up even though the locals can’t afford to live here. So they move inland. There have been efforts toward “sustainability” that include food co-ops, small home industry, etc, but it’s an uphill slog.

    My wife is on the affordable housing trust that tries to provide low-income housing for newcomers (particularly with kids, as the school is on the edge) who can live and work here. But finding jobs is the difficult part except in the summer, when the tourist industry is in full swing. I’ll make sure my wife reads your post.

    • I should add that for the past 10 years or so the island I live on has had an “Island Fellow” largely through a grant from the Island Institute based in Rockland, Maine. The Fellow has typically a two-year term and gets involved in community service projects and organizing others. It seems to be a good system for all.

      Also, we recently have funding from AmeriCorps for better organization of our volunteer fire department. This has enabled a local person to do paperwork/legwork (and get paid!) while upgrading the department.

      While these positions aren’t church-based, they are ideas that other small communities might look into.

  10. Great post, Damaris! Our county and the county immediately south of us have combined to lose nearly 20,000 jobs between them in the last 15 years. This area relied heavily on the textile and furniture industries, and nearly all of them are gone now. Nothing has come in to replace them; schools are closing & consolidating, and the main city to our south has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.

    On the other hand, the county immediately to our west has found a way to sustain itself. Two completely different groups — the traditional mountain small-farm folk, and the New Age tie-dye hippie folks (please understand these are meant as strictly descriptive terms), have found common ground and have totally revitalized the county seat town where they live. And it’s working.

  11. Lately I’ve been dreaming of leaving the frantic pace of my life in the Midwest and working as a waitress in my favorite Wyoming town (population 962) at the diner where most of its business and community transpires, but I confess my reasons would be purely selfish.

    Thank you for this, Damaris. It’s good food for thought.

  12. David Cornwell says

    Wonderful post Damaris, one of your best.

  13. cermak_rd says

    My Mother lived in a small town, around 1200 folk and her husband still does. It’s a nice, small town. But it’s dying. The mean age is probably north of 60 by now. Any young people have long ago moved out to go to college and went on to get jobs, or to the military, then they went on and got jobs or simply to other, larger towns in the area. There’s still enough “young” folk right now to do the volunteer firefighting, the policing and the park and streets & san. But for how long? Even these folks are in their late 40’s. I was struck by all this while Mother was dying (I took a 1/2 hour sanity walk every morning through the town when I was staying with her).

    The question I had was, how do we humanely let this town die? It obviously doesn’t make economic sense any longer for it to remain there. The elevator which used to take 20 people to operate now takes just 3 due to better equipment and electronics. The small factories that used to be there are gone. Same with the freight yard. So, it does not make sense for this town to be where it is. What once drew people is no more. But how to humanely let it die? How to serve the last dozen people as the town rots away around them? How to run a volunteer fire department when the youngest person is 70. How to keep the streets up for a dozen households?

    Maybe something like a ministry is an option here.

  14. What a lovely balance to the uber empahsis on foreign missions so prevalent in our evangelical world.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Yeah. There is such a heirarchy of “Full Time Christian Callings” that it gets joked about, with “Missionary to Darkest Africa” traditionally outranking everyone else.

  15. This is the sad fact; our lives and the life of the world are not progressing…but are headed towards an end.

    That these little towns may be in that same boat is sad, but that is the rough part of life.

    It doesn’t mean that we curl up in a ball and die, though. I applaud all efforts to try and maintain whatever is good.

    Our Lord will make all things new again.

    One of these days.

  16. Loved the post.

    When I read it. I emailed my wife (a pharmacist), sent her the link to your article and suggested that we move to the country.

    I am still waiting for her reply, “What???!!”

  17. From rural Northeast Indiana, thank you for this. The harvest is plenty, but the workers are few (in more ways than one, it seems…).

  18. Scott Miller says

    Great posting.
    THIS is the kind of thing that we should be encouraging as missions in the church. Not building a bigger building.

  19. A problem with many of these small towns is that maybe it IS time for them to die. Sorry to say it but maybe it’s time. Now my experience is with the midwest so New England and such are foreign lands in this area of my knowledge.

    In the midwest most of these towns exist because they were located so that farmers could ride into town, do business, then ride home in a day trip on a horse. Until cars there was a real economic reason for these towns to exist. You can’t ride a horse 50 miles each way to get supplies as a practical matter. But today, things are, well, different. It IS cheaper to drive 20 miles to a supermarket than pay the prices and deal with the lack of selection at the general store. There just isn’t enough volume at such stores be able to lower prices or improve selection.

    And this is not pie in the sky speculation, my grandfather and his (second) wife ran a whole sale business for decades supplying small town general stores in rural KY, MO, TN, and I think AK. Loaded up the panel truck once or twice a week and made the circuit. Well there were several circuits but you get the idea. But when my step-grandmother retired it was for two reasons. One, she was old enough and it was tmie to quit. Two, the general stores were closing due to loss of business. There just weren’t enough left for her to survive. (Sam’s club and Costco supply a lot of them these days.)

    Now I know this is hard on people but if a town does not have an economic reason to exist why should it keep on living? Outside of inertia?

    That doesn’t mean a dying town isn’t a mission field that needs help but maybe it needs hospice care, not life support for the terminally ill.

  20. Why more people don’t do this kind of missions work?

    You need to have a small to medium and maybe large pot of cash to fund what is likely a money loosing operation for a decade or two.

    Many middle class and up kids think missions is that 10 day vacati… err mission trip they took in high school to (name spot in world where there’s poverty, reasonable flights, and people who don’t look like us mostly) where they helped with a VBS class for a week.

    Or the time my son’s youth group a church was supposed to deliver Thanksgiving meals to 4 families in need. We were told it was in town of Garner NC. I live in N. Raleigh, NC. Seemed odd to go so far to a town when there had to be needs closer. When we arrived we had not yet left Raleigh. In fact we were miles from the border with Garner. I was not really a part of the “in crowd” of dads before and my comments about not knowing the difference between downtown Raleigh and Garner pretty much cemented me in the “out” crowd. These folks were “so concerned” about the local people in need they could not find their way out of their comfortable suburban enclaves. I can’t imagine any of these folks volunteering to move to a small town and set up shop just to mission to the population. Also this was 10 years ago. Every house we visited had their TV tuned to a cable channel that implied they had the $45/mo package. I had turned my cable off for a few years during this period as finances were tight. I felt bad about the thoughts but I kept wondering if I was helping people in less need than myself. I still feel conflicted about such thoughts.

    On a positive note there was a local couple who retired early from their careers and opened a thrift store in a really bad section of town. Expanded it to include after school care and a K-5 school. It was a hard row for them. Very hard. But they kept it up till their sixties then turned it over to a family from the neighborhood.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Why more people don’t do this kind of missions work?

      Not enough prestige?

      (“Missionary to Darkest Africa” outranking everybody else in Christian Commitment is the traditional joke; probably funny because it was true in a number of cases. I do know during my time in the Evangelical wilderness “Pastor” and “Missionary” outranked any other vocation.)

      • There’s merit to this. Stateside missionaries have an infinitely harder time raising support, in general, than “glamorous” overseas efforts.

  21. Ben Carmack says


    Just out of curiosity, what are the two community colleges in which you teach? I went to Vincennes University for a couple of years and learned how to be an engineer’s assistant. Are you up North or in the South of Indiana?

    Great article. Going to Vincennes exposed me to rural America in a way I never would have had otherwise. I came back to the city a different person. I’m young and I’ve got a lot of time ahead of me. This sounds like a plan, but I still feel like I need more time–to complete an education and so forth. Still, good food for thought.

  22. Cunnudda says

    I’m with David L., big time. Let’s say you open the grocery store. People quickly notice that the prices are A LOT higher than they’re used to in the bigger city. The selection is worse. They may love the fresh produce when it’s available, which it isn’t very often. That’s what farmers’ markets are for. Pretty sure there aren’t any table grapes or lettuce grown commercially up there, for climatic reasons. And so instead of charming the locals, you’ll simply lose their business, unless gas goes to $10 a gallon, or more. Most of the time these businesses close because of lack of demand, as they are bypassed by their potential customers in favor of larger city outlets with better selection and better pricing. Even in small towns, people prefer to live in the 21st century.

    • I didn’t say it couldn’t be done. But it might likely have to be done at a loss. Or maybe break ever with no pay to the person doing it. That’s how the local couple did the thrift store. They lived on their savings and donations.

      Which brings me back to my main point and that a few others have made. Maybe we need to look at this as a way to help close a town?

      Although if there’s ever been a gas station the leaking tank issues might bankrupt most mortals. Ditto old farms that didn’t use above ground tanks for fuel. Does the grocery store in this story have or did it ever have gas pumps? If so then it may not be possible for much of anyone to buy it due to cleanup issues.

    • In some cases, I think certain small towns do just need to die, and they will. I can see the ruins of many named communities near here, just a few house-shaped humps of trumpet vine now. But Cunnudda, you talk about living in the 21st century: the life you’re describing, with Walmart and Costco and huge consolidated school districts, may actually be the life of the 20th century but not the upcoming one. Right now it seems more efficient to have people drive thirty miles to the grocery store to buy Peruvian asparagus (In Indiana! In May! Sheesh!) than to spend a bit more shopping locally, but we’re not considering the long-term actual costs of fuel, transportation, storage, etc. Not only that, although the groceries cost a bit more in a small-town store, the property taxes for a house and three acres are $500 a year.

      Plus efficiency may not be the best measure of quality of life.

      I realize the lifestyle I’m promoting here is impractical at this point, and I also realize that there need to be a lot of changes in habits and attitudes before we have a lifestyle that is healthier for both people and towns. But I think those changes are happening in some ways, and it may be part of some people’s calling to help them happen.

      David L., I don’t know what to recommend to help towns die gracefully. It would probably be easier on the residents if they had a thriving alternative small town (with a doctor’s office and grocery store) nearby.

      • David Cornwell says

        These things can happen. I know of towns that have worked to make it so. I lived in a small Indiana town where I was pastor of a church. The town worked to regain services (doctors, dentists, and a nursing home.) This was a community effort in many ways. They were working hard to get a grocery but that seemed hardest to do.The location of some towns make it easier than for others. This town had fairly strong Protestant and Catholic churches, an elementary school, and a small Catholic parochial school. The schools are struggling because of economic pressures. But this is a way of life worth preserving. There are values to be found in small town life that cannot be replicated.

        • But a key point is that a town needs a reason to exist economically. There has to be a local business or businesses that can make things others want. Either tangible or intangible. In theory you can have much of this economic activity inside a town but when you attach the word “small” (<10,000?) in front of the word town it's hard to come up with many activities that can exist within such a town.

          Without this you basically have a welfare town. And this is bad long term for a lot of reasons.

          • I agree, David L. The missions model would only be a temporary measure. The goal would be rethinking many aspects of life in order to make small towns genuinely viable.

      • Cunnudda says

        My main point, Damaris, would be that people talk one game, and live another. They’ll agree with everything you say, but when the rubber hits the road, they won’t want to pay the extra money, or forego their Peruvian asparagus. As the song said, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paree?”

  23. Sometimes we are working so hard at discerning where our mission field is – and it’s usually out THERE – that we can’t hear God say “look under your own nose.”

    My current mission field is in a multinational corporation (and I was absolutely clueless about that for years, but we all know about God’s redemption from everything those pesky locusts ate) and some day we will be retiring to a town of 400 in the middle of rural America. I have no idea what God is up to, but perhaps your post is the first little light on that.

  24. Just to clarify, I have nothing against cities. If I weren’t living in the country, I’d be living right downtown, where there are places to walk to and public transportation. There may be several models of efficiency and community that are worth developing — but I doubt suburbs and big-box stores fit in any of those models.

    • Just to clarify…….you brother Damaris didn’t need to clarify.

      Your point was well written in your post.

      I have nothing against cities either, but if given the option, I wouldn’t be living in one.

      A humble opinion, the 21st century has sucked the life out of plenty of people I know…..

    • cermak_rd says

      depends on the suburb. I live in a suburb that was built to provide cheap housing to soldiers of WWI as well as Czech and Irish immigrants (among others). It’s walkable. It has grocers and businesses sprinkled in amonst the residential sections. It’s dense, so services are cheaper to deliver (I think I counted once, we get around 32 houses per linear block (both sides of the street)). Our lots are long and narrow and the backs are separated by alleys which our garages face (most of the houses were built before cars became ubiquitous). This is what most of the older, inner ring burbs are like here in Chicagoland. We have no big box stores of our own, but of course such is available by driving.

  25. Wonderful, Damaris. My tiny town also has its list of used-to-haves. Great ideas.

  26. Damaris,

    An excellent post and what I have to say is not to detract in any way from your focus in the post.

    The problem that I am seeing in the rural areas of my own state of Michigan, is it is not just the grocery store and gas station that is closing. Many rural churches hang humanly speaking by a thread. They usually can’t support a full time pastor and the pastors who go to these rural churches may often have to support themselves with a part-time or even full-time job. And when they take a rural church, the opportunity for numerical church growth is pretty limited, even when the church is the only one in the area. There are very few mega churches in a rural area.

    Rural churches are probably not going to have the glamor youth and young peoples programs, and of the the young people who are there, the majority will leave the community after high school graduation.

    I have heard stories of pastors in some of our rural areas of Michigan who stay on even after retirement to help the church keep going and to keep a Christian gospel witness in a place that would otherwise have non at all period.

    So yes….. open the grocery store or co-op or hardware store or whatever, but be also prepared to be part of a local church that will count 40- to 60 in attendence on a Sunday as a good Sunday. a church that will be happy to put up with a less then polished sermon from a brother and pastor who put 40 plus hours in an “outside” job to support his family. a church that has to use hymn books almost falling apart from age and use because what is needed for the hymnal fund has to go to meet monthly utiltiy bills, and etc and etc an etc… By the way, if you can play the piano, there is a rural church someplace who would gladly have you as part of the congregation to provide the music on thier probably somewhat out of tune piano…

    Let’s indeed do mission to the rural communities even in the manner you suggest, but let us do so with with a realistic understanding of what we may find, not to be discouraged by those tings, but to do so understanding how very real the needs in rural areas are.


    • Absolutely true, Bill N. All aspects of the community need to be addressed together.

  27. This touched my heart and got me thinkin’

  28. tom bombadil says

    What is Christian economics? Is there a Christian way of thinking about the economy? The answer is yes. It was outlined by Pope Leo XIII, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc among others. It’s called distributism. How do you have more healthy small communities? Each person has to have a vested interest. There has to be genuine ownership, viz. ownership of the means of production. This means more small businesses, where we have more owners that are actually managers, who work on site.

    How do you get more small businesses and get rid of the big box stores like walmart and costco? Well you can vote with your dollar, but most people don’t have that luxury. Think, of the 10% who physically could visit a mom and pop store, maybe 2% would make it a priority. Admittedly those numbers are made up, but the point is made.

    Secondly, you could vote to legislate. But ultimately this would never work. Lets think about the legislative option anyway though; You can legislate that stores could only cary up to 1000 different types of product. And you could legislate that a given brand could only have up to 50 franchise locations. Or you could impose limits on transportation of product.

    But, then you would have to have an oversight committee. And ultimately, one could imagine a big brother scenario. Ironic as it is, you would end up with large agency dedicated to keeping businesses small.

    Or you could voluntarily live on an island.

    Fourthly, you could start a local currency. It might be worth 90% of a us dollar. But it would still be a local currency encouraging small business. (ever heard of a macdonalds accepting local currency?) This, however, usually attracts too much attention from the feds.

    It seems we keep coming back to voluntary action. And thats what local communities are all about anyway right? So we can either all find islands to live on, or we can just make a conscious effort to vote with our dollar. This doesn’t happen overnight. This also doesn’t happen with a grandiose move out to the country. It happens gradually overtime, as people see the connection between stewardship of resources and Christianity. And in the mean time, with any dollars that you have accumulated, find a way to be productive with it. Buy solar panels, a goat, dig a water well. And think, every decision you make has moral consequences.

    Now, what to do about my stocks… Thats the most urgent, and relevent action, pertaining to this discussion.

    • You’ve thought about this a lot, Tom Bombadil. Excellent points. The only factor I would add, in addition to voting, voluntary action, and the others you mention, is widespread change beyond our control — depletion in world oil reserves, for example. That would bring about drastic change, and it would be a good idea if we were prepared and proactive, rather than panicking. There’s no saying, of course, that we’d react well to drastic change — but we could try.

  29. An evangelical, big box charismatic church family member read the article that I posted to Facebook and here was their response….

    “This is the outcome of runaway liberalism, that you, yourself support. Why work, when foodstamps are available, which the author, himself pointed out. Why start any industry when taxes are too high for businesses? Why do anything, when the …government will take care of you from the cradle to the grave? This is the end result of “punish the successful” out of control liberalism. You cannot support the problem, then lament the outcome.”

    What would you say to this complete disregard of Damaris’ idea and/or complete politicization of it? (What would you say Damaris, to this person?) Sigh…

    • I would ad – no wonder people are turning away from the church and Jesus…sighs and weeping…

    • What would I say? Maybe smile and back away slowly? And if possible take away their tv sets and internet connection and leave some old books behind . . .

      I can never tell, hearing comments like the one you quoted, whether they spring from hard-heartedness or genuine fear. Certainly they represent a lack of understanding and experience. May God have mercy on all of us.

  30. Thanks for the article. Love the missionary zeal!