Dear small-town pastor,
I’m a small-town pastor myself, and I want to spur you on in the ministry. We labor in places we dearly love, but few others have heard of. We have a wide range of responsibilities, which may include (but not be limited to) typing the bulletin, doing pest control for the church building, helping at Vacation Bible School, performing emergency toilet repairs, and preaching. The conferences we attend, the books, magazines, blogs, and websites we read, and the podcasts we listen to are produced by big-city, large-church pastors.
Gradually, though no one has ever said this to us, we may have come to feel like we’re junior varsity. We have not been gifted or called to influence the influencers in the big city. We’re doing the best we can, seeking to be faithful pastors in our forgotten places, but sometimes we may wonder whether we’re missing the real action. If that’s you, I want to encourage you in four ways.
1. The small places need you.
The world is urbanizing at a dizzying rate. The United Nations reports that, globally, almost 180,000 people are moving into cities every single day. In the United States, depending on how you do the numbers, a mere 14–19% of the total population is rural. Books on the importance of urban church planting usually cite these figures, and rightly so. To reach this flood of new city-dwellers will require many vibrant, gospel-centered, city churches.
But as small-town pastors, we know that there’s another side to these numbers — a reality that has been neglected by our broader culture and even by the church. What are these millions leaving behind as they move away? What happens to our depleted rural areas and small towns in the midst of the urban migration?
My tiny hometown in northern Maine finally had to regionalize its elementary school some years ago; young children now ride a bus thirty minutes each morning to school. How does a community deal with that — and with chronic underemployment, and poverty, and increasing drug addiction?
The Wall Street Journal recently called rural America the “new inner city,” noting the numerous key areas in which rural counties now rank behindAmerican cities, suburbs, and metro areas. We know the brokenness and the struggle firsthand, because we see it weekly, even daily. Small-town America is not the idyllic place urban dwellers imagine. Who will reach these small places with the gracious, transforming love of Jesus?
Conventional wisdom has said that the most strategic way to reach a region with the gospel is to plant a city-center church and then let the gospel radiate outward into the countryside and small towns. Without question, good city churches can help and encourage their smaller country cousins. But many of the city churches are simply and explicitly focused on planting other city churches, not churches in small places. This is often with good reason: cosmopolitan cities are culturally more similar to one another (even when they’re in different parts of the world) than to the country places that surround them.
Perhaps we need to rethink the “strategic center” model of reaching a region. Perhaps the best way to reach small towns with the gospel is not to go to the cities, but to go to small towns. Millions of eternal souls still live in these small places. Which feet will bring them the good news (Isaiah 52:7)?
You will, by the grace of God, as you live and minister in your own small place.
2. You can serve the big places.
Remember that the American population is flowing from small places to the big cities, not in the other direction. In his book Small-Town America, sociologist Robert Wuthnow cites one survey showing that more than 30% of center-city residents were raised in a small town or rural area. In surveys of small-town residents, far fewer (12%) grew up in a city. A June 2017 Wall Street Journal article reported, “As more young people decide to pursue four-year degrees, college towns are siphoning students out of the rural heart of the Farm Belt and sending them, degrees in hand, not back to Oskaloosa but to the nation’s urban centers.”
Small-town pastors, do we see the gospel opportunity here? Many of the young people in our churches will move away to college at age 18, and never return. They will settle in the urban centers of the world. But for the first, formative period of their lives, our churches have the sacred opportunity to shape them profoundly.
Wuthnow writes of the “portable values” that small-town residents internalize and take with them into the big cities when they move away. What if those values aren’t just honesty, thrift, and hard work, but an abiding passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ? From our forgotten places, we can shape and send gospel-loving young people on mission to the cities of the world.
3. Your small place of ministry reflects your gospel message.
As small-town pastors, we are not cutting-edge people, nor do we generally minister to the creative class, to movers and shakers, to cultural elites. We and our congregations often go unnoticed by the wider world.
In his book Making Sense of God, one of my favorite urban pastors, Tim Keller, surveys the pattern in Scripture of God choosing those who are marginal and powerless. Keller then shares a powerful insight: this theme isn’t merely the result of the biblical writers loving underdogs.
It is because the ultimate example of God’s working in the world was Jesus Christ, the only founder of a major religion who died in disgrace, not surrounded by all of his loving disciples but abandoned by everybody whom he cared about, including his Father. . . . Jesus Christ’s salvation comes to us through his poverty, rejection, and weakness.
Moreover, we receive his salvation by admitting our own poverty and weakness.
Your Sunday morning ministry will sometimes feel unimpressive, even to you. Your sermon will often fall far short of perfection. Perhaps your volunteer musicians will make mistakes, or you’ll spot some typos in the projected song lyrics. But consider this: the smallness of your place, the unimpressive nature of your church, even your own inadequacies and failings are themselves an expression of the gospel you preach. The medium reflects the message — the good news that God offers salvation to all people based not on their greatness, but on his grace alone.
4. Immeasurable joy resides in small places.
The upper limit of your joy in ministry will never be the size of the place in which you minister, but the size of your heart for God. God spreads a banquet of delight before you in your small place, always more than enough, and he invites you to feast. The sweet triumphs of ministry — a gospel conversation, a new step of obedience to Jesus, an experience of Christian community — are precious wherever they occur. The angels in heaven celebrate equally over the conversion of city and country souls.
Your town may be small, but there will always be some who have not yet heard or embraced the gospel, and God himself has sent you to speak to them. Your congregation may be tiny, but you will never exhaust the possibilities of knowing them deeply and loving them well. God will provide special joys in your small place. There will be the uniquely soul-enlarging beauties of the countryside and the pleasures of life in a community where you are known. He will also strengthen you in the challenges that are unique to working in small places. Remember, you’re not there by accident. He has placed you there for his glory and your joy.
I’ll never forget attending the farewell celebration of a small-town pastor whom I love and respect, and hearing countless stories of his thirty-plus years of fruitful ministry from the people he had loved so well. Small-town pastor, you are not junior varsity. Don’t waste your life wishing you were somewhere else. Grasp the eternal gospel opportunities before you, and dig in deeper, with great joy, for the glory of God.
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Stephen Witmer is the lead pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, MA. He's a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the University of Cambridge, and serves on the steering committee of the Gospel Coalition New England. He is the author of the forthcoming book “A Big Gospel in Small Places.” He and his wife Emma have two sons and one daughter.