January 18, 2020

Is Your Gospel Big Enough for the Smallest Places?

The schemes of Scotland, like most poor communities around the world, are essentially small villages within big cities. A village, like a scheme, is a relatively small group of people living in a concentrated area. A scheme, like a village, is a tight-knit community with a common identity.

In a village (or small town) multiple generations of the same family will live close to one another. There are often rich layers of history and a strong sense of community. People know each other by name. The pace of life may be slow, but news travels fast. Problems are common to all. People feel at home in their village but quickly feel out of place when they leave. Village life can feel suffocating to some and yet life-giving to others. In so many ways, life in a poor community is like living in a village surrounded by a big city.

Resource-Poor

Most church-planting resources are written for those planting in big, ‘strategic’ cities. Indeed, most of the events, conferences, books, and funding sources for church planters assume that the planter is headed to the big city to engage a post-Christian, secular, and relatively transient population. If this is the extent of our church-planting vision, then is it any wonder that so few churches are being planted and supported in our poorest communities? Millions of the world’s unengaged poor are living in inner-city villages—often forgotten and isolated places on the margins of society.

If you’re seeking to do ministry among the poor—even the urban poor—then it’d be better for you to consider how to do ministry well in a small and forgotten place rather than in a big, strategic city. That is why a book like A Big Gospel in Small Places is a refreshingly helpful resource, even for those doing ministry among the urban poor. 

Stephen Witmer is the Pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Massachusetts. He has a passion for ministry in small towns and villages. This book not only casts a vision for engaging the small places, but also challenges the pervasive idea that ‘big’ equals significant while ‘small’ is somehow inconsequential.

Witmer wrote A Big Gospel for Small Places to encourage and equip rural pastors and church planters. That in itself is much needed. I planted a church in a town of 16,000 people and am constantly disappointed by the lack of resources for those of us serving in small towns. After all, over 3.4 billion people live in rural communities globally. In the U.S. alone, 33 million people live in small towns. These stats by themselves prove that ministry in rural places is no less strategic or essential than ministry in big cities.

Small-Town Myths

Witmer dispels some of the myths surrounding life and ministry in small towns. Rural areas often experience deep poverty, a lack of access to services, poor health care, and higher-than-average rates of drug and alcohol abuse. Many people living in rural communities say they feel invisible, forgotten, isolated, and powerless. According to Witmer, “Poverty rates in rural America exceeded poverty rates in urban areas and have far fewer social services available to help.” (50)

He goes on to state that a quarter of all children living in rural America grow up in poverty. Drug deaths are higher in rural communities than in cities. Witmer poignantly states, “Beneath small-place struggles is a potent mix of sin and despair, culpability and hopelessness.” (55) But life in rural places is not only doom and gloom. As the book rightfully suggests, small towns and rural places often have a deep sense of community-spirit and rich social-fabric, things that are so often missing in major cities. 

Because churches in small places tend to be, well . . . small, we might think that ministry in such places has less value than more sizeable ministry elsewhere. Most church-planting resources assume that a healthy church needs over 100 people in attendance. But Witmer cites a 2012 survey which found that the average church size in the U.S. is 60 people. (89) Over 70% of churches have an average Sunday morning attendance of less than 100. I’m not suggesting that small equals healthy (neither does big), but I am pointing out that the majority of churches in America may actually be smaller than we think.

There’s nothing insignificant about doing ministry in a small church which is actively engaging a small place. On the contrary, there is often something rich and powerful about a gospel-centered church that faithfully displays God’s glory in the forgotten parts of the world.

Theological Vision for Small Places 

Witmer sets out a theological vision for ministry in small places. He developed a very helpful ‘circle and arrow’ analogy. Witmer notes that in a big city, people live like arrows. They shoot across from one end of the city to the other—things like one’s work, school, shopping, friends, and even church tend to be located in different parts of the city.

This, of course, is very different from life in small places, where everything happens within a circle—a clearly defined and concentrated area. Within that circle people live, work, play, and worship. Almost all of life happens within this tightly contained circle. “Surprisingly, the smallness of small places sometimes allows residents to have more ongoing interactions with people who are different than they would in the city.” (116) Witmer calls on churches in small places to be local churches that listen to and are actively involved in the community. “Our church wants to opt into this circle. Churches and ministries who live outside the circle, who ignore their community, will also be ignored by their community.” (119)

As a small-town church planter and pastor, this book resonated with my own experiences and desires. More often than not, I was nodding in enthusiastic agreement while reading Witmer’s account of his own ministry. At the same time, surprisingly, I also found myself struck again and again by the similarities between ministry in a rural community and ministry in an inner-city poor community.

Small Places, Big, Enduring Gospel

We at 20schemes want to plant local churches led by indigenous leaders. We require our church planters and their teams to live in the community where they intend to plant/revatize. We listen to our communities, celebrate our communities, and seek to involve ourselves in the life of our communities. In so many ways, doing ministry among the urban poor is a ministry that presents a big gospel in a small place.

Whether you’re doing ministry in a rural community or in an urban poor community, you will find this book both helpful and encouraging. I’m grateful for the renewed focus on rural church planting by ministries like Acts 29’s Rural Collective, Witmer’s own Small Town Summits, and several others. Those seeking to engage the urban poor and those working in small and forgotten rural communities have a great deal to learn from each other. And this book can serve as a catalyst for much needed conversation about building healthy churches in small places that will proclaim the gospel for years to come.

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