I originally wrote this review for my own personal reflection on August 12, 2020.
In his book, A Big Gospel in Small Places, Stephen Witmer highlights the forgotten ministry of churches in small places with careful investigation and theological reflection. While small places may elicit specific images for each individual, Witmer is broadly referring to “countryside and communities that are relatively small in population, influence, and economic power.” This could include what some people would consider moderately-sized cities! The broader definition works though, because the unique challenge of ministering in a small place has less to do with objective demographics and more to do with our subjective sentiments toward it. Witmer demonstrates his care for the topic by citing studies and research on rural America. And this introduction material equips the reader with a balanced, realistic perspective of rural communities. But the meat of the book is what Tim Keller has popularized as “theological vision,” that is, “a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.” Witmer addresses the real challenges of small place ministry with careful reflection on the central truth of the Scriptures: the gospel. This is because “the gospel isn’t just the message we take to small places; it’s our motivation for going to them in the first place and our means of fruitful ministry once we get there.” Whether you disregard rural ministry, are considering it, or are in the middle of it, this book will be helpful for you.
I found the book’s greatest strength in its theological vision. I can be enticed to rural ministry with nostalgic, rose-colored memories of my childhood hometown. And I can be repelled by more recent experiences of the dead-endness of a small place. Instead of fighting these attitudes with naivety or harsh imperatives, Witmer took me deeper to a more stable foundation. He writes, “An enduring, tenacious passion for small-place ministry must be sourced from abiding realities like the character of God and the nature of the gospel.” And the strength of the book is how insistently he connects the challenges of small place ministry to these immutable bedrocks of our faith.
I did feel the tone of the book was unnecessarily academic at times. Much of his research about small places is interesting. And it rung true with my experiences. But defining small places academically remains difficult, and that may distance him from anyone who distrusts ‘book smarts.’ As I mentioned above, our attitudes toward small places are more relevant than the demographic data. So, I felt that those portions of the book were less helpful.
I want the book to shape how I serve a rural context in four ways. They are in bold below.
First, rethink what a strategic context is. Admittedly, this relates primarily to how I think instead of what I do. But thinking is important. Witmer agrees: “Practical small-place ministry suggestions are important, and we’ll certainly get to them. But if they don’t flow from a coherent theological vision, they’ll just be additional burdens for insecure rural ministers to bear—or more trophies for prideful rural ministers to display.” Helping others rethink rural communities is a part of serving them. And Witmer helped me rethink rural communities as a strategic context. Strategy does not only apply to reaching cultural elites in the big cities or an unreached people group in Papua New Guinea (the strategy I’m most sympathetic to). These are strategies for reaching certain kinds of people. But the church’s deepest, all-consuming purpose is not to reach people of any kind. It’s to glorify God. Ephesians 3:10 says that we were given the gospel “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known…” There are a host of strategies for making God’s wisdom known. Witmer explains, “The lavishness of the gospel gives God’s people permission and encouragement to love and serve uninfluential, unstrategic people in forgotten places.”He’s saying that churches in small places glorify the lavishness of God’s grace in a uniquely strategic way. Serving a rural church provides a platform, obscure though it may be, to show the inordinate, lavish kindness of God that other platforms with empirical notoriety simply cannot make as visible. Loving people whom the demographic data rates as unstrategic is the best place this can happen. This doesn’t mean that churches or missionaries cannot be strategic about what kind of people they reach. But it does mean that it shouldn’t become the all-consuming factor, as it did in my thinking. And perhaps more importantly, it should not excuse us from loving the unstrategic neighbors that God has put right in front of us (e.g. the Good Samaritan). It means that “it’s important, for the sake of evangelism and discipleship, to have a healthy church in every small town and village—even the tiny ones.” Are there only 50 people in that town? There is a God-honoring strategy in a hard-working pastor who lays down his whole life serving them.
Second, clear your own context. Remember when the tribes of Israel had to take their own inheritance in the Promised Land? They were all called to drive the inhabitants out, but each tribe faced their own enemies with unique terrain and unique strongholds. Well, Christian ministers are similarly called to systematically drive out the enemies that are unique to our contexts. We may wish we were invited to an apologetic debate with a renowned atheist in New York City. But if that’s not our context, then we must spend our strength clearing the enemies we do face. Witmer modeled this very well. Even if his academic rigor struck me as gratuitous, it certainly exemplified zeal for knowing the terrain and strongholds of small place ministry. The enemies in my own heart’s attitudes need to be assaulted first. For example, rural ministry appeals to my flesh because results feel less important there. There’s less pressure to prove yourself. Witmer calls this fear and laziness. He gets to the heart of the issue when he writes, “The gospel allows small-church ministers and members to need rapid church growth less while praying for it more.” Results do matter. We should work and pray for bigger churches. But these results mustn’t become a need to complete my own self-worth. To minister faithfully in a small place, we must besiege the strongholds of our own conceit and repopulate those cities with selfless love. Fleeing to the countryside won’t make them disappear. They will thrive as an apathetic and faithless attitude toward evangelism. If I once despised the lack of results in rural ministry, I am now tempted to idealize them—to find rest for my restlessness in a place where nothing happens anyway. But Witmer pithily concludes, “We can’t love or serve what we despise or idealize.” These are the kinds of enemies that must be cleared from a rural context.
But there is another enemy here. I fear that evangelicals’ growing focus on contextualized ministry has an inherent danger. So, don’t stretch your context. There are many temptations to inflate our contexts with significance. If we make our context look unique enough, and if we convince others we’re the only ones who can reach it, think of the benefits: more money, more personnel, more attention, more significance. And the easiest way to do this is by denigrating others’ faithful gospel ministry in order to bolster our own. Don’t do that. Don’t take the easy route of distinguishing your ministry by diminishing others. Don’t we want the distinction of all Christians to be a charity that exalts others above itself? Witmer addresses this right at the start: “Second, I won’t argue that small-town and rural ministry is more important than city or suburban ministry.” Here are some diagnostic questions. Can you fellowship with other ministries? Can you invest in people and gladly send them into other ministries? Do you pray for the success of other ministries? Do you think and talk more about contextual issues than you do biblical issues? Do the hallmarks of your ministry unite people around the non-contextual, asbolute fundamentals of the gospel, teaching the Bible, and prayer? Or do they ostracize and separate you from other contexts? Could someone from another context serve in your ministry without feeling useless? It’s important to regularly consider these concerns so our zeal for contextualization does not simply disguise our selfish ambition and rivalry. Contextualization is great as a service to your context. But it stretches too far when it becomes a disservice to other contexts.
Finally, capitalize on your context. Contexts do have unique challenges and opportunities. In the same way that God’s servants must be faithful with varying strengths and weaknesses (Matt. 25:14-30), we must also be ambitious with the uniqueness of our context. Witmer identifies two issues related to rural ministry that I want to remember and address. First is the shrinking population. He writes, “There’s another way small places are disadvantaged in relationship to big places: many of the young people who are loved, cared for, invested in, and educated in the small places eventually move to universities and cities, never to return.” Now, this is not sinful. We should not rail against moving to the city. We should be glad to send our gifted Daniels to Babylon. However, these cannot be the only people we invest in. We cannot only disciple young men who are willing to study Augustine’s Confessions in a high school Bible study with us. Those men will probably go to seminary and not return. To face this challenge shrewdly, we must dig deeper to identify and train future leaders who will stay in small towns. Look for the biblical requirements. Being able to teach is one part. Godly character is the lion’s share. Don’t be enamored with those who can articulate theology and so ignore the ones who are living out that theology. Look for men who can train their children in the ways of the Lord, even if they couldn’t keep a seminary class interested for five minutes. Don’t give up on someone because they are busy working. Once identified, training these men will take creativity. They presumably won’t have as much time, and many will have to serve small churches bi-vocationally. Meet them where they are. Work around their life circumstances. Determine what the essentials are and equip them for those things. If we want churches in every small town, we need to think more aggressively about how we identify and train pastors. The second issue that Witmer addresses is isolation—especially for the pastors. He says, “Throughout my years of ministry, I’ve come increasingly to see the importance of meeting regularly with other ministers for encouragement, support, discussion, accountability, and wisdom.” Most rural churches are remote. These pastors are uniquely challenged with discouragement and loneliness. To serve them well, you need more than a great curriculum. You need more than an annual context-specific conference. You need bonds of love between brothers in Christ. Pray with each other. Pray for each other. Preach for one another. Evangelize together. Study Scripture together. Sing together. Have fun together. Keep any gatherings inexpensive and local. Your fabulous teaching won’t be a good friend to a discouraged pastor in six months, but the pastor from his nearby town might be. So, work with those relationships in focus.