Stephen Witmer’s first paragraph in A Big Gospel in Small Places underscores the seriousness of the agenda at hand, as he seeks “to address a massive reality and urgent need” regarding the small-town church (p. 5). His argument: the gospel is not only the message for small towns, it is also the motivation for going to small towns (p. 5, emphasis added). The remainder of the book explains how and why the gospel is the motivation for intentionally ministering “in small places.”
As a pastor of a church that exists somewhere between the big city and the small town, I find much of what Witmer argues convincing and helpful, not only for my own local church ministry but also in regard to the way I think about my “city.” I neither minister in a small town and need encouragement or a reason to stay there, nor am I an “urban apologist” with a developed strategy for reaching the city for Christ. Yet A Big Gospel in Small Places offers rich biblical and pastoral insights into the ministry and “placeness” of the local church. Four pastoral-theological reflections spring from my reading of this book.
Four Pastoral-Theological Reflections about Small-Place Ministry
First, every place matters.
Witmer takes on the cultural assumption that bigger is better, specifically in regard to finding fulfillment and enjoyment in small places. He helpfully describes the many “common grace” blessings found in (and sometimes only in) small places (pp. 37–41). But there are also “special grace” reasons why small places are blessed. Witmer explains the primary reason:
It’s that God sees them as better, more valuable, and more promising than we do. . . . He delights to lavish his grace upon them through his body, the church, making these tiny towns better for all who live in them. Small places are valuable not just for whatever intrinsic value they may possess but for the value God assigns them (p. 41).
In other words, every place matters because every place matters to God. The gospel has a different scale for measuring worth, a different strategy for reaching people and places, and a different kind of spectacles for seeing and evaluating the world.
Second, the heart matters.
Witmer offers what he calls “good and bad reasons not to do small-place ministry,” which allows him to test the soil, so to speak, and explore the different motivations behind any interest in or avoidance of small-town churches. The list of reasons Witmer suggests would resonate with any person exploring local church ministry “options”: it’s boring, I’m too gifted/education, I want to make a name for myself, or it’s too hard. Witmer’s hypothetical speech to his former self in regard to these opinions was powerful:
Please think very big about things that are truly big: God’s character, God’s gospel, God’s mercy, God’s glory. Know, and firmly believe, and often remind yourself that these truly big things do not depend on the size of your place, your church, your ministry, or your reputation. Focus on your ministry’s depth. . . . So, think bigger than big (pp. 152–53).
Witmer is making a very important claim: a big God—and a big gospel—is qualitatively different from a big city and a big church. Yet every pastor with a pulse knows full well the attraction of the fame, power, and money of a big church in a big city, even if they do not admit it. A pastor long ago said that human nature “is a perpetual factory of idols” (Calvin, Institutes, I.11.8), and Witmer is warning his readers—especially pastors!—that they better keep watch over their ambitions for ministry.
Third, the Bible wants us to think about every place.
One of the most significant parts of Witmer’s argument is his discussion at the tail end of the final main chapter (pp. 166–79) regarding the three main arguments the “urban apologetic literature” rely upon for prioritizing the city, two of which are primarily biblical and theological in nature: (1) Historical—the early church, especially Paul, focused on city ministry, (2) Strategic—the best missional method is to focus on and work from urban contexts, and (3)A theological vision directs both the eyes and the hands to see and engage in context-based ministry. Eschatological—the biblical trajectory focuses its end and goal on a city, the new Jerusalem (Rev 21–22). Witmer offers sturdy challenges to the biblically implicit evidences and less-than-accurate assumptions of these arguments. Although this reader wanted more here, Witmer was not writing a biblical theology, and the point was clearly made. Witmer ends with this clarifying point regarding Revelation’s image of a so-called “city” in the new creation: “John’s vision is of a garden-city, and the garden part isn’t less important than the city part. John sees our future as a rural-urban future in which the countryside and city mingle, for the good of both and the blessing of all” (pp. 178–79). Even though Witmer is contrasting big city and small-town ministry, a massive take-away we can draw, or at least this reader does, is that God’s Word wants us to think properly and equally about every place. That is how the biblical story ends, with all creation having been restored—not just big cities but small places as well. Witmer helpfully suggests we reframe our ministry analysis questions. Rather than asking about the size of our church and city, we should ask how our church, whatever its size, is “uniquely contributing to the universe-wide display of God’s character expressed in the gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 74)?
Fourth, the church—every local church—needs a theological vision for place.
A major thrust of Witmer’s argument is the importance of a framework for the what, why, and how questions regarding the church’s ministry. Witmer explains it this way: “We need theological roots for what we’re doing, and we need to know the end goal for why we’re doing it” (p. 62). By “theological roots” Witmer is speaking of what Richard Lints, in The Fabric of Theology (Eerdmans, 1993), referred to as “theological vision.” In short, a theological vision directs both the eyes and the hands to see and engage in context-based ministry. It is “the middle space between doctrine and practice,” as explained by Tim Keller in Center Church (Zondervan, 2012, p. 17). But while Keller offers a theological vision for “big places,” the city church, Witmer seeks to make a case for a theological vision for “small places,” the rural church. But does the Bible cast such varied theological visions, or does it primarily direct ministry to the city?Local church ministry is needed in the shadows of both skyscrapers and silos. Witmer asks this same biblical-theological question in his introduction: “Does the Bible teach that the world began in a garden (Eden) and will end in a city (the new Jerusalem)—and if so, is that end-time urban future a reason for me to devote my life to city ministry in the present?” (p. 11). Witmer’s answer is a measured but unequivocal “no!”
Witmer admits his desire is to help contribute a “theological vision for ministry in small places,” in contrast, or maybe in comparison, or better yet, in cooperation with “Keller’s deeply urban theological vision” (p. 65). Witmer was clearly not attacking what might be called the Keller school. To the contrary, Witmer displays gratitude for the missional work done in and for the city. Instead, Witmer’s response to the Keller school is something like a “yes, but,” wanting the fuller—fullest!—biblical-theological vision to be cast before the church, who is assigned and, Lord willing, motivated to take the gospel “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). One cannot choose which part of creation deserves a healthy local church and properly motivated pastor. Local church ministry is needed in the shadows of both skyscrapers and silos. The gospel is for both big and small places, and equally so, because a big God and a big gospel transcend place!
The Church between Place and People
I resonate with Witmer’s theological vision-casting for the rural church. I also think he offers a helpful contribution to the growing collection of thinking and writing on the importance of “place.” Yet I cannot help but wonder if the issue, to state it simply, focuses too much on place and not enough on people. Please don’t hear this as the creation of another dichotomy—place vs. people instead of big place vs. small place. It is simply to say that the equation for gospel ministry must involve both place and people. For example, as much as Keller views cities as “cultural influencers,” he is also aware that “over 50 percent of the world population now lives in cities” (Center Church, 154). Scripture reflects this awareness as well, as in God’s promise to Abraham: “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3). The biblical story even ends with a gathering of “persons from every [place]” (Rev 5:9)—without making place pointless, the emphasis is less “where” (a city?) and more “who.” This is not to minimize at all what Witmer and so many are right to affirm: that every place is important. It is simply to say that ministry is ultimately about making “disciples” not districts (Matt 28:19).
Small-place ministry matters because no person is insignificant! Witmer gets this. Early in his book he argues that “there are billions of people living in small places around the world today—and that matters a lot” (p. 26, emphasis original), with the emphatic “that” clearly referring to the number of people who need Jesus. So, why can’t our ministry decisions be based primarily on Witmer’s emphatic “that?” Why must size be referring to geographic place rather than gospel priority? This is not to deny the difference between a big city and a small town, let alone to pit them against one another, but to say that our movement toward one over the other should be based at least in part on the work of the gospel not the winsomeness of the venue. And if the church is expected to reach “all the peoples on earth,” then shouldn’t pastors have some sort of strategy—with good and godly intentions, Lord willing? This assumes, of course, that such a strategy would include small places, not just big ones—for the “big gospel” includes the truth that a big God loves the whole world (John 3:16). Maybe we can avoid the “I follow Keller” or “I follow Witmer” division of the Corinthians if we view both “theological visions” as subsets of the one, “big gospel,” which moves us closer to the heart of the book, with each vision rightly evaluating gospel needs of real significance, making disciples of “all the peoples on earth” in coordinated cooperation by the wonderful providence of a big God. Perhaps if we start with a big God and a big gospel, we can transcend the impasse of place. For if the love of Christ transcends knowledge (Eph 3:18–19), it can certainly transcend place, no matter its size.