Dynamics of the Small Town in Rural America
The small towns that dot the rural American landscape are like no other place. The small town is not a simple, smaller version of the city with just few choices, e.g., only one back, one school, one Physician Assistant, two mechanics, two cafes, etc. The city is built on a foundation of specialized functions. The small towns owes its unique character to a complex web of interpersonal relationships. It is this network of relationships which sustains people and offers meaning of life, even in the remotest areas.
However, this unique character and the potential strength of small town interpersonal relationships is often tied to the longevity of one’s stay in the community and/or to one’s blood line and family name. This can make it extremely difficult for newcomers to gain a sense of belonging in a small town. So, instead of being involved in the web of interpersonal relationships which impart meaning and sustenance, the newcomer may feel like an outsider throughout their stay.
In the small town, the newcomer must earn their standing and yet at times, even with longevity and personal involvement, the small town can be a closed society. This can be complicated even further where the tendency prevails in which the individual social status of newcomers is determined for them, often leaving them out of the loop of the complex web of interpersonal relationships that is the small town.
Small Town Life as “Real Good”
To the small town resident, life can tend to fall into one of two categories, “real good” or “real bad.” The typical low crime rate and drug use, lack of traffic, slower pace of life, community activities involving the entire family, Friday night high school football games, a sense of small town values reminiscent of days gone by, the mindset that the entire village is involved in the raising of its children, a place where one can literally know every by name and where one’s word is still considered binding are but a few of the contributing factors that can make life in the small town “real good” with a sense that “life doesn’t get any better than this.”
Small Town Life as “Real Bad” and the “Lack of Options”
But all is not euphoria for everyone in the small town. Life in the small town can be “real bad” for many a newcomer. One of the major factors that can contribute to this condition is the “lack of options” in most every aspect of everyday life. If the food is bad at the only café, there may be only one other option. And in an area like the rural southwest, that ‘other option’ may only mean a Dairy Queen or Sonic-Drive In. If one is not pleased with the mechanic’s work on the car, you may have but one other choice, and the chances are real good that the second mechanic is probably related to the first mechanic somewhere down the line. If one is not pleased with the banking service, you are totally out of luck.
This “lack of options” not only affects the entertainment and service dimensions of life, but most importantly, it affects the well-being of one’s children and family, one’s interpersonal relationships, and even one’s spiritual life.
A good example of the “lack of options” on the family is in the area of school life. Though this area of life can certainly contribute to the “real good” side of the small town, it can also be viewed as a trap out of which there is no apparent escape. In the rural small town, there may be only two classes and two teachers for each grade. In some cases, there is only one teacher per grade. With this “lack of options” dynamic, if there are problems with the teacher or with the coach, the parents can easily feel trapped and isolated because the options of a different teacher or going to a different school, are not available. Then, when one goes through several of these experiences, perhaps with more than one child, the result can be a picture of small town life that is “real bad.”
The same can be said true in the area of church life. When one has felt mistreated, misunderstood and out of the loop of the web of interpersonal relationships and when the only option when considering church is having to sit next to folks who have made life “real bad” for you and your family, the tendency may be simply to pass on church life altogether. Church life is one area of life where one can at least have a sense of control.
If small town life does not quickly become a life that is “real good,” one may develop a need for anonymity, which simply does not exist in small town church life. In the city, anonymity is a given and one can come and go through revolving does of countless churches and services. The newcomer in the small town quickly discovers, that when you are noticed in public, e.g., walking through the doors at church, people already have a perception of you, you family, what you could possibly contribute, and even the baggage that you bring. Often, that has all been determined for you, leaving you out of the web of interpersonal relationships in the community and now, the church.
These dynamics of the web of interpersonal relationships and the “lack of options” that is the small town are only magnified when put in the rural setting. For in the rural setting, if you are left out of the web of interpersonal relationships or in need of options for you or your children’s education, friends, spiritual input, . . . one reality of life in the small town in rural America is that you will spend most of your time on the road trying to find options to meet those needs.