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.