For those of us who have cared about rural and small-town ministry for a while, it is easy to remember a time when an internet search for “rural ministry” or “small town church planting” turned up almost nothing.
Think about that. Out of the vast quantities of ministry books, blogs, and material available, there was little being written about the places thousands of pastors serve and where about 33 million Americans live.
Fortunately, this is no longer the case. In the last decade, especially the last few years, there has been a notable uptick in the attention being granted to the unique joys and challenges of ministry in smaller places.
Books like Donnie Griggs’ Small Town Jesus, Brad Roth’s God’s Country, and Glenn Daman’s Forgotten Church have done much to address this desire for books and other content geared to this specific ministry context.
As the literature on ministry in small places grows in quantity, there is also opportunity for a deepening in the quality and scope of these resources as authors build on the work of those who have tackled the subject before them.
Stephen Witmer’s recent book A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters is a prime example of this development toward a deepening theological engagement with not just the “What?” and “How?” of ministry in small places but also the “Why?”
It is Witmer’s ability to handle this why question with the experience and empathy of a small-town pastor as well as a Cambridge-educated New Testament scholar that sets this book apart.
Up until now the majority of writers and bloggers on small town ministry (even me) have given heart-cry appeals that rural places and people matter. Beyond the common (and important) citation of Jesus’ rural roots, few have engaged in a sustained theological and biblical analysis of the importance of small-place ministry. This is the task Witmer sets himself to.
Witmer harnesses theologian Richard Lints’s concept of theological vision and applies it to our approach to small place ministry. In short, creating a theological vision means asking: knowing what I know about God and what I know about this place and its people, what would it look if the kingdom of God became more real here? What would it affirm? What would it prophetically challenge?
For Witmer, developing a theological vision for small place ministry begins with seeing the current landscape of rural and small-town life as both better and worse than we think.
Witmer is quite convincing in his call to chart a middle path between the idealism and the pessimism. Like all places, small towns are marked with joys and losses mixed in complex ways. Seeing only the extremes is a type of blindness. He says,“It turns out there’s a connection between despising and idealizing small places: neither attends very closely to actual small places”.
Witmer also reminds us that God does not reserve his greatest gifts for important people or strategic places. Just as God allows his Son to make his home in Nazareth—hardly a strategic center of social capital and culture—the story of God’s action in all of Scripture and the history of the church is one in which God does not hesitate to pour out his love and gifts on the strategic and non-strategic alike.
Witmer notes, “One of the most precious things about the gospel is that it often seems so unstrategic by worldly metrics”. For the Christian called to live and serve decades in small, unstrategic places, this theological vision is truly liberating.
While Witmer brings a theological emphasis, there’s plenty of feet-on-the-ground stories for the practically minded reader. Witmer takes on a variety of practical realities that accompany ministry in small places. He shares on a variety of themes from addiction and economic struggles to joy killers in small place ministry.
In my mind, the greatest contribution of this book, however, comes in the final chapter where Witmer employs his training as a biblical scholar to assess the common arguments “urban apologetic literature” have offered in recent years for prioritizing urban ministry.
Witmer addresses the historic rationale (Paul focused on cities), the strategic rationale (cities shape culture), and the eschatological rationale (Revelation points to an urban destiny for the people of God). He helpfully demonstrates how each of these arguments tend toward oversimplification by obscuring a more nuanced reality in which small places and large places are woven together into the story of God to form a tapestry that would be incomplete without either.
That’s one of the things I appreciate most about this book. While Witmer is intentionally holding up small-place ministry as valuable and important, he is in no way depreciating the value of urban ministry for those who are called to it.
So often advocates for rural ministry and urban ministry act as if emphasizing one ministry context means de-emphasizing the other. Witmer does not engage in this kind of argument.
Do we need people to give their lives to serving God in the world’s great urban centers? Yes! Do we need people willing to give their lives to serving God in the small, forgotten places? Yes!
A Big Gospel in Small Places affirms both as valuable and necessary and challenges the Church to cultivate an attentiveness to God that makes room for us to hear his call—whether it is to somewhere big or somewhere small. That’s a strategy I can get behind.
About the Author
Charlie Cotherman is the senior pastor of the Oil City Vineyard and a contributor and co-editor of Sent to Flourish: A Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches (IVP Academic). After spending time in various places and pursuing various vocational avenues Charlie has a settled confidence about his three callings —husband/father, pastor, and scholar/teacher.
If Charlie isn’t changing Benton’s diaper or waiting for Elliana and Anneliese to be done with gymnastics, you’ll probably find him with his nose in a book or enjoying coffee and a conversation with a friend at a local cafe.
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