Book Review: A Big Gospel in Small Places, by Stephen Witmer
Stephen Witmer, A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters. IVP, 2019. 216 pages.
Do small places matter? That’s the big question Stephen Witmer ponders in his new book. Hailing from small-town Maine, Witmer serves as a pastor in Pepperell, Massachusetts. Though Witmer has impressive degrees (including a PhD from Cambridge) and is an adjunct professor and published author, he wears his learning and evident accomplishments lightly. Witmer is not in ministry for a platform; he loves his “small place.” He has written A Big Gospel in Small Places to help others do the same.
A Big Gospel functions as a powerful call to fill the earth with gospel ministry in its own right. In fact, I believe that pastors of most any sized-church in most any location will benefit richly from reading it. Ministry, after all, is not big by nature. It’s small. We might like to think of ministry in galactic terms, yes, but ministry is always directed to finitude, not infinity. In other words, we don’t target outer-space with our preaching and discipling; we target real people. This is small work by definition.
Among other helpful subjects, Witmer engages the argument that I’ll call “missional urbanism” that is now commonplace in evangelicalism. It goes something like this: “We should concentrate our planting and revitalizing on cities, because that’s what the apostles did, that’s where people are, and that’s where culture is formed.” Witmer does not so much seek to refute these ideas as round them out. Actually, he argues, the apostles went to all sorts of places, people are migrating to cities but still scattered in a pretty substantial way, and while culture may be formed disproportionately in urban settings, the lavishness of the gospel drives us to form what we could call “gospel culture” everywhere, including so-called small places (170–73). After all, the people in those places will live eternally in either heaven or hell; they need Jesus; they should have a pastor.
HONEST WORDS ABOUT HARD PLACES
Witmer does not mince words in his book. To his credit, he talks through the challenges of ministry in small places. In 2019, these places are not what they used to be in many respects. Mayberry may still exist, but the village school’s closed, high school dropouts are overdosing on opioids, and the downtown rusts away (see 43–58). Witmer doesn’t say it with edge, but his book makes us think about our up-market cosmopolitan expectations. Do we care more for craft coffee than image-bearers? Do we yearn to reach urban peoples, or do we simply hunger to be around the cool kids? Do we think we’re better than the environments that shaped us, and buy into a mentality that denigrates small places just because they’re small?
The truth is this: there is no easy answer for many of these uncomfortable questions. Thankfully, though Witmer gently raises these kind of subjects—as well he should—he does not reduce the matter to an either-or. Rather, he seeks to expand our paradigm to consider the small as well as the big.
As I have noted, I think Witmer’s critique lends insight beyond its focus group. Although many urban planting prospectuses speak breathlessly of “reaching the city,” most urban churches will find their reach far smaller than they might initially think. The “big place,” in other words, often ends up being a small place, as he notes (114). Anyone who has lived in a city—I have lived in four cities—will know that neighborhood identity often trumps a more generic urban conception. (Turns out we are not individualists by nature, but tribalists.)
In addition, beyond some obvious settings it can be rather hard to pin down what exact locations most shape culture. It gets harder still to find in Scripture a direct call to target so-called “culture makers”; Witmer humorously notes that this was neither what Isaiah asked for, nor what God granted to him (145). It is true that followers of God witness to many powerful leaders in the story of redemption, yet it’s striking how often such witness happens entirely by accident in human terms. Joseph, Esther, Daniel, Christ about to die in Jerusalem, Paul about to die in Rome: all remind us that the providence of God often accounts for the high-flying “influence” opportunities, rather than a carefully-devised plan to reach the Babylonian intelligentsia.
Let me warm to my theme. While I neither dismiss nor altogether embrace the “target cultural influencers” model, couldn’t you make a decent case that many “small places” actually are big in influence? I think here, just to give a few examples, of the many small colleges that dot my native New England. Many enroll just a couple thousand students, but some of their students play an outsize role in global leadership. What, too, about elite prep schools? Artists’ colonies? University towns across the South and Midwest? Places where “makers” congregate? Publishing houses? Sites of sports teams? Recording studios in out of the way places?
GOD HAS USED SMALL PLACES IN AMAZING WAYS
Beyond vocational spots, there’s more to think through here than we might initially think. Church history furnishes many examples of God using small places in extraordinary ways. Without asking Witmer to morph into a historical theologian, I’d love to see more detailed coverage in A Big Gospel of this data. Think about 1741, when God used tiny Enfield to spark a new round of the First Great Awakening. The burning center of the biggest extra-biblical revival in human history was a dusty outpost that on a July day featured a supply preacher who exposited a chapter of Deuteronomy in a monotone. In God’s remarkable providence, however, Enfield fanned a new flame of genuine gospel awakening. This revival did not start in Boston; it started in Northampton in 1734 and kicked off a second time in Enfield in 1741.
Or what about the Reformation, that movement that thrills a thousand evangelical hearts? Where did it start—surely in London, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or Berlin? No, it began in muddy Wittenberg, the last place anyone would have thought to look. Like Enfield’s story in the First Great Awakening, the truth is stranger than fiction: a fiery monk obsessed with Psalms and Romans in a nowhere cow-town came to nothing less than a recovery of the biblical gospel that created a wing of Christianity that numbers in the billions of people today. The Reformation, like the First Great Awakening, only began in such a place; it soon spread across the West, rooting in countless villages, towns, and cities as time went on.
These examples do not strike down, singlehandedly, what we have called “missional urbanism.” As noted, we do well to send many, many planters and revitalizers where people live in major numbers. We give thanks for the recent push on many fronts in this regard; it was a needed push, and we need more workers in such places, not fewer. Further, while the “cultural influence” argument seems more amorphous than some might admit, it bears further contemplation. We should give some “strategic” consideration in our ministry planning and our big-God prayers. But these examples also caution us in two ways: first, they steer us away from a Finneyite conviction that we can stage revival or church growth or missional movements or multiplication wherever we like. This is simply untrue. Second, they remind us that God is often pleased to confound the expectations, prospectuses, and plans of man in stupendous fashion. Witmer speaks well to this theme throughout A Big Gospel (see 77–79).
OUR MISCHIEVOUS GOD, SHOWING UP IN UNEXPECTED PLACES
To speak a little mischievously, God seems to like doing this. He relishes playing the underdog, refuting the wisdom of the wise, and showing grace through what Witmer calls his “lavish gospel” (77). You find this mischievous motif all through the Bible, don’t you? If you wanted a covenant people for God, you wouldn’t choose puny Israel. If you wished to plant that same covenant people in the promised land, you likely wouldn’t do so by having a dreamy runt sold into slavery only to win Pharoah’s trust but then end up in jail and then rise back to power and bring his once-murderous brothers to Egypt. If you were trying to take down Goliath, David wouldn’t factor in the first 5,000 candidates. If you wanted to build something called the “kingdom of God,” the last thing you would do is choose a no-name virgin woman in a nowhere town and then have the Son of God in human flesh die on a Roman cross, naked and humiliated.
In addition, those of us who are from small places might do well to recall that we ourselves were trained in many good ways in those locations. We may or may not return to such places, but regardless we should remember that they have the power to shape people—after all, they shaped us! Perhaps we should see them as more influential than “Top 10 Metacity” lists might suggest. Perhaps we should also think about the families in those places that molded us. God’s original strategy for personal influence, after all, is the family, with the church behind that. What is “smaller” than the family, and yet what is more influential?
It is also worth thinking about what kind of “cultural influencer” we wish to evangelize. As Witmer makes clear, culture is everywhere, including his community (115–24). Granted, there is some culture that we like and some we don’t; that is true of us all, and owes to taste and training, not necessarily to prejudice and unkindness. Some people love Medieval Renaissance fairs; some love NASCAR; some love modern art; some love rodeos; some love Mozart in Carnegie Hall; some love Pizza Hut; some love Ming dynasty poetry; some love basketball; some love Revolutionary War history; some love ultramodern architecture. All this is culture. All those who make it are in a sense “influencers.”
We could say much more here; my nudge based on Witmer’s helpful discussion is simply to think a little more about uncritically embracing the “cultural influencer-targeted church” paradigm that seems especially faddish today (think Hillsong and its exuberant emphasis on reaching cultured elites, for example). Witmer has a nice disquisition about Pepperell in which he lets himself gets impassioned about the people he serves. “The best way to reach Pepperell with the gospel,” he muses, “is to live and minister for a long time in Pepperell—not Boston” (81). This is a needed emphasis: the Bible doesn’t rank people, nor does it rank places. God wants sinners to sing his Son’s praises out of transformed affections. So, if you want to reach sinners, go to them. Go to big cities and small towns and suburbs and everything in between.
A FIELD GUIDE TO SMALL PLACES—AND MUCH MORE
Witmer’s book made me think about the preceding matters in a fresh way. His careful, textured challenge to the “urban influence” paradigm will help us avoid easy reductionism—either small places are great or they’re awful; either missional urbanism is horrible or it’s perfect. We may end up seeing strengths on all sides. While we shouldn’t reject strategic thinking by any means, neither should we subtly embrace man’s goals by man’s means.
Perhaps we could sum things up this way: aside from the actual doctrine we hold, nothing deserves more high-definition thinking than the vision of the church we set out to enflesh. Witmer’s book sparks all this sort of thinking. It sneaks up on you in that way. While ostensibly offering us a (very) thoughtful field guide to small places, A Big Gospel in Small Places ends up unlocking a ton of biblical-theological thinking regarding the mission of the church.
My recommendation to you is to get this book, devour it (I read it in two days, consuming it), and then think long and hard about its argument. Do not be misled: this is a book for every pastor in every place. It will spark all sorts of good thinking about pastoral ministry and the work of the local church (the George Herbert material is gold—see 126–27). It will also undoubtedly serve to lead many to think a good deal more as well about genuinely “small places.” This is good and right. It is time that such a word came again to God’s people. We may find ourselves in a Nathaniel-like mindset, expecting impressive things to come exclusively from exciting settings (John 1:46). Can anything good come from Nazareth?, says the provincial cosmopolitan. Do small places matter?
Yes, from a small place came the very Son of God himself.
This article was originally published at smalltownsummits.com