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November 16, 2019Rural Matters

One-on-One with Stephen Witmer on ‘A Big Gospel in Small Places’

My conversation with Stephen Witmer in the importance of serving in small town places.
One-on-One with Stephen Witmer on ‘A Big Gospel in Small Places’
Image: Pixaby

Ed: Why did you write A Big Gospel in Small Places?

Stephen: I wrote this book because I believe the gospel is really big in terms of its importance, power, effects, and centrality, and because I’m very eager for that big gospel to have its full impact in small places.

By small places, I mean communities that are lacking in cultural and economic influence, small towns and rural areas (and perhaps also some communities with larger populations) that are mostly forgotten and unknown.

I’ve pastored for more than a decade in a small New England town, and this book is the overflow of my own joyful, painful, hopeful small-town ministry. At times, I’ve wrestled, struggled, and searched for answers, and I’m recording here some of the things I’ve discovered which will, I pray, be helpful for others.

Ed: Who did you write this book for?

Stephen: I’m writing for the many thousands of small town/rural laypeople and pastors around the world who are ministering for Christ, and who often feel as isolated, forgotten, and unvalued as the communities in which they minister.

They sometimes wonder whether their ministries even matter. I’m seeking to answer with a strong ‘Yes!’ – not based on my own wisdom, but on the Bible. The gospel is our clearest window into the character of God, and the gospel shows us that God often works in small ways, on a slow schedule, with lavish, inordinate, ‘unstrategic’ love.

Therefore, the gospel demonstrates that small is probably better than we think, slow is often wiser than we think, and strategic isn’t always what we think. In other words, the gospel makes room for small town ministry!

I’m also writing for those who are considering a call to future ministry. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to go to the rural areas to do ministry, but I’m zealous to help everyone be open to Godcalling them wherever he will (including the country, if that’s his good pleasure).

Finally, I’m writing for those who live in and love the city. I’m hoping to give them fresh insight into what the small places are like and into the great work currently being done by their rural brothers and sisters. We’re all on the same team.

Ed: If small, slow, and unstrategic ministry is endorsed by the gospel, does it follow that ‘faithfulness’ is the key to ministry, leaving the results entirely to God?

Stephen: I often hear that, and I understand what people mean by it, but I’m not entirely satisfied with that way of saying it. The problem is that we should care about results. In fact, we should often care more, and work harder, and pray with greater expectancy than we do.

Some of us are simply tired, lazy, or lacking in faith. I’m zealous that the gospel’s embrace of small and slow things not be considered an endorsement of half-hearted ministry.

The truth is, every layperson and pastor in big and small places should be longing and crying out to God for people to come to know Jesus, for our churches to grow through conversions, for revival.

Here’s the way I try to think, pray, and speak about our responsibility: we should want numerical growth in our churches more and need it less. We should want it more – we should long for many more people to come to know Jesus, and quickly.

This longing will prevent us from being lazy, myopic, and prayerless. But we shouldn’t need God to work in those big, dramatic ways. We ought to realize that God can display his character and his gospel through big or small things, fast or slow things. It’s not up to us to choose which kind of ministry or church we get. The very good news is that we certainly don’t need a big, fast ministry in order to be accepted by God, because the gospel reminds us that God has already fully accepted us in Christ.

Ed: Your book comes at an interesting time. Have you noticed an increased focus on rural ministry as of late?

Stephen: Yes, absolutely. Some of it since the 2016 American presidential election, when the rural/urban divide was revealed more plainly and people grew curious about the small places.

More significantly, there have been many new rural ministries and small town networks launched in just the past three years (including the Rural Matters Institute). I’m hoping that this book will be able to serve this new ministry focus by providing a theological vision for rural ministry that flows from the gospel and the character of God.

Ed: So are you opposed to those who focus on the importance of city ministry, as many evangelicals in the past generation or two have done?

Stephen: Not at all! I’ve supported urban ministry efforts through money and prayer, and many of my best friends live and pastor in great cities. The world is rapidly urbanizing, with many thousands of people moving to cities every day, and we need excellent churches and faithful Christians in big cities.

I’m a huge fan of city ministry, but I’m not in agreement with the arguments many have used in order to prioritize city ministry over small place ministry.

In fact, I devote an entire chapter to assessing those arguments and showing where I think they’re lacking. In my view, we shouldn’t prioritize ministry in any particular place as an overall policy; instead, we ought to allow God to prioritize the place and context for ministry in each individual’s life.

He certainly surprised me 12 years ago by clearly calling me to a small place. Before he called me there, I thought I was heading toward city ministry for the rest of my life. I’m glad he led our family to our church and town.

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One-on-One with Stephen Witmer on ‘A Big Gospel in Small Places’