In his 1905 essay on the family G.K. Chesterton writes, “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we have the freedom to choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us (Heretics, 94-95).
Here are my two takeaways from that theory.
First, I read it while our nation witnessed riots in urban centers but not in rural communities. I surmised that Chesterton’s theory offers an explanation for this behavior.
The large populations of urban centers allow a person to choose both friends and enemies, to hang out with a select group of people while seldom running into others outside their chosen group. A large population makes it easy to form cliques of like-minded friends. Consequently, urban dwellers struggle living with those who differ from them. More to the point: they don’t even want to hang with people unlike them, nor are they ‘forced’ to. Like Facebook, they can choose their friends.
Small populations of rural communities don’t provide such luxuries. Democrats and Republicans, Protestants and Roman Catholics, Black and White, rich and poor, find ways to go through life together. The people in these communities may speak the same language and may even be racially homogeneous, but they differ in every other way. You don’t post something negative about someone in your town on Facebook when you are likely to run into that person at the local diner or bank.
Second, I read Chesterton’s quote while I witnessed professing Christ-followers tear one another apart on the battlefield called “Social Media.” I surmised that his theory offers an explanation for this behavior as well.
Large Christian congregations, like urban centers, provide Christians with the freedom to choose their own church, of which there are many options. Not too surprisingly, the fruit of this freedom is largely homogenous churches of like-minded people, in spite of residing in diverse urban centers. Add to this, the size of the church provides the freedom to interact with only a select group of people. As a result, large-church Christians seldom engage with people who hold different viewpoints from their own. They miss out on the benefits of multiple conversations filled with a variety of perspectives.
Small churches, like rural communities, don’t provide that freedom. Small churches provide a laboratory to learn how to love those you don’t really like. Joe, the curmudgeon in the back pew, isn’t going anywhere. Harriet, the bubbly greeter, isn’t going anywhere either. Frankie, the middle-aged slow-minded man who lives in a shack by the tracks will continue to sit in the same pew with Lois who owns the largest business in town.
Why is this important?
Chesterton’s theory suggests that small churches make different, perhaps better disciples than large churches. In other words, small-church people get along with people who differ from them. They have to in order to make their church function well.
First, small churches nurture the seven-fold unity that is ours by grace: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6). Second, small churches encourage their congregations to make every effort to live out their seven-fold unity by being humble, gentle, patient, and by putting up with one another in love (Ephesians 4:1-3).
As a result, small-church people have learned to embody Paul’s teaching as they journey through life together. Surely, they are not perfect, but they have learned to put up with one another in love. Weekly encounters with such people cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, calling forth kindness and patience. At least, that has been my experience.
What is the takeaway for large church leaders? First, be aware of the freedom urban dwellers have to choose their companions—and their tendency to hang with people just like themselves. Second, be aware of the difficulty many Christians have of living out their sevenfold unity with Christians who don’t think just like they do. Third, develop safe and open spaces for conversations between differing Christ-followers. Begin, perhaps, by examining how small groups are formed. Fourth, pray for grace so that our every conversation is characterized by the fruit of the Spirit.