Stephen Witmer: A Vision for Small-Town Ministry—Part 2

We should want bigger and faster more and need it less.

Don’t miss Part 1 of this this interview where Stephen Witmer shared about the role of small places in his own life and why God’s call for some church leaders to serve in small places is just as valuable as his call for others to serve in big cities. Witmer, a small-town pastor in Massachusetts, is also co-founder of Small Town Summits, on the steering committee of The Gospel Coalition New England, and author of A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters (IVP). Here, he continues the interview discussing 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 while simultaneously revealing how interconnected they really are.

An evangelical theological vision doesn’t translate from big-city churches to small-town churches. How ought we think differently about vision when it comes to ministering in small places?

Part of what I’m doing is calling for a theological vision that’s based on the gospel of Jesus Christ and that redefines church success, not in terms of simple metrics but of see-through-ability to God. Does the nature of our ministry communicate something of the beauty of the gospel? The gospel does come big, but it also comes small. It comes fast, but it also moves slowly. It often does reach influential people. But it is also a lavish gospel that tells the story of God communicating grace to many ordinary people, many poor people. I think of the church in Corinth where there were not many people who were wise or well educated or wealthy, but God delights in drawing ordinary people to him through his Son. The Good News comes slowly and is often small like a mustard seed. It is lavish and inordinate and unstrategic in that sense.

I try to be nuanced here, because my goal is definitely not to pull people away from the city. I want people to go to the city. Cities need more churches, more pastors, more godly people living out their vocations in the city. But I think we should want bigger and faster more and need it less. Revival is the big and fast move of the gospel. I think every pastor and layperson should be praying for and longing for that. Sadly, I think we don’t pray for God to move deeply and radically and to convert whole peoples and to stun and surprise us.

Some people might say, Well you’re going to the gospel and you’re seeing that it can work in small ways and slow ways, so you’re just baptizing laziness. I would say, No, we should want big and fast more. I have seen lazy pastors who are re-preaching sermons. There are no new initiatives. They’re not praying fervently for God to move in surprising ways. And to them I would say, You should get more active and you should get more prayerful. We should want it more and we should need it less. In other words, if God chooses to reveal the small and slow aspects of his gospel through our churches, we should be okay with that. And right now I think most pastors aren’t okay with that. They want to display the big, fast, powerful elements of the gospel through their church.

If the full-orbed beauty of the gospel includes big and fast and small and slow and strategic and unstrategic, then God’s probably going to call a whole bunch of different kinds of churches and places to reflect and embody that gospel. In some churches it’s going to blow up and they’re going to see conversions all over the place, and we should want to be those churches because we want people to be saved for eternity. But then we should not need that as a validation, as pastors or as laypeople. We should just give that to God and be okay with what God gives us, as long as our small, slow church is a faithful embodiment of the gospel. As long as it sees through to the gospel, that when people look at our church, they say Hey, there’s a beauty, a patience and a steadfastness that is commending the gospel that we’re speaking. In other words, our churches are to be gospel-shaped, not just have gospel content.

Is that kind of what you meant when you wrote, “The gospel isn’t just the message we take to small places; it’s our motivation for going to them in the first place and our means of fruitful ministry once we get there”?

Yeah, exactly. I would say it’s our motivation to go there, and then it also shapes the very way we seek to do ministry once we get there. What I mean by the gospel taking us there is it gives us permission not to just reflexively adopt the standards of success of our culture. If we just reflexively adopt Walmart or Amazon standards of success, we’re going to seek to be big and fast and efficient and strategic in our churches. The gospel does not say that big and fast and strategic are bad necessarily, because the mustard seed kingdom grows to be a massive kingdom, and the gospel sometimes does work really fast. But the gospel does not privilege fast and big over small and slow. It opens space for us to say, Well, it could be that God is calling me to reflect something of the beauty of his character and his gospel. God is a patient God. Maybe he wants to show that through a ministry that plays out over 40 years and never looks impressive. But when people examine that ministry, it’s going to have the flavor of a God who is patient and long-suffering and persistent. And that’s an infinitely beautiful thing.

What is it, do you think, about small towns and these forgotten places around the country that really allows Jesus to shine and reveals the gospel in its full glory?

I think a part of that is just the scope and size of small towns, which very often give God’s people inordinate influence. When you’re in a town of 700 or 7,000, you can know a lot of those people and you can be known by many of those people in a way you probably can’t in a large city, unless you are incredibly influential in a way that most pastors and churches will never be. Over the years, in our town of 12,000 I’ve gotten to know our town administrator and very select men. I serve on a town committee right now. I know the director of our local library. I know the folks in the schools, and if you’re willing to stay for a while in a small town, you can develop extraordinary influence.

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The Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow talks about the concept of the arrow and the circle, of a suburb versus a small town. When you’re in a suburb, life is kind of defined by the arrow: If you’re looking at a map, you drive one way to the grocery store and one way to the library or to the school or your church or wherever. In a small town, you kind of live within a circle, especially if it’s more remote. You live and work a kind of self-contained existence, and because of that there’s a lot of overlap in your relationships. You see the same people in the grocery store as you do on the soccer field sidelines where your kids are playing, or at the after-school pick-up, or at the one post office in town. In some ways it’s more analogous to a mixed-use city neighborhood, which can be a self-contained little enclave within a very large city. I see that overlap as a massive opportunity for the gospel. We have experienced this a lot in 12 years in our town. There are so many fruitful opportunities for the gospel, because you get to see and know people in various contexts. That is just so rich for building relationships, meeting people on their turf and promoting the gospel.

You mentioned strategy or no strategy earlier when you were talking about large place ministry versus small place. Is there a strategy, though, for ministering in small places?

Yeah, that’s a really good distinction. When I say unstrategic, I don’t mean you don’t have a plan. I often put “unstrategic” in quotation marks because it is actually highly strategic to do small-town ministry. I think the best strategy for reaching Pepperell is to live in Pepperell. I mean, it’s not considered strategic by those who would say that the most strategic way to change the culture or to reach the largest number of people is to go to big cities and then see sort of a trickle-down effect to the countryside.

My strategy for small town ministry is very simple: to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and seek to be engaged in the community. We’ve seen that to be effective in our town. Live within that circle that Robert Wuthnow talks about. Don’t try to be a regional church, don’t try to transcend the traditions of your town. Understand your town. Don’t try to be a big city church in a small town. I’ve seen that kind of thing done as well, and often it comes across as tone-deaf to me. Don’t try to set up church in a box from a model that’s working in a suburb half a country away. Learn to know your place in your town. Localize and contextualize ministry.

Let’s talk about Small Town Summits a little bit. You co-founded and help lead that organization, and it’s been a great resource for church leaders looking for connection and encouragement with others like them.

Yeah. We started it about three years ago, and it was really an overflow of the desire of a couple of us who were involved with The Gospel Coalition New England. We really wanted to reach beyond Boston into the six states of New England, much of which is rural small towns. And as you get up into New Hampshire, northern Vermont and Maine, it’s so remote. To expect someone in Millinocket, Maine, to drive all the way down to Boston for a conference is a big ask. We really appreciate and support the big conferences in the big cities, but I think very often for rural pastors it’s a huge ask to say, Would you fly from New Hampshire to Chicago for this conference? It’s going to wind up costing at least $1,000, and in a small church, you may not have the time to get away if you’re bivocational, and you probably don’t have a conference budget. When you get to that big conference center and you’re sitting in a crowd of 4,000 people, there’s going to be a worship team on stage that looks nothing like what you ever experienced, and it’s not going to be contextualized for you most likely. If there are principles taught, they are probably not going to be principles that apply directly to you, so you’ll need to abstract yourself from that, fly back home and then recontextualize it for your church. I do think that can be valuable. You can be encouraged in a way that you might not be in a small conference in your own neck of the woods.

But we just started to think, what would a contextualized ministry look like that would come alongside small-church laypeople and pastors who would appreciate what they’re doing and would meet in their places and host summits, or gatherings of leaders that are convening for the sake of prayer and taking action in a way that is highly contextualized for them?

So we meet in small churches in small towns, and we talk about the unique factors involved in small-town ministry. A lot of small-town ministry isn’t unique, it’s just ministry like anywhere. But there are things that come with being in more remote locations with fewer resources, like sometimes loneliness or envy, so we talk about those issues. And we listen to people and hear from them. And because the summits are small, usually 50 to 80 people, they’re portable, and we keep the price way down. They’re affordable to come to and to run, so that means they’re reproducible and contextual. They’re regional, so hopefully there’s going to be ongoing relationship after the summit.

We’ve found that these summits have struck a nerve with people. These pastors and churches have been so deeply appreciative that we have come to them instead of making them come to us. We’ve talked about issues that matter to them, and we’ve listened to them. We’re not just trying to parachute in and give our 10 tips and get out. The folks who are leading are small town pastors and laypeople themselves, so it’s been really encouraging. It feels like we’ve tapped into this hunger to talk about small-place ministry, to think theologically about why it’s important, why it’s valuable, why God cares about it.

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What advice do you have for overcoming some of the personal challenges small-place pastors can face: discontentment, envy, fear, loneliness.

Pursue connection, and for me that has grown over time. I think early in my ministry I just tried to keep my head down and do ministry in my church. As I’ve matured, I think I’ve actually seen that the kind of ministry I do can be infinitely more productive if I invest in relationships outside the church as well. For me it’s just been a growing awareness that I need that. So over the years I’ve really pursued relationships with others who treasure the Bible and the gospel, and I’m going to drive for that, even if I’m not in a city, so maybe I need to connect with people several towns over and and make it a priority to meet regularly in a couple of pastors’ groups. I think technology has also been helpful for connecting with likeminded people around the world.

I think sometimes for small town pastors there can be an insecurity. That can separate you. You’re maybe working with minimal resources, you don’t feel like the work you’re doing is very impressive, and you’re a little bit insecure to go to a big conference where you feel like you’re going to be around cutting-edge people and churches that are more impressive than yours. That can be a real separator that keeps you away from other people. But I think we just need to go back to the gospel and find our identity not in what we do or how impressive we are, but in Christ, and then connect and learn.

Let’s talk about COVID-19 and small-place ministry. How do you see this experience shaping small churches and their relationship to and role in the greater American landscape?

My sense is that COVID-19 is highlighting a lot of realities of urban and rural churches that have been there all along, but that maybe haven’t been as clear to some people. I sort of feel like COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on urban-rural dynamics. It has hit the urban places first, and that’s usually what happens with respect to all sorts of things: cultural trends, ideas. Cities are densely clustered masses of human beings, so they experience lots of things first, but it’s now come to the rural areas. Often cities get much more attention than smaller places. Smaller places are kind of forgotten. That’s been the case in the first several months of this. And I think rightfully so. New York City and the Northwest got a lot of the initial attention because that’s where it was worst. But I’ve started now to see more news coverage of the way COVID-19 is playing out in rural areas.

Smaller places often struggle and suffer more than people realize. There’s this kind of hidden-in-plain-view aspect of rural poverty and drug addiction and other social struggles. It’s real and it’s there, but just because populations are less dense, it’s often not seen as much. Many health indicators are worse in rural areas. There’s more smoking, generally, in rural areas. There’s an older population. And a lot of other things: heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, stroke, unintentional injuries, addiction. These are some of the big indicators for COVID-19 deaths.

Another issue is the lack of resources and hospitals. There have been many rural hospitals in the last decade that have been shuttered, so there are now fewer hospital beds. Even telemedicine is harder to access in rural areas if you don’t have good broadband. COVID-19 highlights those rural-urban disparities.

But it’s also highlighting the impact that small places and rural areas have on the rest of the country. One of the many ways it’s doing that is through the food supply chain, as pork, beef and chicken plants have been forced to close. Many of those are in rural areas. Farmers don’t have anywhere to sell their livestock, and there’s less meat available in the supermarket. I think that’s one of many ways rural areas impact the rest of the country, but sometimes I think in urban areas it’s not really fully appreciated, that even though things often get to the countryside later, we are deeply connected economically and socially.

At first, I naively thought this whole thing was going to last a period of some weeks, we would livestream, and then we’d just go back to what it used to be. It would be this great Sunday where we all would come back together and give each other hugs, and it would be over. And I realize now that that was totally unrealistic. I think instead what’s actually going to happen is that we are going to venture slowly out of the ark. You know, after Noah and his family landed, it was a long time before they left the ark. They were on dry ground for quite a while. It’s going to be variegated in congregations. Some people are going to be ready to come back the first Sunday we hold a service, and for others it’s going to be months. We will need to figure out how to shepherd a mixed congregation, some of whom are there on Sundays and some of whom aren’t for one reason or another: their health is worse, they’re older or they’re just more cautious by temperament. I think that’s going to be really crucial. It’s going to be a test of churches and leaders to work our way through those things, and I imagine there will probably be some tension.

It’s going to be hard for congregations to stay unified when we’re not all together. In some ways I think the easiest pastoral stage has been the first one, because we’ve all done the same thing. We were all together on Sunday mornings before COVID-19, then we were all together online, but once we start services again we won’t be all together. Some of us will be online still and some of us will be gathered in person. It’s something we’re devoting a lot of thought to.