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  • Joe Bridgman

Book review: Small Town Jesus

I originally wrote this review for personal reflection on July 29, 2020.

In Small Town Jesus, Donnie Griggs forges a simple and sincere path into the missiology of small towns. As he notes, there is a dearth of resources for church ministry in small towns. In response, he is pushing for a missiology that embraces both city and rural ministry. He writes, “This is exactly what I think is missing in the modern missional church landscape. Small towns have all but been forgotten by many people and by many churches.”[1] Since some literature deliberately mitigates the value of small-town missiology, the first half of the book is apologetic. It defends the significance of small-town church ministry. The second half is devoted to contextualized instructions for fruitful ministry in small towns. It’s a short, easy read. Griggs writes with balance and kindness. Even though he addresses errors, he’s not polemical. He relies on personal experience, which gives the book an apt tone for its aim: a pastor genuinely trying to help other pastors in the same context.

This book’s strongest contribution to my thinking was the second chapter’s exposition of Jesus’s approach to small towns. In short, Jesus identified as a man from a small town, and he ministered frequently in small towns. This point critiques “trickle-down” missiology, as Griggs argues, “Jesus didn’t go to the largest cities and hope that his gospel and its powerful, life-changing works would trickle downstream to the small villages. Jesus went to both.”[2]Jesus exemplified a missiology that was not too narrowly strategic for small towns. But Griggs also applies Jesus’s example to our heart’s attitudes. He writes: “What I want you to see is that Jesus wasn’t ashamed of essentially being, ‘Jesus the redneck from Nazareth’. Why then are so many pastors and church planters reluctant to take ministry in small towns seriously?”[3] This chapter widened my missiological focus and humbled my lust for prestige.

While I agree with Grigg’s diagnosis of our partiality for the city, I think his book recommends misguided corrections. I attribute this chiefly to evangelicalism’s unreflective acceptance of contextualized ministry. Every ambitious ministry seems to need contextualization now. This tempts us to draw contextual lines too starkly because the novel perspective grabs more attention. We can lock our social demographic behind an imaginary door, for which our methods alone have the key. The more we alienate our context from others, the more crucial our ministry strategies seem. Whether we minister to the intellectual skeptic in New York City, the heroin addict in Dundee, or the self-reliant handyman in Atchison, we face a pressure to elevate their contextual distinctions above their commonality in the biblical doctrine of sinful man. I fear that Griggs’ book is swept up in this tide. Contextualized churches in small towns might be nice. But biblically faithful churches that preach the gospel are critical, and that’s where our emphasis should lie.

This book is helping hone my ministry philosophy, even if I disagree with its approach. I want to express that developing philosophy with three contrasts. I will list them in bold below.

Exhort on the basis of the Bible, not your context. The general principle here is that the foundation of our ethical exhortations must lie in God’s Word alone. We recognize this in principle, but in our zeal for contextualization, it can be lost. It is possible to develop such a distinct contextual identity that our exhortations begin appealing to our context. That is, we exhort on the basis of our context. For example, I have heard ministry leaders scorn evangelism with tracts in their context and exhort evangelism with friendships. The Bible prohibits neither method, but when context becomes the basis, one can be made morally superior. New moral standards are raised. What might be tactful becomes regarded as loving and everything else as unloving. It becomes shameful to do things differently. This has two implications. First, if you cannot find a clear biblical basis for an exhortation, don’t give an exhortation. Maybe offer advice. And be charitable when others reject that advice. Griggs does a good job of avoiding this error. Second, don’t let your advice drown out your exhortations. We cannot forget that the perennial problem of God’s people is losing faith in the relevance of God’s Word. If the bulk of our missiology is contextualized advice, that will only distract us from Scripture and eventually seem indispensable. For example, Griggs comments on the important of saltwater culture in his small town and then asks, “So, what does this have to do with ministry or church planting? Everything.”[4] In contrast, what does Paul urge Timothy to devote himself to? Fresh insights on Ephesian culture? No. Paul urged him to focus on teaching true doctrine and refuting false doctrine.[5] If we give more contextualized advice than biblical exhortations, we’ll eventually be more concerned with the paint color on our walls[6] than on the truths coming from our pulpit.

Fellowship on the basis of the Bible, not your context. When partnering with other ministers, you will have to choose whom and how. If your ministry context is too important to you, you will choose the wrong people and fellowship in the wrong ways. Bible-based fellowship will welcome all brothers and sisters in Christ. They must only have faith in the Lord Jesus, articulated in true doctrine and exhibited in love. But context-based fellowship beings to discriminate based on other factors. A context-based ministry will tend to ostracize those from outside of its targeted social stratum, because those ministers lack the experiences to be considered useful. Griggs does the opposite. He is broadly dismissive toward most of the other ministers in his context,[7] but he devotes all of chapter 8 to charting a course for relationships with big city churches—they have resources that small-town churches could use. In either approach, social context is the basis for choosing whom to fellowship with, and it obscures the power of the gospel.

Context should also not become the basis for how you fellowship. When you gather, what do you spend your time discussing? What do you spend your time doing? What do you encourage one another with? Do you spend most of your energy discussing and teaching context-specific issues? Or do you spend most of your energy exhorting one another to and praying for faithfulness to biblical priorities? You can create a fast but superficial fellowship based on your context. People will be drawn to gatherings that make them and their work feel unique, but often for the wrong reasons. It is slower and harder to build true fellowship around the gospel, but that is a truly fruitful fellowship. A good test for your fellowship is whether a faithful gospel minister from an extremely different context could fellowship freely with you. Would they be treated with love and respect? Would their contributions be valued? Would they be consulted for wisdom? Could their prayers lift the burdens of their brothers? In biblical fellowship, they would. Let’s not choose with whom or how we fellowship based on our small-town contexts.[8]

Bear the fruit of biblical faithfulness, not contextualized effectiveness. Griggs disappointed me the most with his metrics of success. He cites his church’s three sites and 1,000-person weekly attendance early in the book, presumably to substantiate his teaching.[9] He does mention that weekly attendance is not the only important metric. But he only substitutes it with another quantifiable metric: “how the culture around us is being impacted by our intentional focus on loving and living out the gospel.”[10] He goes on to argue that, if he is failing to be effective in these areas, he must be “failing to penetrate culture with a contextualized approach to sharing the gospel and doing ministry.”[11] These are not bad fruits to work and pray for! But the effectiveness of ministry is a dangerous way to evaluate any pastor’s work, and especially one in a small town. Biblically, it is God who adds to our number (e.g. Acts 2:47). So, having pastors chase after enhanced methodology to improve quantifiable metrics will either exasperate them or cause them to swerve off the path of faithfulness. Instead, I think small-town pastors need encouraged to evaluate their work by their faithfulness to Scripture, not quantifiable effectiveness. If faithfulness to Christ is taken for granted, it can also be taken off the radar entirely. Let’s encourage one another to keep our focus on being faithful and supremely content in whatever fruit that the Lord ordains through our labors.

[1] Donnie Griggs, Small Town Jesus, Kindle Location 85. [2] Ibid, Kindle Location 346. [3] Ibid, Kindle Location 299. [4] Ibid, Kindle Location 740. [5] 1 Timothy 1:3-7. [6] Griggs, Kindle Location 889. [7] Ibid, Kindle Location 494. [8] I do think this is different from building fellowship with those in geographical proximity to us. If they are also small-town pastors, I am not arguing against such a fellowship. The problem occurs when we highlight our social identity (our small town’s culture) at the expense of our biblical identity (heaven’s culture). A conference of small-town pastors who spend all of their time griping and gloating about the unique challenges of small towns is bad. A conference of small-town pastors who spend all of their time strengthening one another’s faith with prayer and biblical teaching is good. [9] Griggs, Kindle Location 162. [10] Ibid, Kindle Location 827. [11] Ibid, Kindle Location 748.

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