This article first appeared on the TMS Blog.
“Because God loves people everywhere, he calls his church to be present everywhere. Thus his church must be in places big and small in order to be the church.”
Stephen Witmer, ABig Gospel in Small Places
I grew up in a town of 350 people. There were no stop lights. There were no doctors. There was one convenience store and one gas station (which was really a farmer’s co-op). We once had relatives visit, and the next week my parents read in the “Prescott Party Line,” the column in the neighboring town’s paper, that last weekend the Counts family had relatives visit, “and a good time was had by all.” When my parents asked the columnist how she knew that, she explained, “I saw their car in your driveway all weekend.” Surely where we live affects our view of the world.
In-between my childhood and my current ministry, I have lived and ministered in large cities, including Los Angeles, as well as suburban contexts. I never expected that I would be a pastor in a town of 5,000 people. Small-town ministry has its own unique blessings and challenges. Many pastors like me who have been called to rural areas or small towns struggle sometimes because so much of the ministry advice we hear and even the books we read are written by big-name pastors in big-name cities. We can begin to wonder, does my ministry in my little corner of the world matter? Has God put me on the Junior Varsity team? Am I wasting my seminary education by pouring myself into a small community rather than a place with more people and greater influence?
As a small-town pastor, it is easy to get stuck looking at myself or comparing myself with others. A Big Gospel in Small Places, a book by co-founder of Small Town Summits and pastor Stephen Witmer, lifted my eyes from myself to Jesus. It gently raised my gaze from my small, self-centered dreams for myself and my church to see that in my small town, the fields are white for harvest. This book helped me to long for God to work in my small town in a big way, while needing it less (which is one of the main ideas of his book).
Strategic Isn’t Always What We Think
Witmer gives a strong apologetic for small-place ministry in the first three chapters of the book. He explains how even though the trend is for people to move towards cities, there are still billions of people—about half of the world’s population—who live in rural areas (5), and they all have souls (87). He points out that “the total population of American small towns alone is about thirty-three million people, which is more than the populations of Morocco, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Peru, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Mozambique, Ghana, North Korea, Yemen, Australia, Madagascar, Cameroon…(the list continues with more than a hundred other countries)” (27).
In the second section of the book, Witmer explores some of the nuances of small-town ministry. What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities that small-town ministry presents? He explains how “Strategic isn’t always what we think” (chapter 5), “Small is usually better than we think” (chapter 6), and “Slow is often wiser than we think” (chapter 7). He urges us to appreciate all that we can about the particular small town we are serving in or that we may be called to because “we can’t serve what we don’t see” (29). He explains how pastoring in a small town can be an advantage for gospel ministry because often, “the smallness of our context gives us an outsized influence” (94).
To encourage small-place pastors that their size may actually be a help to push them to Christ, Witmer quotes the Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes in The Bruised Reed,
As a mother is tenderest to the…weakest child, so does Christ most mercifully incline to the weakest…The consciousness of the church’s weakness makes her willing to lean on her beloved, and to hide herself under his wing. (98-99).
A Big Gospel in Small Places is filled with a combination of quotes from the likes of Puritans and contemporary thought and statistics on ministry. There are many pastors in small places who need to be reminded that preaching a Bible-saturated, gospel-centered sermon to forty-five people matters. This book is oozing with that kind of encouragement.
Should I minister in a small town or larger place?
In the last three chapters of the book, Witmer provides a valuable resource not only for current small-place pastors, but also for those considering a ministry switch and for seminary students praying about where they might pastor. He pushes back against some of the common reasons given to prioritize urban ministry, all the while maintaining that one is not better than the other. Witmer is not anti-city. Rather, he is pro-gospel. But the current trend in our culture as well as evangelicalism is to prioritize the cities, and Witmer gives many reasons to reconsider this trend.
As believers who hold to the sufficiency of the Word, we often push back against pragmatism in our practice of ministry. But I wonder how often we have been influenced by our evangelical culture in thinking that we must minister in a place where we can potentially reach more people rather than seeing the harvest God may be preparing in the small places. Small-town ministry is not pragmatic, but it is beautiful in that it points to a God who proclaims that he sent his only Son to the world—which includes the billions in the cities, and it also includes the billions in the small towns.
May we be willing to say with Isaiah, “Here am I, send me!” if God
calls us to a place that looks less strategic than we had hoped.
May God’s passion for his glory spread in the small places, in the cities, in the suburbs, and everywhere as his servants faithfully serve wherever God sends them.
If you currently serve in ministry in a small town and are struggling to see value there, Witmer has a gentle challenge for you:
Will you pray boldly with faith for God to win many souls for his glory and simultaneously see your present situation as a glorious display of the character of God and the surpassing beauty of the gospel? Rather than gazing longingly at the big places where so much ministry seems to be happening, will you see all the ministry to be done right in front of you? Will you treasure the people in your small place and pour yourself out for them? Will you prepare eternal souls for eternity? (182)
Yes, ministry in forgotten communities still matters. Nathaniel was from Cana, a prosperous city in Galilee of about one thousand people. When he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, an insignificant village of two to four hundred people (32), he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel and the rest of the world learned that the answer was yes.
Just as God sent Jesus to a small place for much of his life and ministry, he may now be sending Jesus to a small place through you.