Witmer, Stephen. A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters. Downers Grove: IVP, 2019, pp. 204, $18, paperback.
Stephen Witmer is the lead pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Massachusetts and is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Witmer is cofounder of Small Town Summits, an organization partnering with the Gospel Coalition, which serves rural pastors serving in rural churches in the New England area. Witmer has written Eternity Changes Everything and numerous articles for websites such as Gospel Coalition and Desiring God.
Many Christian ministries and books have focused on the importance on reaching large, strategic cities in urban areas because they are the center for culture and, as a result, are seemingly more important that rural areas. However, Witmer makes the case that since over three billion people live in rural areas—nearly half of the world’s population—rural areas are important and need fruitful ministry. Witmer uses the term “small places” to refer to areas that are relatively small in population, influence, and economic power, but are worth the investment from potential pastors and ministry leaders (p. 22).
Witmer seeks to answer how to to have fruitful ministry in rural contexts by addressing three specific issues. First, he describes the attributes of small places. Second, he considers the elements needed for fruitful ministry in small places. Third, answers the question of whether someone should minister in a small place. In seeking to look at these three specific issues, Witmer provides a gospel-shaped vision for ministry that sees both “our ourselves and our places as God does” (pp. 12-13). By seeing one’s ministry context as God does, one should have a more theological vision for ministry, which should not be defined by the context in which one serves.
In seeking to establish attributes of small places, he argues that small places are both better and worse than people think. According to Witmer, small places are better than people think because God has a plan for them to “lavish his grace on them through his body, the church” (p. 41). In this way, Witmer stresses that fruitful ministry in a small place is centered around seeing the community as God sees them, as more valuable than Christians often do. Conversely, Witmer rightly points out that small places are often stereotyped as being inherently good, and this sentiment is both naïve and dangerous. Small places are not simply idyllic places but places that are stained with sin and hopelessness. Witmer stresses that because small places are better than one thinks, they are worth the investment; because they are worse than one thinks, they deserve a lifetime of dedicated ministry.
In seeking to discuss how to have fruitful ministry in a small place, Witmer posits that what is needed is not more ministry tips or advice; what is needed is a theological vision that motivates and molds ministry (p. 62). While tips and practical steps can help inform ministry practice, they cannot change a minister’s heart. Only a proper theological vision that sees people the way that God sees them can change hearts. Witmer stresses that small place ministry can be fruitful when pastors and ministers see their context as important because God wants to lavish his grace upon the area through the church. As one sees this as the basis for theological ministry, one begins to see the value in investing in smaller places.
In seeking how to deal with whether someone should invest in small place ministry, Witmer discusses reasons (good and bad) why some are unwilling to invest in small place ministry. Some think they are too educated or talented to serve in small place, while others simply desire the comforts of the city. Perhaps others see small place ministry as too difficult. Regardless of reasons why, Witmer makes the case that people who see the value of small places will see people as worth the investment. While small place ministry can be difficult, it is worth it for those who truly want to make a difference in these areas.
Small place ministry is important because people in all places need the gospel. In this, Witmer is correct. Small place ministry is important because God wants these areas to have proper access to the Gospel and needs theologically grounded pastors serving churches in these areas. Witmer makes a strong case that pastors need to see these areas as valuable places that need long-term investment and care despite the size of the community or the size of the church. While this book makes the case that small place ministry is important, it also honestly deals with some of the challenges that comes with it.
In chapter nine, Witmer deals with a few challenges to small place ministry that are especially helpful to pastors. He deals with discontentment, envy, and fear. These challenges do not only affect small place ministry, they are often byproducts of it. However, seeing people as God sees them stresses the importance of small place ministry and, as Witmer rightly notes, “nothing is little in God’s service” (p. 129). If pastors and ministers see people in small places as God sees them, they will see that their ministry matters and, when convinced of this, ministry will be seen as a joy and not a burden despite difficulties. If pastors view people in their context as those needing and deserving a gospel-centered ministry, they will develop a tender heart towards their ministry, regardless of size. In this, Witmer makes his strongest case that ministry, no matter the context, is worth the investment from pastors and ministers who seek to see people as God sees them: people who need Christ.
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary