The Lord Does Not Despise the Day of Small Things

This article originally appeared at Small Town Summits Articles. I serve as the Content Manager for STS Articles.

“Oh, that’s good that you’ll be in a small church for your first Lead Pastorate,” the well-meaning former church member commented. “It will be a great opportunity before God expands your ministry.” In the context of our conversation, the idea was that a small church would be a place of growth until God called me on to bigger and better things. They weren’t trying to be rude or demeaning, but the insinuation was that a small church in a small town was a good place for a pastor in his mid-thirties, so that God could use him in a bigger place when he was older and wiser and could handle more responsibility.

My friend did not seem to know that being a pastor of a small church means that you have to wear more hats and be more of a “Renaissance man” than you usually have to be in a larger church. I was going from an Associate Pastor role with five full-time or part-time support staff members who partly helped my ministry through administration, copying, scheduling or helping with e-mails, to being the only staff member. My first week in the new church office, my first week preparing and copying the bulletin on my own, my first week sending out the Children’s Church volunteer e-mail and checking the church post office box, my respect grew exponentially for all of the small-town pastors who have to broaden their skills and manage their schedules to handle a more diverse set of responsibilities. No matter how much you delegate, the rubber-meets-the-road reality of being a small-town pastor will sometimes mean that the joke I once heard is true: “Happy ‘Small-Church Pastor Day.’ Here’s a plunger.” 

Most days I don’t mind this reality, and today I am helped in some of those responsibilities by volunteers or part-time staff. But other days I need God’s help to see that not only does God not want me to despise the day of small things, but he does not despise it either.

This glorious reality became fresh to me again in a recent Men’s Bible Study through the minor prophets. We were studying Zechariah and we came to chapter 4. I was floored by this verse: “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice…(Zechariah 4:10a)

Zechariah was a prophet to the nation of Israel during a difficult time. About 50,000 Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon to rebuild the country that had fallen into ruin for 70 years. But opposition from enemies and apathy from within God’s own people had caused the work to be abandoned for 16 years. When the foundation of the temple had been completed, the young men who had never seen it in its former glory rejoiced greatly, but the older men who remembered its prior greatness wept out loud. Now, years later, the faithful were hopeless, having seen God start to work but wondering if they would ever see the completion. And many of God’s chosen people were there in person but just didn’t seem to care in spirit.

God sent both Zechariah and Haggai to stir up his people. Part of their mission, like the mission of any faithful preacher today, was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. God promised that what was started with the temple would be completed, even soon. What seemed impossible would happen because the Lord of all the earth would accomplish it: “Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’ Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.” (Zechariah 4:7-10)

What seemed impossible would happen because the Lord of hosts would accomplish it. Those who had despised the day of small things would rejoice. But here is the truth that you and I need to see, fellow small-town pastor or ministry leader: even though God promised that a day of rejoicing would come when the work on the temple would be accomplished, that temple was so much smaller than the temple during Solomon’s splendor. It would be a great work, but it would be a small work.

It would bring rejoicing even from those who had despised the small beginnings before, but it would still be small. And God was pleased with it.

God was saying in effect, “Don’t despise what I am pleased with.”

This call to both long for God to do great things and yet to be content with where God has our church and our work in our small places today can seem impossible sometimes. How can we both want revival more and yet need it less, as Small Town Summits co-founder Stephen Witmer calls us to?  

The secret is in Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.”

Fellow laborers in small places, you have an even better word than Zechariah received because you are a minister of the New Covenant. You not only have the promise that God will accomplish his work in small places because of his Spirit’s work, you actually have the Holy Spirit living in you to bring you God’s power and strength and joy for each new day.

And if you have ever despised the day of small things, be still before the Lord and seek his heart for your small-place ministry. Hear him say to you, “Whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice.”

That rejoicing can begin today. God’s Spirit guarantees it.

Faithful Endurance: A Book Review of a Book Pastors Need in 2021

My article originally appeared at the Small Town Summits website as part of Small Town Summits Articles, for which I serve as Content Manager. This article was also featured on The Gospel Coalition’s “Around the Web” listing.

This past year has found me asking God now more than ever, “Help me to faithfully endure as a pastor. I need your strength. I need your wisdom. I need your grace.” It’s not that I have wanted to quit. And it’s not that we do not see God’s blessing on our church during one of the most difficult years in recent memory. In fact, in 2020 we saw God’s hand on our church in blessing and sustaining and expanding our ministry more than we have in past years. So why did I desperately pray for God’s help so often this year? Simply for the same reason that I hear from my other pastor friends: we are tired. 

We are tired of walking the tightrope between government regulations and freedom of worship. We are tired of the tension of valid health concerns and wanting to do ministry boldly at a time that people need it most. We are tired of trying to shepherd some through masks and others through Zoom. We are tired of facing the stresses and constant changes and challenges of doing our job during a worldwide pandemic—as all in our church are in their work also. 

But there is gospel hope in pandemic fatigue. The same Lord who shepherds our people is the same Lord who stands with us every day as pastors (2 Timothy 4:17). We need powerful reminders of this as we look ahead to 2021 and continue to pray for God’s strength, wisdom, and grace. 

A few months ago, I had the privilege of sitting down for a long chat with a good cup of coffee with my pastoral mentor. There was something refreshing, encouraging, challenging, and strengthening in talking and praying with somebody who has “been there” and who is still in the fight, serving faithfully during a hard season. This is why I picked up Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People For a Lifetime, edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson Sr. I needed more wisdom and strength and grace from God through his faithful servants. I needed what amounts to a long chat with a good cup of coffee with many different pastors on many different topics who have centuries of combined pastoral ministry experience. I would recommend that you do the same in 2021.

The book’s strength is combining well-known pastors and ministry leaders like Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, Dave Harvey and Bryan Chapell with lesser-known but equally faithful pastors and ministry leaders like Mark McCullough, Scott Patty, and Brandon Shields. They are able to speak from a variety of backgrounds on multiple pressing pastoral concerns such as, “Ministry has left me spiritually listless” (Chapter 1), “My preaching always sounds the same” (Chapter 3), “My critics are a burden for my wife” (Chapter 6), “They’ve left, and I’m crushed!” (Chapter 7), “My church has outgrown my gifts” (Chapter 10), and “How am I going to make it financially?” (Chapter 11). This is all capped off with an interview with John MacArthur on the anniversary of his fiftieth year of serving at Grace Community Church.

I had not read a specific pastoral ministry book this year, and as I read I discovered that it was just what I needed to help me faithfully endure. I needed the reminders of godly, gospel-centered pastors to help me look not to them but to the Jesus whom we serve and trust in. I needed the sharpening in some areas, such as my preaching and my practice of a day of rest. After a difficult year, I needed the reminders of how to serve with and lead my wife more faithfully (Chapter 6), and how to keep difficulties such as people leaving the church in proper perspective (Chapter 7). 

I was challenged to look at the difficulties of ministry with eternity in view: “Pastor, that pain you feel, that stinging pain in your stomach that wells up each time you remember the friend who left—convert that aching moment into a reminder that there is a day coming when you will be reconciled. There’s a day coming when closure will happen.” (Dave Harvey, p. 82) I was encouraged with practical steps to grow in my leadership, all the while being pointed to what is most important: “The wise pastor also remembers that the main goal is to lead people to Jesus. We often overemphasize organizational leadership skills and underemphasize the pastoral skills of preaching, having conversations, and praying with people. Keeping the main emphasis on leading people to Jesus doesn’t mean we accept poorly led organizations as the norm, but it does remind us that we don’t have to be able to run a massive corporation to be an effective pastor. We do, however, need to know Jesus and be able to lead others to him.” (Scott Patty, p. 108)

For small-town pastors such as myself, there are gold nuggets throughout the book that will help us to have faithful endurance in 2021 and beyond. But the most significant chapter for you, like me, will probably be Mark McCullough’s chapter (8), “Does Staying in a Small Rural Church Make Me a Failure?” I learned from Keller and Carson, but I received an arm around my shoulder as a fellow rural pastor when I read McCullough’s words of warmth and joy from a man who has served the same rural congregation for almost three decades. McCullough spurs us on to faithful endurance by focusing on three joys that would serve us well to focus on during 2021: the joy of knowing and being known by God, the joy of making God known, and the joy of knowing others.

I pray that you will have faithful endurance in ministry in 2021. We can do this not from looking to our own wisdom or strength, but from looking to the Jesus who has promised us that he is with us always (Matthew 28:20). Faithful Endurance will help you do exactly that.

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.