A Big Gospel for Small Places: An Interview with Stephen Witmer

A Big Gospel for Small Places: An Interview with Stephen Witmer

I first came across Stephen Witmer through his writing for the Small Town Summits initiative, which encourages gospel ministry in the small towns of New England. He has served as the lead pastor at Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Massachusetts for eleven years, and his work on God’s heart for ‘small places’ has been a real inspiration for me in my own context.

Stephen was kind enough to share a final draft of his new book, A Big Gospel in Small Places, with me as I worked on my MA dissertation on a similar theme in the UK context. The book has released this week and Stephen generously took the time to answer a few questions:

– Stephen, thanks so much for writing this heartening book. In it you speak very openly about your own journey, both in terms of ministry aspirations and in terms of geography. What has led you to write this book?

A Big Gospel in Small Places is an overflow and expression of my thinking and wrestling over the past decade of pastoral ministry in a small town. I grew up in a tiny, remote village, but decided as a young man that to make something of myself, I should be living far from home in a big city. I aspired to city ministry – the message I was hearing from those I most admired was that the best way to make my life count was to influence influencers in a big city. All through my twenties, I was on track toward that future. Then, unexpectedly, I was called to pastor a small-town New England church at the age of 32. In the eleven years since, I’ve fallen in love with my church and town. I’ve come to see that ministry on the periphery needn’t be peripheral ministry. I’ve also had to work through pride, ambition, and how my life fits with the evangelical prioritization of ministry in big places (cities and suburbs). I’m hoping that what I’ve learned about small-town ministry and about myself will be helpful and encouraging to many others who are living and serving (whether as lay-leaders or pastors) in small, forgotten places.

– Can you give us a summary of what you are trying to do in the book and who might find it helpful?

My goal in A Big Gospel in Small Places is to build a theological vision for rural/small-town ministry, akin, in my own small way, to what Tim Keller has done for city ministry (Tim Keller is a hero of mine and has profoundly influenced this book). The way to build a theological vision is to consider your place and to consider the gospel, and then to consider how the two engage. In the book, I argue that small places are both better and worse than we often think they are. They’re much more needy and broken than we see when we idealize them (as our culture often does), and they’re much more beautiful and valuable than we see when we despise them (as our culture often does). The gospel of Jesus Christ opens up a broad space for the kind of small, slow, ‘unstrategic’ ministries that we often find in small places, because the gospel is the news of a patient God who brings a mustard seed Kingdom and lavishly pours out his love for ordinary people. So, gospel logic itself gives us permission and encouragement to do small-place ministry, and it gives us instincts for how best to do small-place ministry once we dive into it.

I’m praying that small-place laypeople and pastors will find this book very encouraging – that it will renew their understanding that what they’re doing matters very much. I’m also hopeful that the book may cause some aspiring ministers to be more open to God’s call to go to a small place. Finally, I’d love pastors in big cities to see and celebrate what God is doing in small places – and also to read and engage with my critique of the ‘urban apologetic’ literature which seeks to prioritize city ministry. I find many of these arguments unpersuasive and believe it’s important to allow God to prioritize for each person where he wants them to minister.

– As you point out, it’s very easy for us to aspire to ‘bigness’, in church size and location. What would you say to those perhaps just beginning in full-time ministry as they aspire to a life of service? What would you want them to consider or ask of themselves as they evaluate those aspirations?

I’d encourage every follower of Jesus to be fully open to God’s call and to follow him wherever he leads, even if it’s in a surprising direction. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to have a big impact for God, as long as it’s really for God and not for ourselves. I’ve been struck again recently by God’s words in Isaiah 48.11: ‘For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.’ God’s not willing to share his glory. John the Baptist had it right when he said of Jesus, ‘He must increase, and I must decrease.’ As Ray Ortlund points out, John doesn’t propose a glory-sharing arrangement (‘He must increase, and I must increase’). I’d encourage every aspiring minister to long to leave a huge impact for God – whether in a big place or a small place. When it comes to the numerical increase of our churches through conversion growth, we should want it more and need it less. That is, we should work and pray for revival, never settling for the status quo. But we should never need revival in order to validate ourselves or our ministries. The gospel already announces our acceptance with God through Jesus Christ.

– In the book you engage with the work and writing of Tim Keller and particularly his emphasis on the importance of planting in cities. Can you give us a sense of what you’re trying to do with that engagement and why you felt compelled to do that?

I’ve read a lot of the ‘urban apologetic’ literature that calls for prioritizing city ministry. Much of it is written by my ministry friends and heroes. Some of my best friends minister in great cities and I love their ministries. I’m a huge fan of city ministry. But I’m not persuaded by the call to prioritize city ministry as an overall strategy. Because I had never seen any extended, thoughtful engagement with the urban apologetic literature, I thought it was important in this book, as I develop a theological vision for small-place ministry, to charitably, critically engage with this important stream of writing. It’s all there in the concluding chapter of my book. I don’t think I’ve answered (or even asked) all the important questions, but I hope that last chapter will further what I think is a very important discussion.

– Obviously you’re now living and ministering in the US, but you have spent some time living and studying and indeed speaking in the UK. Do you have any sense of what those of us in the UK might particularly need to hear in relation to the issues raised by this book?

Yes, my four years living in the UK were some of the best of my life! I’m married to a Brit, and we have many close, ongoing relationships in the UK. I’m deeply encouraged by the small-place ministry I see occurring throughout the UK. I was recently in tiny Rathfriland, Northern Ireland, speaking at an Acts 29 Rural Collective event. There were many church planters from the north and south of Ireland gathered that day, and I was blown away by the caliber of these folks – really impressive, Christ-loving, faithful church planters. One of my friends, John Hindley, moved several years ago from Manchester to a tiny town in Norfolk to plant a church. He’s doing fantastic local ministry, as well as doing some very thoughtful, helpful speaking and writing on rural ministry. I think most of what I’ve written in A Big Gospel in Small Places maps directly onto the UK scene. The call to value what is small, forgotten, and overlooked is every bit as important in the UK and the rest of the world as it is in the US. That’s because the gospel is true everywhere. We’re meant to proclaim its content and to allow our ministries themselves to be gospel-shaped, to be see-through to the gospel, to embody its values.

A Big Gospel in Small Places is available in the US now and is available for pre-order in the UK. You can read a sample here and you can get a feel for the book with some of the articles over at the Small Town Summits site.