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.

Does “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” Really Mean, “Go”?!

picture 17When Jesus commissioned His disciples from a mountain in Galilee with the words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” did He really mean, “go”?  I have often heard it taught that because “go” is actually a participle in Greek, it could more literally be translated, “in your going make disciples.”  This view means that all Christians are to be making disciples, so wherever you go, make disciples–evangelize and teach others to follow Christ no matter where God has placed you.  This understanding of Matthew 28:19 does have a place for international missions because of course some of the Apostles then and some of Jesus’ followers now will want to bring this good news to all nations in light of other Scriptures that speak to people from all nations coming to Christ as their Savior.

While being theologically accurate, I believe that Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19 have a stronger emphasis than this, making modern versions that don’t say, “in your going” accurate, and leaving us to question our hearts perhaps more than we would otherwise about our involvement in missions today.

Every participle in Greek does not need to be translated into English as an “-ing” word such as “going.”  The context and structure of the sentence also plays a part.  “Go” in Matt. 28:19 is closer to the main verb “make disciples” than “baptizing” and “teaching,” and it is also a different form of participle.  Grammarians call this a coordinating participle rather than a subordinate participle.  In other words, “go” must be obeyed and seen as some sort of command to be able to carry out the main command, “make disciples.”  A few examples of this same structure in Matthew makes this extremely clear.  Another king with vastly less authority than Jesus, King Herod, commanded the wise men, “Go and search diligently for the child…” (Matt. 2:8).  While “search diligently” is the main verb, the participle “go” here has such a command force that Matthew said that Herod “sent them to Bethlehem” (Matt. 2:8).  This was not to be understood as simply, “in your going, search carefully for Jesus.”  Just five verses later the angel of the Lord uses the same Greek structure to command Joseph to save baby Jesus’ life: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt…” (Matt. 2:13)  In order to obey the main command, “take the child,” Joseph had to “rise.”  In the Great Commission King Jesus is indeed commanding His disciples to go so that they can obey the command to make disciples of all nations!

As Christians we are to go here (to our community, region, and nation) and there (to the nations), making disciples as we baptize (implying evangelism) and teach what it means to follow Christ.  We are to have a sense of urgency when the risen Christ commands us to go and make disciples.  Let’s not soften it.

For those of us who are not missionaries, this is a reminder of our responsibility to be involved in the world-wide advance of the Gospel through going (short-term as an encouragement or perhaps long-term), financially supporting missionaries, encouraging and assisting missionaries, and praying for them.  What a wonderful commission from our King!