Stephen Witmer: Big Gospel, Small Places—Part 1

Ministering in small towns is neither idyllic nor dull. It is real life.

You’ve probably never heard of Pepperrell, Massachusetts, or Monson, Maine. Most people haven’t. Pepperell and Monson are small New England towns that have shaped the theological vision of ministry for Stephen Witmer. Witmer was born and raised in Monson and has pastored the congregation of Pepperell Christian Fellowship since June 2008. He is also an adjunct professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, serves on the steering committee of The Gospel Coalition New England, and cofounded Small Town Summits, gatherings in small New England towns meant to encourage, equip and connect small place church leaders.

Notice a trend? After many years of study and ministry in big cities and influential places, Witmer returned to his roots. He’s become a defender of and advocate for the beauty and brokenness of small towns and rural places and their desperate need for gospel-centered churches. And in his recent book, A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters (IVP) he encourages small-place church leaders and creates space for others to hear God when he calls them to go there.

Witmer talked with Outreach about his own appreciation of small places, the misunderstood nature of small and forgotten towns, and why church leaders should reconsider whether God has called them to rural ministry.

You come from a small-place background. You were a pastor’s kid in rural Maine before you came to pastor your own small-place church in Massachusetts. Talk about the impact of your upbringing on your ministry. Did you always see yourself pastoring a small church in a small town?

Small-town ministry is in my blood because I grew up in this tiny town of Monson. It wasn’t just small, it was remote. We were far from even a mid-size city. It was what I knew for my first 18 years.

But rather than a straight line to my current small-town ministry, it was a very jagged line, and I was surprised to come back to my roots. For many years I wanted to get away from it. I think it was something in the air, kind of denigrating small and remote places. Nobody ever sat me down and said, If you want to be successful you should get away from this place, but I somehow imbibed that notion that success meant getting to a big city, influencing influencers, and being where the action was. I wanted to be a pastor, but I did not set out to be a pastor in a small town.

So I set the trajectory of my life, really, for the next 10 to 15 years or longer. I started to live in bigger places and attend bigger churches, and I loved it. It was only to my surprise that God very clearly called us to a small town.

Did you resist that call before you finally surrendered?

I was teaching at Gordon-Conwell with the goal of applying to churches, and there were a couple we were considering. We got very far in the process with one that, on paper, really looked like the next career move. But over a period of a few weeks we felt called away from that church, and to our surprise, we’ve been at our church in Pepperell 12 years now. I remember at the time feeling as though the counterintuitive nature of coming to this church was actually in its favor. It made me think, I’m doing this not because it’s the top of my agenda, but because this must be God’s call in a direction I wasn’t planning and wouldn’t have chosen. It felt confirming.

It’s funny. In many ways, I think years of seminary study and internships in churches and a Ph.D. in New Testament prepared me well for pastoral ministry in a small place, but growing up in a small New England town prepared me just as well. I learned how to relate to a diverse group of people: folks who are white collar and blue collar, who are kind of salt of the earth. I have increasingly seen how God wove my life story together in such a way as to prepare me for what he has me doing now.

And now you’ve kind of dived in headfirst and have really poured yourself into your ministry.

Yeah, we really love our church family and the town God has called us to. And we feel deeply loved by the people here. We have learned so much, and it has been massively encouraging. One of the things I sometimes say to folks is that small towns are often like Mary Poppins’ handbag. They’re bigger on the inside than the outside, and the longer you spend in a place, the more you can see its richness and beauty. It’s right in front of you, but you don’t see it until you linger and go deep in relationship and learn from people. We have really learned to see the massive blessings of a place like Pepperell.

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One of the people who has influenced me in some of this is Wendell Berry, because I started reading him in seminary. I really appreciate the fact that he does not idealize the country or country people. He writes a lot about their brokenness. But reading him over the years during Ph.D. work and while I was living in big cities kind of made me start to rethink and revalue some of what small town country life could be, and what it could mean, and the potential there.

Many who have never lived in small places misunderstand them. You say the reality is that they’re simultaneously better and worse than most people realize, and that there’s plenty of need for ministry there.

They are so rich, but they’re also so broken. [When we don’t understand that polarity] I think those notions of small places sever the impulse to do ministry there. If you think small places are just backward, undesirable places to live, you’re probably not going to want to spend your life there. On the other hand,  if you think small places are just beautiful and idyllic (and I’ve read urban ministry folks writing that way about small places), that’s also going to sever the impulse to go there, because you think there’s not really much work to be done. Whereas, there is great beauty and value and delight in living in a place like Pepperell or Monson or wherever. But there’s also more than enough ministry to be done. I’ve never felt overqualified for ministry in this town. I’ve never felt like this is easy. I have so often felt so out of my depth. It just requires the spirit of God to do effective ministry in any place, but there are unique challenges to little forgotten places.

Talk about the sense in the larger culture, and in evangelicalism specifically, that small places are somehow less valuable for ministry than big cities or suburbs. The culture prizes fast and big over small and slow when it comes to reaching others with the gospel.

Yeah. I think for many years, the internal sense I had that the real action and influence was in cities was just confirmed within evangelicalism, although it was in the broader culture as well. I would say it’s probably changed over the years, but at the time I was at seminary it was understood that the more successful, intelligent, driven, type-A people were going to wind up in cities, and if you wound up in a small town somewhere, that was good, but it was a bit junior varsity. Now, there are some good impulses there. There’s the desire to influence as many people for Christ as possible and to shape culture. It’s a godly impulse to see the gospel spread as far and wide as possible. I think it is really dangerous, though, for young seminary or Bible college graduates to be so concerned about big grandiose things like changing the culture. And it’s pretty hard to disentangle your own pride and ambition from godly, gospel ambition.

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So I do think that pretty often there’s been this sense that if you really want to change the culture and make something of yourself, you should wind up influencing influencers. And while I do think God calls some people to that work, there are probably more people who should be in small places than have heard that call in generations past, because there’s been such a proclivity toward urban ministry in the last 20 to 30 years. Such a call for it that I think some people have just not been able to hear God’s call to some other kind of place because they’ve been so massively impacted by the evangelical subculture saying, Hey, if you want your life to count, you should be in a more happening place.

My goal is not to call people to rural ministry. It’s just to create space for them to hear God’s call to rural ministry if it’s there. I’m not interested in substituting my own voice for God’s voice. He’s calling people to urban ministry, and if he calls then we should go. But if he is nudging us to consider rural ministry, it would be such a crying shame to not respond to that because we have only one version of success.

I wanted to talk about church planting and how that fits into the context of small place churches. In one part of the book, you said, “One church-planting expert suggests that to start a church there should be at least 50 to 100 adults before going public.” When a mature rural church might have that many members after decades of ministry, what does it look like to plant a brand-new church in a small place?

Our church has a vision for church planting. We are a church plant, but we were planted 32 years ago before I came, so I’ve not planted a church myself. But we, as leaders of our church, are moving our church in that direction. And we’re figuring this out now. We’re thinking through the kind of model required for a church that’s not planted in a high-density area. Unless God does a miracle (which he could do and which we pray he’ll do), it’s not going to grow as quickly, so it might not be as quickly self-sustaining. So figuring out financial models and financial feasibility, all within the context of prayer and trust in God, is really important.

Bivocationalism or trivocationalism is, I think, a really important discussion for church planting in small places. Another model is to plant a church using a larger group from an existing church that’s big enough that they’re going to get to critical mass more quickly. That’s probably the model we’re going to pursue. We have an associate pastor who feels called to church planting, so we are looking at communities in our area that are underserved by gospel-centered, community-engaged churches. Our vision is to see all the communities in our region with a gospel-centered, community-engaged church. We don’t know how long it’ll take to get there, but we want to do our bit. We’ll probably send out a substantial number of folks from our congregation in the coming years.

In Part 2 of the interview, Stephen Witmer talks about his theological vision and ministry strategy for small-place churches, overcoming challenges of ministering in forgotten places, church planting, and how COVID-19 is highlighting disparities between cities and the countryside.