Don’t Underestimate Small-Town Ministry

Note from Tim: This is an article I wrote for The Gospel Coalition about what God is doing through Small Town Summits in New England, as I was part of this excellent conference last week. It’s so encouraging to be a part of gospel renewal here. Outreach Magazine online later shared this article as well.

When evangelicals think of gospel ministry in New England, they may think of Jonathan Edwards or the Great Awakenings. They may think of the least religious states in the United States. They may think of a region many have labeled “the preacher’s graveyard.” But what may not come to mind is what happened recently: hundreds of pastors and ministry leaders gathering with eager expectation, learning how to better advance gospel work in the small places of New England.

On March 18, Small Town Summits, in partnership with The Gospel Coalition New England, held a New England regional Summit at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with the goal of developing a theological vision for small-place ministry. Previous Small Town Summits have been hosted in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, in towns even people in those states have never heard of. And that’s the point. Our typical summits are intentionally smaller and local, as a way of embodying our message. But it felt like a good time to gather rural laypeople and pastors from around the New England region, and many responded. (The summit was sold out.)

Small-town pastors often tell us that they struggle not only with the normal stresses of pastoral ministry, but also with the extra discouragement of ministry in a small town. Ministry in small places is often slow and not regarded highly in the world’s eyes—whether the unbelieving world or the evangelical world. But on March 18, hundreds of ministry leaders were affirmed in their callings to go to the ends of the earth, including often-forgotten small towns. Rural churches need skilled, solid, vibrant gospel ministry just as much as suburbs and cities do.

You Can’t Serve What You Don’t See

Stephen Witmer, a member of the Small Town Summits leadership team and author of the forthcoming A Big Gospel in Small Places, encouraged the packed chapel: “We need to develop a theological vision for small-place ministry so we can see small towns as God sees them. You can’t serve what you don’t see.”

The plenary speakers and workshops helped us to see small-town ministry the way God does, and also to see that understanding our context enables us to be better ministers of the gospel. Richard Lints, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell, helped us develop a theological vision for small-town ministry (just as he has helped Tim Keller cultivate a theological vision for ministry to the city). Brad Roth, author of God’s Country, explained how the doctrine of God sends us to the small places, and Donnie Griggs, author of Small Town Jesus, clarified what gospel-shaped small-town ministry looks like in practice. The workshops focused on discipling women, soul care, church planting, church revitalization, community ministry, the pastor as public theologian, and building a healthy ministry marriage. All gave careful attention to the nuances that ministering in small places brings to each of these areas.

If small-town pastors, laypeople, and ministry leaders are to serve well, we must see that God has sovereignly positioned us in our small places and sovereignly granted us a big gospel. We must see that we’re not alone, and that there are unique privileges, not just difficulties, in our ministries. We must cultivate a vision of shepherding well no matter the size of our flock, and of evangelizing well no matter the size of our town.

Collaboration Rarely Seen

One Vermont church-planting leader commented that in more than a decade of ministry in New England, he’s never seen a movement of so many gospel-centered leaders, outside of their own tribes, working together to advance God’s kingdom. There were even some city and suburban pastors who attended the March 18 summit to know how to better encourage ministry and plant churches in New England’s small towns.

David Pinckney and Ben Ruhl, who serve on the Small Town Summits leadership team, both prayed for ministry in larger places as well during the plenary sessions. We’re not anti-city or anti-suburb or anti-large church. Rather, we’re pro-big gospel.

Large-Scale Revaluation

We want to make sure that small-town pastors, laypeople, and church leaders know and are reminded that God sees and values their ministry. It’s rare for them to hear that preaching a gospel-rich, Bible-centered sermon to 60 or 16 people in a forgotten place is important—but it is.

When a currency is revalued, its value is calculated again, often with a higher value than before. The Small Town Summits team wants to be a part of a large-scale revaluation of small-town ministry. We’re grateful for the palpable excitement in the Gordon-Conwell chapel on March 18. It indicates what we’ve already seen in our state-specific summits: God isn’t the only one who values the souls in the small towns.

For future summits and other events sponsored by Small Town Summits, visit www.smalltownsummits.com.

3 Reflections On Turning 40

This article was also featured on the Baptist Convention of New England blog and later at For The Church.

Today is my 40th birthday. As I sit here with my feet firmly planted in middle age, I find that I am joyful rather than fearful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a stoic. The other day I typed “my forties” for the first time and I felt sick to my stomach. But as I reflect on God’s goodness in my life and on what I have to look forward to in Christ, my soul is full and content, and I can’t wait for the future, gray hair and all. Here are 3 reasons.

1. At 40, I have so much to be thankful for. 
As I look back over the last 40 years of my life, I am amazed at God’s hand and God’s goodness to me. I heard about Jesus and His sacrifice and love for me literally while still in utero (Babies in the womb react to singing in church!). My parents always loved me and encouraged me to follow Jesus all of my growing up years. I have a wife who loves Jesus and loves me unconditionally–but most surprising–who also likes me! I have three kids who bring such joy and laughter to my life. I get to pastor a church made up of people who love God’s Word and who love my family well.

At 40, I can thank God for His material blessings like the privilege of owning a home, but I can also see that physical things are so temporary. At the end of the day, my car is rusting and my house constantly needs repair, but the spiritual blessings God has given me, as well as the people God has put into my life, are eternal.

We sang a hymn when I was growing up, “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings, see what God has done.” This is an ancient practice that God’s people have always done. So many of the Psalms are God’s people recounting His blessings in their lives.

At 40, I look back with amazement at God’s goodness to me. At 40, I also look back and see my sin. I don’t deserve His grace. But that is why it is called grace. I can rest in God’s grace to me through Christ, and that gives me unbreakable hope.

2. At 40, I don’t need to fear getting older.
The amazing thing about the gospel is that our best days are always ahead of us. At 40, I am beginning to feel things in my body that I never knew could go wrong (I didn’t know there’s a nerve in that part of my leg?!). I still have lots of energy, but I need more sleep than I did in my 30s. I am trying to take better care of my body in my 40s than I did in my 30s. That is good stewardship. But knowing Jesus means that although I am not promised my “best body now,” I know that one day I will have my best body ever. It won’t have gray hair, creaking knees, back pain, or the fear of having more “senior moments.”

The Apostle Paul explained, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)

In eternity, there won’t be any birthdays. But there will be celebration. There will be food, but I’m sure there won’t be calories. There will be bodies, but there won’t be aging. But most importantly, there will be Jesus and all of our loved ones who have gone before us in Christ. I don’t know what my 40s hold, but I know who holds my future, both on earth and in heaven.

3. At 40, I need to hold onto Christ more than ever by remembering He is holding onto me.
So many of the things we struggle with as we age are answered in the gospel. I may have seasons or moments when I will question if I am accomplishing what God wants from me, but I don’t need to despair because I know my identity. I know my purpose. I am a child of God created to glorify Him with my life.

His word does tell us to contemplate whether or not we are living each day for Him in light of eternity: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) I want to give God my all. But at 40, I no longer think I need to impress Jesus with my work for Him. Any sacrifice, any hard work, any daily faithfulness will be a result of leaning into what Jesus has already accomplished, not me trying to prove my worth to the One who has already accepted me in Jesus.

In Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy sees Aslan years later:

“AsIan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

My heart is fickle and I will not remain faithful to Christ if I don’t remember how great He is and hold onto the gospel. But if I remember that the most glorious One in the universe is holding onto me, I will hold onto Him with all of my might for the next forty. At 40, that is what I want for my birthday.