Three Thoughts for Gospel-Shaped Ministry in Small Places
In April 2019, I attended the RHMA Rural Pastors’ Conference in Morton, IL. Stephen Witmer presented A Big Gospel in Small Places in anticipation of his upcoming book, to be published under the same title. The three these written below are his, followed by the notes and reflections that I made during the seminar.
Strategic isn’t always what we think.
You only have about 4–5 decades of ministry in you. Right? How did you get where you are now? Why do you remain there? Do you see yourself as strategically sent by the gospel? A lot of outreach models are based upon urban models; then they trickle down to small towns. However, without a shoehorn, they won’t fit. Reflecting on the gospel ministry of Jesus and the apostles, we find that the urban initiative to “influence the influencers” is not that prominent, rather the gospel sends in a way that is lavish and inordinate—to places and people that aren’t strategic from a human point of view (e.g., the Gerasene exorcism in Mark 5; the first converts in Philippi in Acts 16). Not everyone agrees that Paul focused on urban centers (e.g., Galatian theories). The best way to influence someone you love is to be with them. A call to a small place is the most strategic move to reach that place. The gospel is lavish and plenteous. You can give your life away to people who are not “influencers.”
Small is probably better than we think.
Our culture values “bigger is better.” Kruger calls this “the arrogance of the urban.” For a recent example, remember the comments of Andy Stanley about the rural church. He recanted, but even so. Rural pastors and churches may be deceived by envy, as we look online and feel like the J. V. team. Yet, the gospel doesn’t disdain small; it doesn’t “baptize” small either, but it certainly doesn’t despise small. In many ways, small is endorsed in theology (e.g., remnant theology) and in the apostolic mission (e.g., house churches). Big, of course, is endorsed too (e.g., the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 3,000 converts in Jerusalem on Pentecost). Use the “fish bowl” or the “bubble” to your advantage. We yearn for revival; but we mustn’t be lazy. We don’t have to have revival in order to faithfully do God’s work where we are. The gospel sometimes comes big, sometimes small, fast and slow.
Slow is often wiser than we think.
An example of a good kind of stationary is found in the spiritual principle of “abiding.” We often value slow-moving things in small towns. The gospel takes some sins away fast (e.g., immoral relationships or decisions) and some sins slow, over time (e.g., pride, anger). The gospel endorses slow; God does things slowly (e.g., the wait for the exodus, the coming of Messiah, the wait for Pentecost, the hope of the second coming, etc). Small town pastors can become restless, especially when it comes to church planting in other small communities. Even in urban centers, they are rebelling against the “fast food,” “processed food,” and “digital pastors.” God’s character is still on display in the things that are slow developing.
What can we locally give that people can’t find online? Relationships, presence, real-time talk in the word, knowledgeable prayer, comfort, hope, holiness & example, modest living, obedience, visible calling, holy ambition, local expertise, the practice of submitting to one another—to name a few. How does the Big Gospel distinctively shape our lives and ministries in small places? The gospel sends us to places, even small places, because of its lavish grace and because of its inherent logic and values. Small places do not hinder the gospel, nor do they divert resources to less significant places. No, the gospel of Jesus has plenty of sending and saving power for everyone in every place.