Book Review

Small places matter to a big God

Gospel ministry is essential in all communities

April 30, 2020

Recently, I had the opportunity to read A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters by Stephen Witmer. Witmer (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) serves as pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts, a small town about an hour northwest of Boston. As Christian ministries and churches increasingly focus on urban areas due to their perceived strategic and cultural importance, this book ponders the value of a shepherding ministry in a church in a small community.  

Witmer seeks to answer three questions in his book. First, what are small places actually like? Second, how can pastors faithfully minister in these small places? Third, should a pastor actually seek to minister in a small place? These are essential and heavy questions for anyone trying to serve a church in a small community.   

Seeing small communities as they are

Small communities are important places for pastors to invest because people are there that genuinely need the gospel. Witmer stresses that pastors need an evangelistic understanding of their city that will help them see how their small-town ministry fits within God’s plan for the Church. He states, to “minister effectively in small places, we need a gospel-shaped theological vision to see both ourselves and our places as God does” (12-13). This is crucial to Witmer’s case that small places are important for ministry because, as Witmer points out, they are important to God. In this way, rural ministry is not more important than urban ministry, but neither is it less important. Both are needed if we are to reach the world for Christ. 

In his first section, he looks at what life is like in small places and argues that they are both better and worse than people think. I found it refreshing that Witmer details both the good things and bad things about small community ministry and life. Small places are good places to raise a family. There are great opportunities for pastors in these small places to invest in people and truly make a difference. Further, small areas are great because, "God sees them as better, more valuable, and more promising than we do" (41). To minister in a small place, we must reorient our lives to the understanding that God values these places more than we could comprehend, and, as a result, we should be honored at the great opportunity to serve there. 

To minister in a small place, we must reorient our lives to the understanding that God values these places more than we could comprehend, and, as a result, we should be honored at the great opportunity to serve there.

However, small places can be very challenging if we buy into the Mayberry myths that often accompany them. Believing that nothing bad happens in small towns is both naïve and dangerous. Population loss, poverty, and drugs are just some of the issues plaguing many small communities. Additionally, people that live in small places are just as sinful as those that live in urban areas. Witmer reminds the readers that to be effective in small places, one must have a robust doctrine of sin; this is a universal truth of pastoral ministry.   

A vision for small-town ministry

In answering his second question, Witmer discusses how having a theological vision is essential to small-place ministry. Rural and small-town pastors need more than ministry tips and best practices; they need to know the theological reasoning behind their ministry. In essence, by seeing people and places the way that God sees them, one is better able to shape their mission and ministry to the context they find themselves in. Tips might help, but, as Witmer stresses, “they can’t transform our hearts” (62). Having a theological vision for ministry will allow a pastor to steward the ministry that God has entrusted to us by forcing us to remain centered on the gospel so that we can be fruitful.

I found this book incredibly refreshing for several reasons. One, it was a reminder to me that my ministry matters. I currently pastor First Baptist Church of Leakesville, Mississippi. It is a small rural town of around 900 people in South Mississippi. Sure, it lacks good coffee shops and has limited options for going out to eat, but it is a great place full of great people. Leakesville is both better than people imagine and also worse than they imagine. In other words, no matter how big my church is, the people matter there because they are all made in the image of God and need to be reminded of the gospel and how it changes everything. In this way, Leakesville is no different than New York, L.A., or D.C. It is a place filled with people that need Jesus.

Additionally, by stressing the importance of small-place ministry, Witmer shows how God's vision for the Church can help a pastor with common killers of pastoral joy: discontentment, envy, and fear.  When we understand that God values small places, we begin to change our personal perspectives and preferences as we start to realize that what we do really matters.   The theological vision that we have for small places can help us faithfully love and serve our churches no matter where we are because we are assured that God sees our locations as places of value. This should remind us that there is no reason to see small places as places that are not as important, strategic, or necessary for the gospel to spread. Nothing is little in the service of God, least of all small places. 

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24